Learning about digital learning through photography

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about purchasing my first DSLR camera. In February, I took an insane amount of photos with it. 1176 to be precise as I learn how to use and understand a piece of new (to me) technology.

The thing I love best about the new camera? It allows me to shoot 1176 photos in a month.

I used to shoot with film. I was by no means a good photographer, but I had fun fiddling with film, although I often found shooting with film a stressful experience to get the shot just right.

And this is the thing that has struck me most as the biggest difference between film vs digital photography: the scale. It has nothing to do with the actual quality or types of photos I can take, but instead it is how cheap it is to experiment with digital. In my film days, I would have never shot 1100+ photos in a month. Heck, I probably never shot 1100 photos in the entire time I shot with film. There was the cost of film and the cost of developing film that was a real barrier to experimenting freely with my film camera.

But with digital, that cost to experiment has been greatly reduced to the point where it costs me no more to take 1100 pictures than it does to take 1. Digital has allowed me to scale up the number of photos I take with little regard for monetary cost (the mental cost of sifting thru 1100 photos is another story). Digital has given me the ability to more freely experiment and, more importantly, the freedom to fail since the dollar cost of failure is very low.

I never felt that type of freedom to experiment when I was shooting film. When shooting film, there was always that nagging bit of pressure to get the shot right because every shot cost, not to mention the disappointment of  getting a developed roll of film back and discovering too late that you don’t have a single decent picture because you decided to use an ISO 100 film instead of 800. Money wasted. A barrier to experimenting with film.

Whoops. Didn't get that lighting right

Whoops. Didn’t get that lighting right

But that freedom to experiment afforded by digital photography alone doesn’t make the learning happen. Taking tons of pictures and having the freedom to fail is just the start. In order to learn, you also have to take the time to examine why you failed; why did that photo turn out so dark when the lighting in one 3 dial tweaks later turn out fine?

Le there be light!

Let there be light!

In order to learn, I need to be able to examine why one setting worked and another didn’t. And, in the world of digital photography, that means looking at the metadata. Digital photos give me so much more information(feedback) than film did about what was happening when the photo was taken. What was my aperture setting when I took that photo? Shutter speed? ISO setting? What lens was I using? All this metadata is automatically captured when I snap a picture and called up later by my software when reviewing my photos, allowing me to see exactly what settings worked and didn’t work in certain situations. From this information, I can make better decisions in the future.

Now, so far my digital photo learning has been pretty technical and fairly autodidactic. Other than a few tweets and reading some websites, I haven’t really begun to explore the social side of learning photography where I actively solicit feedback from others on the photos I take, and vice versa. At some point, I’ll need the input of some MKO’s about the things that the data can’t tell me. Things like composition that you can’t learn from just looking at data and taking lots of pictures. And I’d like to share what I have learned with others. Thinking my long underutilized Flickr account is about to become my learning network of choice for the next little while.

All in all, so far my new camera has been a wonderful edtech meta learning opportunity for me. It’s an example to me about how digital affordances give us the ability to freely experiment, fail, and try again at a scale that wasn’t possible in the analog days, all while providing both a rich set of data and access to a network of peers to help us improve. But above all, it’s a heck of a lot of fun, which makes for the best kind of learning.


Pressbooks Textbook development

It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything about Pressbooks development, and we have a couple of new development projects in the works that you might be interested in.

First, we are working with the excellent FunnyMonkey team to develop an open source PDF output engine. Right now, outputs of PDF in PB requires a commercial PDF output engine PrinceXML. Prince does a really fantastic job of creating PDF versions of the books created in PB, but the fact that it is a commercial license is a barrier for others who may want to adopt PB.

This project has been on our ToDo list for awhile, and I am really happy to see the work that Bill, Jeff and Brad have been doing to develop an open source PDF output engine based on mPDF.

The idea with the new PDF output plugin is not to replace Prince, but to provide an alternative for those who don’t wish to purchase a Prince license. PB will work with both.  mPDF won’t quite match the feature set of Prince, but it should still provide an adequate alternative for creating PDF’s without having to dish out money for a commercial Prince license.

Second, we are working with Hugh and the Pressbooks.com development team to develop an Open Document Type (ODT) output engine. This ODT output will also be suitable for use with MS Word (I can hear the sound of bemused puzzlement from some of you). Yeah, Word. I think that, if we are serious about making these books adaptable and editable, we need to make our content available in as many formats as possible, including formats that faculty are used to working with. And, for better or for worse, that is Word. I think that is what most faculty are used to working with, and if it means they will customize content and remix it and – ultimately – adopt it, then let’s make it available in a format that can be edited using Word.

The third bit of development revolves around the excellent work on accessibility that Amanda is doing with Tara Robertson at CAPER-BC and Sue Doner at Camosun College. We are going to be releasing an accessibility toolkit very soon that is targeted at faculty who are adapting and creation open textbooks to help them understand some of the basic design principles of accessibility. Based on some of the accessibility user testing Amanda, Tara and Sue have done, our new co-op student Ashlee from the SFU Computing Science program is working on baking some new accessibility features into PB to make the platform even more accessible for students.

Look for these to make their way into Pressbooks in the coming months.

* I updated this post after Brad informed me that these changes are not specific to Pressbooks Textbook, but will be submitted back to Pressbooks for inclusion with the core package.



Week in Review: Week 38, 2014

I’m trying to get into a habit of doing these week in review posts on Friday’s, but last Friday was a bit busier than expected as my Dad and his girlfriend arrived in town for a weekend visit.

  • Amanda and I had our first meeting with the Ministry of Advanced Education as part of my new (temporary) role at BCcampus.
  • Met with the OER Research Hub and one of our Faculty Fellows, Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani. Rajiv is going to work with Beck Pitt to conduct research with BC post-secondary faculty on open textbooks.
  • Started developing the faculty survey in LimeSurvey.
  • We released 2 new open textbooks, the BC in a Global Context open geography textbook, and an adapted Canadian Edition of Mastering Strategic Management.
  • Finalized the open textbook newsletter layout with our communications department.
  • Fixed the wording on the newsletter unsubscribe page.
  • Compiled some new open textbook stats for the Ministry meeting., The one that jumped out at me was that out of 962 students in BC using an open textbook, less than 19 physical printed books were ordered from our print supplier, Document Solutions at SFU. That represents less than 2% of students purchasing printed textbooks (and we can’t confirm that all the orders are actually students as many faculty are ordering printed review copies for themselves, so the 19 orders may also include faculty). We’ll be posting some of the stats over on the BCcampus OpenEd site. * this post was edited after originally published. See below.
  • Reviewed 7 open textbook applications from institutions and organizations for the call for proposals on developing textbooks for trades and skills training open textbooks.
  • Met with College Open Textbooks to discuss ways we can cooperate and share adoption data as this information is very difficult and time consuming to collect.
  • Met and had lunch with Tony Bates on Friday to discuss his experiences with Pressbooks Textbooks. Tony has been a beta user as he openly authors his latest book, Teaching in a Digital Age, and he had some very useful feedback that will help influence future development of the platform.
  • Reconciled the open textbook budget and did some financial forecasting for the next year. As much as this might sound like drudgery for some, I find I really enjoy cracking open a spreadsheet and both plan and reconcile the financial bits and pieces of the project.
  • Met with our new Manager of Professional Learning, Tracy Kelly, to discuss and plan the next 6 months’ professional learning activities and how the PL team can support the work of the OTB team.
  • Started working on fall offerings of the Adopting Open Textbooks online course.
  • Developed some research questions for our Faculty Fellows, who will be coming to Victoria on October 6 for a day long kick-off meeting with us.
  • Reviewed the application process for a Hewlett grant. We’re considering an application for some funding to support some of the activities of the OTB project that we don’t have the ability to do right now..

Finally, here in British Columbia, the labour dispute between provincial k-12 teachers and the provincial government that has kept kids out of schools since mid-June  was finally resolved. Today my kids did what many other kids across Canada did weeks ago and headed to school to start their new year.

Back to School* This post was edited to fix the reference to the number of students who are using open textbooks in BC. The original number posted was 2630. This was incorrect (I included students who will be using open textbooks in upcoming terms). The correct number of students using an open textbook is 962. I’ve also adjusted the % of orders of physical books. The number remains 19, but the percentage changes from <1% to <2% (1.9% to be accurate).


Searching for the Mythical OER Beast

Alan Levine (@cogdog) is preparing another True Stories of Open Sharing presentation, this time focusing on reuse of open educational resources. I contributed a story for his latest call True Stories of OER Reuse highlighting the recent Geography Open textbook sprint and the textbook we created reusing open educational materials gathered from around the web.

I love contributing to Alan’s calls because they give me a great excuse to have a bit of fun, like this daily prompt from a few months back, urging me to: Create a visual that might accompany one of the mashed up headlines from @twoheadlines. The mashed-up headline I got was Photos: Seattle Seahawks shows off his table tennis skills in Chengdu which became:

Photos: Seattle Seahawks shows off his table tennis skills in Chengdu

His prompts always give me something to work with, and idea to run with, like this latest call for OER stories of reuse where he framed his pitch for stories around a hunt for a mythical beast. It was a good narrative hook and easy to play with and, just like the atomic testing awoke the mighty mythical Godzilla, our recent backyard renovations disturbed something hidden underground that has now taken refuge in my backyard.

If you are not familiar with Alan’s True Stories of Open Sharing, I urge you to spend some time poking around his collection of user submitted True Stories of open sharing (he has conveniently curated a featured section of stories, which might be a good place to start). What makes this collection so special is that these are personal stories told in a personal fashion. These are not scripted marketing videos to sell the idea of sharing, but rather personal anecdotes (both great and small) of sharing and connecting. There is power in anecdotes, made even moreso by Alan’s work aggregating and collecting the stories in a single space.

If you have ever created, used or reused an open educational resource, consider submitting a video to his latest call. It doesn’t have to be a grand story of something amazing, or have impressive video production skills. Just turn on your webcam and tell your story that illustrates the everday power of sharing and connecting in our virtual world.


Add a Creative Commons search widget to a site

Been meaning to post this code snippet for awhile. Maarten Zeinstra posted this bit of code to the CC-Community listsrv last fall. It allows you to embed a Creative Commons search form on a webpage. This form will launch a CC search on a number of different search engines, including Google, Flickr, the Wikimedia Commons and YouTube. The form also allows you constrain the search based on the different types of reuse restrictions.

The search box works like this:

Enter your search query:
use for commercial purposes;
modify, adapt, or build upon.
Search using:

If I use the above form and search Google Images (for example), the results of the image search from Google Images will already be filtered and will only include items that are cc’d license based.

For example, if I use the search form above & Google Images for the term “database” and click both the “use for commercial purposes” and “modify, adapt or build on”, the results I get look like this:


The results from Google Images are already filtered based on the code restrictions.

The code snippet is:

<form target="_blank" name="CC_Search" action="http://search.creativecommons.org" method="get">
Enter your search query: <input type="text" name="query"><br><br>
<input type="checkbox" name="comm" value=""> use for commercial purposes;<br>
<input type="checkbox" name="deriv" value=""> modify, adapt, or build upon.<br><br><br>
Search using:
<select name="engine">
<option value="google">Google</option>
<option value="googleimg">Google Images</option>
<option value="flickr">Flickr</option>
<option value="jamendo">Jamendo</option>
<option value="spin">spinXpress</option>
<option value="openclipart">Openclipart</option>
<option value="wikimediacommons">Wikimedia Commons</option>
<option value="fotopedia">Fotopedia</option>
<option value="europeana">Europeana</option>
<option value="youtube">Youtube</option>
<option value="pixabay">Pixabay</option>
<option value="ccmixter">CC-mixter</option>
<option value="soundcloud">Soundcloud</option>
</select> <br>
<input type="submit" value="Search">



Complex Simplicity

Brian’s been a-blogging, and I am grateful for his latest post where he dives into his own personal edtech history.

I took part in a lot of conferences, workshops and focus groups with higher education people who attended those “learning object” sessions because they were interested in reusing materials using the as-yet untapped power of the world wide web. I listened as “serious” educational leaders dictated that the platforms require users to adopt unfathomable and complex metadata to ensure that no tangential learning materials be encountered by mistake. I took part in meeting after meeting where technology leaders and faculty representatives demanded strict access controls to limit sharing within elite consortia or collections of funding partners, or even within faculties or departments. Later on in the process, I would try to facilitate workshops with other groups of working educators that rightfully complained that the resulting systems were unwieldy and useless.

I’m grateful that he wrote that because these stories and experiences from early efforts to build systems that enable reuse of OER are important for me to hear. They help me understand what has and has not worked with these earlier efforts and give me a historical frame of reference for the work I am doing now. Learn from our collective edtech history.

Brian’s post (and a conversation I’ve been having with Adam Hyde in response to my post yesterday about the work Brad has been doing to extend PressBooks to enable some of that unfathomable and complex metadata that Brian referred to) have been making me thinking about remix & audience. Specifically, the different audiences we have who may want to reuse or remix the content we are creating as part of the open textbook project.

First, there are educators; the faculty. The people who are using the resource on the ground in their class. For this group, simplicity & ease of use are key consideration. As Brian points out:

Later on in the process, I would try to facilitate workshops with other groups of working educators that rightfully complained that the resulting systems were unwieldy and useless.

Adam’s comment underscores that point

The trick is in the re-use. Making it easy to reuse. I think copy and paste is MUCH slighted in this area. It solves a lot of problems that other ‘more sophisticated’ approaches don’t (and its OS independent). IMHO tech systems that try and ‘enable’ remix beyond what C+P can do often create problems and ‘dis-empower’ people since somehow the techno whizzy magic makes them forget that Cut and Paste even exists

The power of cut and paste. Such a simple tool. And one I bet that most educators use on a routine basis. I wonder what kind of answer you would get from faculty if you asked them if they have ever “remixed” content? Chances are the answer would be no. But ask them if they have ever cut and paste content from one place and used it in another and the answer might be different. Ever copied a photo off a webpage and used in a lecture presentation? Congratulations! You have just remixed content! You have taken something from one context and reused it in another (and I appreciate Adam’s point about the language we use to talk about this remix/adapt/translation behaviour that we are trying to enable).

Really, isn’t a course a remix? I mean, you are taking a whole bunch of disparate content – a textbook from here, some course readings from here, some quiz questions you create, a YouTube video – and you stick it all together to create “a course”. Something new. Something that didn’t exist before. Made from disparate parts. Isn’t a course the result of remixing a whack of content together? (Before the ID’s reading this go apoplectic, I know that there is much more than content selection that goes into course development. My example is merely to make the point that “remix” is something educators do all the time already).

So, when it comes to enabling faculty to “remix” our open textbooks, maybe we need to focus more on really simple things like cut and paste. I wonder if that message would resonate with faculty moreso than “remix this textbook” which, as you can imagine, is a pretty daunting task for reasons beyond the technical challenges (like licensing). Here is a textbook. Feel free to copy and paste a case study for your own course notes. Like that chart in chapter 3? Copy it. Put it in your presentation.

Easy. Simple. That is the mantra for audience #1.

Then there is the second audience group for our content where remix has a different, grander meaning. Bigger scale. I think of projects like ours. What can I do to our content now to make it easier for a future project like ours to reuse our material? This is where the importance of things like metadata comes in. For these projects, we need to pay attention to more complex pieces to ensure that the content can be shared and reused by these other projects at scale. Want to take 12 books from our collection and put them in yours? Here’s a way to do that. Want to extract all the self assessment questions from that Sociology textbook we made? Oh, here is an API that allows that.

Both those audiences need to be satisfied if we really want our project to have lasting value, both locally within BC and for the wider education system.


Mozilla backs away from Persona. What might that mean for Backpack?

Earlier this week Mozilla announced that it was stepping away from developing Persona and will be transitioning the project to community ownership. Persona is a federated single sign-on identity project that Mozilla has been developing. It is used for a number of Mozilla projects, including Webmaker and Backpack.

Chances are, if you have ever earned an open badge, then you probably have a Persona account. More specifically, if you have ever stored that earned open badge in Mozilla’s Backpack, then you have a Persona account since Backpack requires users to have a Persona account. It is the authentication service that powers Backpack. Which makes me wonder how Mozilla’s retreat from Persona (the reasons frankly outlined in a Mozilla wiki page and an even more frank Hacker News conversation) may affect Backpack and, by extension, Open Badges.

Not that Open Badges per se needs Mozilla’s Backpack or Persona to work. The entire Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI) is open source and can be rolled out by anyone. But Backpack is the most high profile proof of concept implementation of a badge repository that I know of. Mozilla itself refers to Backpack as the “reference implementation of a Backpack and serves as a framework for badge repositories.” So to have a project that serves as a framework for other “backpack” like projects potentially undergo a change to something so fundamental to its purpose – as identity management is to badges – feels significant.

It may not be. I’m new to this Badges game and am just getting up to speed on the infrastructure for an internal sandbox project we are doing here at BCcampus. But in my research around backpack-like providers, I’m not finding much. And the idea of federated backpacks still seems nascent. I am not seeing a lot of open backpack projects similar to Mozilla’s Backpack, although the release earlier this week of BadgeKit might help accelerate the proliferation of backpacks and we may see the federated backpack approach take off. Federated backpacks have been called the holy grail of open badges where distributed backpacks hosted in multiple locations by multiple organizations could connect & share badge information. But in order for that to happen, those backpacks have to exist. Organizations and groups have to commit to hosting backpacks of their own (and indeed there has been a call for more open backpacks by the Open Badges community). There are people like Peter Rawsthorne who believe that, in order for those other open backpacks to flourish and for the federated backpack idea to gain traction, Mozilla may want to consider getting out of hosting a backpack altogether:

I believe the day when Mozilla could sever its responsibility from hosting an OBI instance is the beginning of when the OBI could truly be released into the public domain.This is also the day when other instances of the OBI are up and running and all these instances openly exchange information about the badges they contain. They become a federation of Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI) instances; or in other words, the federated backpack. This would also mean that Mozilla would no longer have to host an OBI instance and could focus more deeply on making the OBI code base rock solid and continue advocating for an open metadata standard for the digital badge.

Maybe Mozilla Backpack will transition to another authentication service, or maybe we are seeing the start of Peter’s vision happen and Mozilla begins to pull back from hosted services like Backpack. After all, the proof of concept has been done and it works. Or maybe Mozilla Backpack will continue to use some sort of scaled down, community driven Persona service, although with the number of identity management systems and schemes in existence already it is hard to see where the driver for another is coming from.

All in all, the transition of Persona to “community ownership” feels a bit like a Hail Mary pass. If those who have the most invested in the system (Mozilla) are backing away, then it is hard to see who might step up to fill the development shoes without there being a real, compelling need by someone for the service. It feels like Persona is faltering, and that leaves me wondering about the future of the flagship of digital badge repositories, Backpack.


How BCcampus PressBooks is different than PressBooks.com

I met with Dr. Tony Bates a few weeks back to talk about open textbook publishing. Tony is looking to self-publish an open textbook and was looking for some advice on how to technically go about publishing.

I mentioned to him that we are using PressBooks as our primary publishing platform and began to explain to him a few of the differences between our version of PressBooks and the hosted version of PressBooks.com as we have been customizing the WordPress plugin quite a bit to meet the specific needs of our project and of open textbook development.

First off, when thinking about PressBooks, you have 2 options, much like with it’s parent project WordPress. There is PressBooks.com, which is the hosted version of the software. Sign up for an account and you can start writing your book in a few minutes with a minimum of technical fuss. While you can create books for free on PressBooks.com, when you output the final PDF or ePub version, there is some PressBooks.com branding and watermarking, as you can see here in this small book I created at PressBooks.com.

And then there is the open source PressBooks plugin. Use this plugin on a vanilla install of WordPress and you have an (almost) fully functioning version of PressBooks.com. I say almost because there is a dependency that costs money (if you are an academic institution – there is a free license for Prince that inserts a Prince logo into the output) . In order to output PDF versions of your book, you will (if you are an institution) need to purchase and install a tool called Prince XML to do the output rendering into PDF format. The developers of the PressBooks plugin felt that this was a better PDF output engine than some open source alternatives to output PDF documents. And it is certainly a robust product that does a great job of turning your PressBooks powered WordPress site into a PDF document suitable for print or digital distribution. But the institutional licensing cost might be a limitation for those interested in fully open source digital publishing, and a barrier for others who wish to use the open source plugin.

That said, there is no additional charge for the ePub rendering engine in PressBooks and really, when we talk about digital publishing, ePub is the format we are really interested in. Add in that you get a very nicely formatted website version of the book (really a tricked out WordPress theme that strips away a lot of the WordPress widgets and extras and puts the focus on readability) and you have a very functional “publishing” platform for most books.

However, our needs are a bit specific as we are publishing open textbooks and those have some special needs. So, along the way we (well, very little me, a lot BCcampus developer Brad Payne) have been making modifications and adding plugins to make PressBooks work for us for the BC Open Textbook project.

Recently, we have begun pulling all of these changes together and are working on developing a second plugin that is open textbook specific. This plugin is not a replacement of the PressBooks plugin, but would work with the PressBooks plugin and hopefully make it a bit easier for someone who wants to mimic our setup do so locally (and as an aside, my head is swimming these days of what that might mean & if we should work towards getting to a distro where we could distribute not only a BCcampus-like textbook PressBooks plugin, but also an entire collection of textbooks made in PressBooks, ready to be installed locally at an institution. A repository and editing tool completely seeded with 40 open textbooks ready to be customized and edited with PressBooks. But that is still in the early thinking stages.

So, what have we been doing to our local version of PressBooks that makes it different than PressBooks.com. Specifically, here are the changes we have made, and the plugins we are using.


  • The Creative Commons Configurator, which adds a CC license to the bottom of each webpage in the HTML version of the book and adds in CC metadata to each webpage so that it can be correctly indexed by search engines as CC content (it also enables tools like OpenAttribute to work). Brad has actually been working on customizing this plugin to allow us to input & display information when the content is a derivative and based on someone elses work.
  • Relevansi, a search engine plugin for the website version of the book, reducing the need to generate a traditional index.
  • LaTex for WordPress allows us to use this popular science & math markup language Actually, not what we are using anymore. We’re using a modified version of WP Latex, which has been committed to PressBooks core
  • MCE Table Buttons to add tables because, you know, textbooks have tables.
  • Brad also built another MCE plugin called MCE Textbook Buttons which adds 3 new buttons to the TinyMCE toolbar that create styled fields for Learning Outcomes, Key Terms, and Exercises. These buttons add some visual styling and create coloured boxes for al the different output types. There isn’t any special metadata associated with the boxes that the buttons create that might define them as Learning Outcomes, Key Terms, etc. It is simply a visual style difference.

Code Changes

  • We’ve altered the theme to flips the table of contents and description fields on the book homepage so that the ToC appears above the description. For most users of the book (students) the ToC will be more important than the description as they will have probably be sent directly to the site by their instructor.
  • Added in the Relevansi search box. (Brad noted that Relevansi is still not fully incorporated into the new plugin. The search box is there, but the Relevansi plugin integration is still being worked on).
  • We’ve disabled comments. This is a tough one, and one we had to make a decision about based on logistics. Ideally, these books would be used by students. Faculty using the book would send them to the book. But these books have no instructor “owner” per se. There is no subject matter expert ready to respond to potential questions a student may have about the content they are reading. In other words, there is no one watching the comment shop. So, you can imagine a scenario where a student comes to a page, has a question about the content, posts their question in the comment field and then…..gets no response because no one see their question. Discouraging and not very useful. So, we’ve disabled comments on the site. But this is one that we may fire up again in the future. I just don’t know if the potential benefit is worth the potential risk just yet. If there was a dedicated instructor monitoring the resource, then great. But I worry about the instructor who uses the book getting slammed by their student for not answering their question because they didn’t even know that the student asked the question.
  • Added a footer line to the PDF and ePub outputs that says “This book is available for free from open.bccampus.ca” This is a tip I picked up from David Harris & the OpenStax project as a way to combat the selling of the textbook by third parties. Not that it is wrong to sell the books released with a full CC-BY license, but if someone does buy the book, they should know that there is and always will be a free version of that book available from the open site. It’s not perfect and discovery would happen after the fact, but maybe someone who buys the book might use the information to contact us and tell us that someone is selling copies of the book so at least we know.
  • In the admin area, we’ve also changed the Feedback link that floats to the right of the admin screen to send us at the project a message asking for help. In vanilla PB the Feedback remarks go to PB.

There are also a number of customizations that Brad has made that have been contributed back to the PB project, including Brad’s import engine, which imports Word, ODT and ePub files into PressBooks. This is our preferred method of changing the plugin – contribute back bits to PressBooks first and let the project decide if they want to merge the code into vanilla PressBooks. But there are some bits that might be of no interest to the PB developers that we would like to have, hence our own custom development.

Our goal is to have the infrastructure in place to begin recruiting other developers to participate in the development of more open textbook specific features by April. We have a couple of events happening, including the Open Textbook Summit and the annual BCNet conference where we want to talk in more detail about the project and our changes to PB. So, if you have some WP chops and are looking for an open source open ed project, consider yourself invited to come & contribute. Especially if you have some knowledge of ePub3 as getting ePub3 output is a big goal in the near future (see https://github.com/unit29868/pressbooks)

Here are a few screenshots of the differences.

Example of the Key Takeaway & Exercises callout boxes


What our book homepage looks like. Slightly different than vanilla PB in that it flips the Book Description with the Table of Contents at the bottom of the page. It also removes the default PB branding.


Example of a book search results page from the Relevansi search engine. Notice the search box in the top right, which we have added to each book.


WordPress: let a thousand textbooks bloom (well, hopefully)

Update: So, after testing this out, turns out it isn’t as simple as I first thought. See the update note below. If you are the person from Ryerson who did this, I’d love it if you left a comment about what happened when you imported the book.

A couple hours ago I finished uploading a copy of a Media Studies open textbook to our open textbook collection. The book was originally created as a WordPress site by the University of Otago textbook hack project I’ve written about before. A few week ago, Erika Pearson sent me a WordPress backup file of the textbook they have created. I imported that file into our PressBooks collection and, earlier today sent out a tweet saying I had just finished adding the file to our collection.

Because PressBooks is WordPress based, importing the WordPress site created by Erica’s crew was dead easy. It imported into PressBooks with a minimum of fuss – just a bit of structural reformatting to fit the PressBooks book paradigm.

Now, along with our version of the textbook, I also try to make available as many remixable file formats as I can. In this case, I also released the WXR file, which is the WordPress backup file.

Well, here it is, not even 3 hours after I sent out that original tweet saying that we have made the book available when I started getting some pingback messages.

pingbackI was curious as to what was pinging the Media Studies book back, so I followed the links and discovered that someone at Ryerson in Ontario has downloaded a copy of the WordPress backup file and installed it locally on a WordPress instance at Ryerson.

Now this kind of blows my mind in a most  awesome way. First, with very little fuss or friction, a CC licensed book has made it’s way from New Zealand, to BC to Ontario because the original was built in WordPress. Making the backup file available made it possible for someone to take the file and with very little work, have a copy of the book working on their own site, ready to be modified.

Looking at the Ryerson site, it looks like the person who installed it is just testing (the server url begins with test), but it blows me away that a resource can proliferate that quickly and with that little effort. I credit WordPress.

And this is really one of the reasons why I love using a tool that, at the core, is WordPress for this project. As a publishing platform, WordPress is now so common that this kind of fast proliferation of openly licensed content can occur. Combined with the type of speed and reach you get with social media and you have something that is lightweight, fast and easy to use.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about lightweight means of sharing the content we are creating, and the more I think about it, the more I see WordPress – the platform – as such a key piece to the sustainability of these textbooks. Once you get the book completed in PressBooks/WordPress, it becomes fairly trivial to install the “textbook” on any WordPress platform. Don’t know if you have ever tried reusing SCORM content, or even LMS content, but I can tell you from experience that it is not a trivial task.

Update 4 hours later: I’m eating crow. Until this came up today, I had been working on the untested assumption that the PressBooks to WordPress backup/restore process would work. But I had never actually tried to restore a PressBooks backup into vanilla WordPress. Seeing this example today, I thought it might have confirmed my untested hunch and got excited and fired off the original blog post. But this evening when I went to actually test it for myself, I went back and tried to install the PressBooks backup into a clean vanilla WordPress install and…well…the long and short is that it’s not working. I’m getting all kinds of import errors. So, yeah. Needs some work to make this happen in the way I hope it would happen. But this next section still remains true…

Something that is easy to copy makes it more likely that it will be copied. And if it is copied, it has more chances of living beyond it’s original life. A thousand version of something seems to me to be the ultimate sustainability plan for any piece of content.


A sprinting we will go!

Sprint Board

Ok, I am pretty pumped about this. I’ve been working on this for the past few months and am very happy to see it coming to fruition. Earlier this week I got budget approval to go ahead with a textbook sprint.

In a nutshell, a textbook sprint is an intense 3-5 day event that brings together 6-8 authors to write a book. I wrote a post in November about our preliminary thinking around having a textbook sprint and last month posted some notes from a conversation I had with Erika Pearson about her textbook sprint at University of Otago in New Zealand last fall.

Now, coming out of a textbook sprint with a full textbook is the primary goal. But I have another equally important goal for the event, one that relates directly to the sustainability of an open textbook. I am hoping that the faculty who take part in the co-creation of the textbook emerge feeling a sense of ownership around what they have created in this intense burst of activity, and that this feeling of ownership translates into the beginnings of a community of practice going forward. Having this intense event act as the impetus which leads to stewardship of the textbook.

I’ll be writing more about the logistics of the event, but for now I am happy to say that Adam Hyde will be coming to facilitate the event. Adam has developed a methodology for book sprints & has completed over 70 book sprints resulting in a finished book every time. It’s an impressive track record.

Originally I gave a thought to facilitating the event myself. But after reading this article (PDF) from Phil Barker, Lorna M. Campbell and Martin Hawksey at Cetis in the U.K. who, along with Amber Thomas at the University of Warwick, worked with Adam on an OER-oriented book sprint I changed my mind. Specifically, this quote stuck in my head:

“It is my belief that Book Sprints succeed or fail based primarily on facilitation. I have seen sprints fail because of inexperienced facilitation by people who do not really understand what the process is and how all the issues come into play”

So I contacted Adam, and I am very happy I did. After speaking to Adam I was quite impressed with his thinking around what it takes to have a successful book sprint, and his thinking about the crucial role that an impartial facilitator plays in making sure the project gets done in the limited time allotted. He also understands the importance of positive group dynamics and creating an atmosphere of true collaboration in order to reach that goal we have of developing a community moving forward. And he seems like an interesting guy who I’d like to hang out with for a few days. I am really looking forward to learning from him.

The idea is we will bring together 6 faculty for 4 days in June, hunker down at SFU Burnaby UBC Vancouver & bang out a credible, useable open textbook.

The dates we have are June 9-12 and the subject area we are going to concentrate on is 1st year Geography.

Geography is a broad discipline, so to help narrow the scope I spoke with with the head of the Geography articulation committee here in BC, Jim Bowers at Langara, to get a better sense as to where we should focus our efforts. After a bit of brainstorming, I think we are going to look at developing a regional Geography of Canada textbook. There are a couple of reasons for this focus.

  1. Regional Geography is a common 1st year course across institutions in B.C. so it would have broad appeal.
  2. Being that it is a Geography of Canada book, the textbook would have appeal outside of B.C. so we could create something that had value for other jurisdictions as well.
  3. We have an opportunity with the B.C. Open Textbook project to create something that is needed in our province (Geography is one of the top 40 subject areas identified in our early textbook needs analysis), but will probably not be picked up as a development project by any of the other major open textbook initiatives currently underway, such as OpenStax College or SUNY Open Textbooks.  Those projects are primarily U.S. based projects and the development of a textbook so Canada specific will be of little interest to them. Unfortunately, the downside of choosing such a Canada specific project for the book sprint means that we are creating something that will probably have little interest for those projects in return, but I am confident that there are many other areas where our work will compliment each others.
  4. There are existing open Geography resources that I think we can draw on to help seed the book with content. When I look in SOLR (our repository of open content here in BC) I can find over 30 Geography resources listed there, including many full first year open Geography courses. This is content that has been created over the years by B.C. faculty funded by provincial OPDF funds, and I see this as an incredible opportunity for us to build and reuse open content that has already been created by B.C. Faculty.

Next steps now that the funding & logistics are in place is finding game faculty. If you know of any faculty who teach Geography in B.C. who might be game for a challenge, please direct them to this page on the open.bccampus.ca website, or have them contact me directly at clalonde@bccampus.ca.

Photo: Sprint Board by Rool Paap used under CC/ CC-BY license


Building knowledge tools for the public good

Like many of you, my interest in learning extends beyond the teaching & learning that occurs within formalized educational institutions, which is why I am so interested in Wikipedia. I think Wikipedia is, arguably, the greatest knowledge repository human beings have ever built. Which is why I get so excited when I see projects from academics that make meaningful contributions to Wikipedia. Making Wikipedia better is making the world better by making knowledge more accessible to everyone. Projects like Visualizing Complex Science (found via this Read-only access is not enough blog post on Creative Commons).

The Visualizing Complex Science project was done by Dr. Daniel Mietchen, a Berlin based Researcher & Biophysicist. Dr. Mietchen created a bot that crawls open access science journals looking for multimedia content. When the bot find an image, video or audio clip, it extracts the content & uploads it to the Wikimedia Commons where it can be used by Wikimedia authors to enhance articles.

The bot has uploaded more than 13,000 files to Wikimedia Commons and has been used in more than 135 English Wikipedia articles that together garnered more than three million views.

In addition to the actual project itself, what I find interesting about this project is deconstructing all the conditions that had to exist in order for this project to happen. For me, the recipe for this specific project breaks down to this:

Academic Researcher + Wikipedia + Open Access + hackathon + structured data = jackpot win for human knowledge.

Dissecting this equation a bit, we have an academic researcher who “gets” Wikipedia on a couple of levels. First, he feels it has enough value and importance as a knowledge repository that he is willing to put time into making it better. Second, he understands the technical aspects of the platform well enough that he can build something that massively improves the collection. Finally, he understands that Wikipedia has a massive reach & is a great tool to disseminate complex scientific research in a manner that makes it accessible to everyone. Wikipedia needs more academics like Dr. Mietchen.

Then we have Wikipedia itself, imbued with the value of open on a number of levels. First, open to contributions from anyone. Without allowing anyone to contribute, Dr. Mietchen might very well have had to jump through many bureaucratic layers to make a contribution. Also, those who built the software for Wikipedia made the platform open enough so that people like Dr. Mietchen could build bots capable of doing projects like this.

The next critical piece is Open Access. Without having openly licensed and openly accessible research articles, the bot wouldn’t have any data to mine. And, even if technically it could mine proprietary research journals, they could not legally be shared to the Wikimedia Commons because they would be protected from reuse by copyright.

Now, there are a few things in that equation that seem especially interesting. First, the hackathon. What role did a hackathon have in the success of this project? Well, when you listen to Dr. Mietchen talk about the project, you’ll hear him explain how he was inspired to create the automated Wikipedia bot after attending hackathons and seeing what programmers could do in a short period of time.

The other bit I find interesting is the role that structured data (everybody’s favorite sexy topic) played in making this happen. Without structured metadata explaining to the machines what that content is, whether it is in the correct technical format, and categorizing it correctly in the Wikimedia Commons, the bot just wouldn’t work.


I think it is important to point out that these conditions were not put in place to make this project happened; the project happened because these conditions were already in place. It’s a crucial distinction, and a common story worth repeating when it comes to working with technology. It points to the importance of generativity in both Wikipedia and Open Access.

Generativity is a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences. Jonathon Zittrain, The Future of the Internet — And How To Stop It 

Both Wikipedia and Open Access have high degrees of generativity. And because of that generativity, Dr. Mietchen was able to build a tool that neither could have anticipated when they were created. I am sure that the architects of both Wikipedia and Open Access hoped that projects like this would happen. But neither knew that they would. Instead, they built in the capacity to enable projects like this to emerge from the community. And, as a result, improve knowledge for all. 


Learning from others: Textbook sprinting in New Zealand

I’m picking up steam on researching and planning a possible textbook sprint here in BC as part of the open textbook project. While I am still in the research stages of how this thing might work, I’m feeling more confident that with the right people involved we can pull off a textbook sprint.

Just before Christmas I had a chance to speak with Erika Pearson at Otago University in New Zealand. In November, Erika ran a textbook hack to create a first year Media Studies textbook and during the course of our chat I got a better understanding of some of the logistics involved in pulling it together. I am appreciative of her time and willingness to share, and look forward to the cookbook they are planning on releasing later this spring on how to organize a textbook sprint. Here are my notes from our convo.

  • Timeline for the entire project was about 3 months (project plan and a more detailed timeline are posted).
  • There were about 10 participants involved in the Otago sprint. Surprsing to me, most of them were distributed, so communication was virtual done through Google Hangouts.
  • Most of the authors were actually grad students which turned the activity into a powerful authentic learning experience (she’s talking my language here).
  • Authors had a dual role – writing & peer reviewing what other wrote.
  • Erika stressed the important role of designating an OER librarian to help source and attribute resources needed on the fly. A strong CC bg with knowledge of CC & educational repositories.
  • Prior to the sprint, the authors met virtually & came up with a rough outline of the book, including topics and chapters. This was based on course outlines shared by faculty. In retrospect, Erika said she wished that there would have been a bit more pre-work done ahead of time and that everyone came to the sprint with draft chapters that could then be honed and worked on over the actual sprint. Note to self: do as much work ahead of time. By the time we all get together face to face, a good bulk of work might already be done.
  • Write in sprints. Erika’s project broke their day into 90 minute writing chunks, followed by a period of peer review. Iterative development. Note to self: if we use PressBooks (which I want to do if this goes ahead) what kind of workflowing tools do we have/can we add to facilitate a review process?
  • There were a number of virtual lurkers in the hangout. Note to self: make external participation possible (video, chat, event hashtag)
  • Have a note taker to record what needs to be done as it comes up. They kept a spreadsheet of tasks that got added to as the sprint progressed.
  • A fact checker would be a good role to have. Someone to research as problems/disputes/questions of content arise so that authors don’t get bogged down in surfing for answers to questions.

Erika’s project was supported by Creative Commons.

I am also hoping to speak to Siyavula and Adam Hyde of Book Sprints to get some bg on how their events work. But right now I am thinking along these lines:

  • Sprint is a bit of a misnomer as I think most of the work will be done ahead of time in the weeks/months leading up to the actual sprint. Therefore, trying to find a time where faculty have at least a few weeks leading up to the actual event to work on the project will be important. Perhaps early June might be a good time?
  • We’ll need a few pre-event virtual sessions of participants, including some technical training on the platform, setting up the structure, and draft writing. Perhaps 3 seperate pre-event synchronous sessions?
  • The actual sprint itself. If we can get most of the authoring work done ahead of time, 2, maybe 3 days would be what we would need together. Anything longer than that might be a tough f2f commitment for some to make. And, if the actual days are as intense as I think they might be, any longer risks burnout.
  • Subject area. I have one in mind and I have contacted the head of the provincial articulation committee for that area to get his input & feedback. It is an area that currently has no existing open textbook available, but (I suspect) quite a few open resources available. And the subject area is perfect to create something very Canada-specific, which may not get created otherwise by some of the more U.S.-centric projects.
  • A synchronous PressBooks code sprint. This is something Brad Payne and I have been discussing. Alongside the book sprint it might be useful to have running parallel a PressBooks code sprint. There are a number of enhancements that could be made to PressBooks to make it a better tool for collaborative textbook authoring, and having the input of users at the time they are actually using the tool might be invaluable. And it could be a real catalyst to improving participation rates among developers for the project. If we can find some WordPress developers interested in working with us on improving PressBooks, this could be a very useful exercise as it would be great to see more developers participate from higher ed.

The architecture of our open textbook site

I’ve needed to document the technical architecture of the open textbook project, so thought that I’d post it here as well in case this info is useful for anyone. At the very least, it will make for a good read if you are suffering from insomnia late one night.

The virtual hub for our open textbook project in BC is open.bccampus.ca, and I thought I would share a bit about the different technologies & syndication strategies at work on the site. It feels like we have a lot going on under the hood, and this is by no means an exhaustive description of everything. But at 1400 words, it’s plenty long enough.

Almost all the work on the site has been done by one of our developer, Brad Payne, who I cannot give enough kudos to. I have an idea and the next day it’s done. If we had to rely on my hackery I am sure the entire system would have crumbled like a virtual house of cards months ago.

Here is a silly diagram I made trying hard to visually represent the architecture of the sites. Silly in the sense that it follows no prescribed network or system mapping framework other than Clint’s messy mind method.

What the hell was I thinking?

The internet can rest safely tonight knowing that a network architect I will never be :). I’ll try to explain what is going on.

Fundamentally, there are three different technologies in play with the site; WordPress, Equella (our digital repository – I almost wrote Learning Object Repository <slap slap>) and a survey tool called LimeSurvey.


We actually have 3 separate WordPress instances running, each taking on a slightly different role on the site.

WordPress instance #1: open.bccampus.ca

First, the entire open site is running on WordPress. It is the hub that we use to pull in a lot of information from the other sites. On this main site, we post stories, news, tutorials and other communicative types of content. We also have a couple of plugins handling some other functions on the site. I won’t go thru the entire list, but two that are quite important are BB Press and Wisyjja Newsletter.

BB Press powers the open textbook faculty forums. We use the forums to support faculty who are reviewing or modifying an open textbook.

Wisyja Newsletters is used to handle our textbook change notification mailing list. Every textbook in our collection has an associated mailing list which faculty can sign up for. We use these lists to send out notifications of textbook changes, or to send out information about ancillary resources that we might find which support the textbook.


However, as important as forums, mailing lists and communication are, the main function of open.bccampus.ca is to provide a user-friendly front end for faculty and students to access open textbooks in our repository. It is the hub, and this is where things get a bit more complicated as the books that appear on the open site are actually not stored on the open site. We store the actually textbook information in Equella, our digital repository, and use the Equella API to pull the information we need about each textbook out of Equella and onto the open.bccampus.ca site.

Within Equella (we have branded our version of Equella as SOLR) we have created a collection called Open Textbooks to house the resources that are specific to the open textbook project. But the user interface for Equella is not the most friendly. So rather than send faculty & students to Equella to find the textbooks, we instead utilized the Equella API to pull the information about each textbook out of Equella and into the open.bccampus.ca website. We choose this approach not only because we felt that WordPress gave us a friendlier interface, but because we thought that there may be instances when we want to expose our textbook collection to other services and sites (think institutional libraries or centres for teaching and learning, which could have a curated collection of our textbooks housed on their branded website). Using the Equella API gives us that flexibility.

So, here is what a textbook looks like in Equella and that same textbook information looks like on the open site. Same information, different interface. Using the Equella API means we have had to make some compromises with the way the textbook information appears on the open site. For example, none of the url’s on open are active links; a limitation of the API.

Now each textbook can appear in a number of formats; PDF, ePub, website, LaTex, etc. One of our goals is to make the same book available in as many different formats as possible, and we store each of the different formats in Equella. For PDF and ePub, this means storing the files in Equella. For the website, this can mean either a zipped archive of HTML files, or a link to a website. And this is where our second WordPress install comes into play.

WordPress instance #2: PressBooks

For some of the books in our collection, the website version of the book is a WordPress site. But not any old WordPress site. We are using a WordPress plugin called PressBooks that turns WordPress into a book publishing platform. So, the website version of the textbook is actually a Pressbooks site, and we store the link to that Pressbooks site in Equella with the textbook record. That link is pulled into open.bccampus.ca and appears alongside the textbook record as a link that people can click to see the website version of the book.

You can see how this works with this Modern Philosophy textbook. Faculty & students using this book can come to this page on the open site and decide what format they want to get the book in and, if they click on the “Read Online” link, they will be taken to the PressBooks version of the textbook. With any lucky, this will be seamless for them; the only site they will need to come to find any version of the book is the open.bccampus.ca site, which will take them to where they need to go.

WordPress instance #3: WooCommerce

A third instance of WordPress is being used for our print on demand service at SFU. The version of WordPress being used by SFU Document Solutions (our print on demand partner) is running WooCommerce, another WordPress plugin that turns a WordPress site into an e-commerce site. The same process is at work with the printed version as for the website version. We store the link to the appropriate page on the SFU WOCommerce site in Equella and pull that into the open site using the Equella API. When a student clicks on the “Buy a copy of this book” link, they are taken to the correct page on the SFU WooCommerce site to purchase the book.

WordPress – it ain’t just for blogging anymore. But you already knew that.


The last bit of technology in use on open.bccampus.ca is an instance of LimeSurvey. Some of the open textbooks in our collection have been reviewed by faculty here in BC. We are using LimeSurvey to capture that review data and (again through the magic of Brad Payne & API’s) are pulling the review information for each book collected in LimeSurvey into the open.bccampus.ca site so that the review appears alongside the textbook. Again, for faculty coming to the site, it should look seamless, like all this data is part of the same textbook. You can see how the LimeSurvey data from the API looks by checking out the reviews of this Calculus textbook at the bottom of the page.

So, as you can see, we have a lot of stuff going on with this one simple site. Our hope is that we will take the complexity of navigating out of the hands of students and faculty and make it as simple and easy for them to find the resources they need by centralizing all the information in one spot – open.bccampus.ca.


Bing's Creative Commons filter country specific

I rarely use Bing. Ok, I never use Bing, but a Twitter conversation with Laura Gibbs earlier today had me checking out the search engine.

Laura sent a tweet responding to a conversation I had earlier in the day with Dave Cormier about finding OER science images (as an aside, Dave ended up aggregating the tweets recommending possible sources of OER science images using Storify; a nifty way to use Twitter & Storify to crowdsource, aggregate and archive on the fly).

One of the suggestions I had for Dave was to use the Google advanced license search to filter image results by open license.

Laura saw that tweet and responded that you could also use Bing

I didn’t realize Bing also let you filter by license type, so I followed Laura’s link and saw a collection of images in Bing, but there was no way that was obvious to me on how to filter my license. This is what I saw:

Chem1No license filter. So, thinking that there is another place where this is set, I start rooting around the Bing settings, but find nothing to filter on license types. So I ask Laura, who responds with a screen shot of what she sees.

Wait, what is that license dropdown on her menu? Why don’t I see it on mine?

Turns out, the license filter was not appearing for me because my country settings were set to Canada. If I changed my country settings to US, the license filter appears.


So it appears that Bing’s license filter only works if you have your country settings set to US. Which strikes me as odd. Why not just make it default for all geographical locations? t first I thought that maybe there was some legal reason why they restrict filtering on license by country, but then though if that was the case, why would they let users so easily override it by switching their country settings? Wouldn’t they have some more sophisticated geo-location mechanism in place if that was a serious concern?

At any rate, if you use Bing and want to use it to search for Creative Commons licensed material, you need to change your Worldwide settings to US.

Oh, and as was pointed out on the conversation thread by Pat Lockley…

You do sometimes find images that are not correctly licensed. If you get the feeling that the CC-BY licensed image might not be, do a bit more digging to find the source of the image. TinEye is a good tool that might help you track down the source of the image.


Building a better web for all

Jim Groom has been on a tear lately, clearly articulating some of the fundamental principles of the web & open learning that many of us attempt to bring into practice.

His Open, Public Education Platforms #4life post last week resonated quite deeply with the educational technologist in me as Jim connects the role of EdTech with something much larger than simply being the person helping faculty shovel content into pre-built LMS templates. As Jim points out, as educational technologists, we can do so much more (emphasis mine);

I should be building communities that are premised upon openly sharing the work we’re doing as public institutions. I understand the need for the LMS, I just don’t understand its value. This field should be pushing to make the work faculty and students are doing part and parcel of the web in order to bridge the understanding for hundreds of thousands of people on the web.

Jim situates the open work being done at UMW within a larger societal context, and along the way has really asked a bigger question than what is the role of an EdTech in an institution, but what is the role of our public institutions within society? Is the role of our public educational institutions only to educate the few select who manage to meet the entrance requirements, or is there a larger,  much more fundamental role in educating ALL people, regardless of whether they have been “allowed” in?

What Jim writes about is making our work transparent and available to be found; to set up the conditions for curious people to serendipitously discover the knowledge that, for so long, has been hoarded behind our institutional walls.

It’s about just-in-timing learning where we can be the providers of information at the precise moment that someone who is curious about a topic is looking for them. It is about making our knowledge findable on the tools people use everyday to find information, like Google.

His latest post continues on the theme of opening the institution and brings in one of my favorite topics: authentic learning, and the role that open education has in creating authentic learning opportunities for students.  Jim talks about a history project where students are collaboratively working side by side with the faculty to develop a website of learning resources associated with the Taiping Civil War.

Think about it, fifteen newly decalred history majors drilling into a focused topic alongside a faculty member who’s guiding them in the collaborative construction of an intellectual resource designed specifcially for the web.

Now THAT is an open education resource! And what can be more motivating for a student than knowing the work you are doing might actually be used as a source by someone who happens to search for the Taiping Civil War in the future?

And all because a professor simply said, “Why not?” Why can’t UMW undergrads do this? Why can’t we work together to build a resource for a broader public rather than remain a slave to the individually produced research papers that two people will ever read? Why can’t a course have a domain that becomes the ongoing record of the thinking about a topic that anyone can access?

It reminds me of some of the more exciting open textbook projects I have seen, like Project Management for Instructional Designers  and the Chemwiki project at UC Davis, both of which began life as faculty led student created open projects. The Chemwiki project now generates over 2 million visitors each month, making it one of the most visited domains in the entire UC Davis online world.

Now, I can almost hear the drool dripping from the institutional marketing mouths right now, but this goes so much more deeper than providing Google juice to an institutional web presence. This is about providing authentic learning experiences for students to contribute to their chosen domain in real and meaningful ways while being guided by experts in the field; their instructor. The final result of which makes the open web a vastly better place by providing something of authority and substance in a web content world that is feeling more vacuous and hollow.

Higher education can make the web so much more than Buzzfeed, Perez Hilton and TMZ. We can contribute in ways that are much more real, authentic and valuable. But it all starts from the place of making the work we do open outside the confines of restricted publishing platforms. Because if it can’t be found, it doesn’t exist. And content that is locked away inside institutional content management systems is content that can’t be found except by a privileged few who have figured out how to jump the hoops needed to get access.


Social Annotation with Hypothes.is

Following David’s lead (and thanks to some great WordPress plugin work by Tim Owens),  I’ve installed a social annotation tool called Hypothes.is on this site. Actually, it looks like much more than a social annotation tool, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Hypothes.is is a non-profit funded by (among others) the Shuttleworth Foundation (who are funding some very innovative work right now in the education/web space, including the OERPub project and Siyavula). It is a social web annotation platform being developed around web standards proposed by the W3C Open Annotation community group.

A WordPress plugin is just one of the Hypothes.is tools. There is also a Chrome browser plugin and (soon) a plugin for Firefox. These plugins allow you to annotate and highlight across the web. So, annotation works in 2 ways, either on the user side via the browser plugins, or on the site builder side via a WordPress plugin.

If you highlight and right-click any text on the page, you should see a little balloon/pen icon pop up. Click on the icon and a panel will slide out from the right of the page. You need a Hypothes.is account to highlight and annotate. If you don’t have one, you can create one quickly from the fly out.

If you want to see the comments that are on the page, there are 2 prompts on the page that show you there are comments. First, you can click on the icon in the top right hand corner of the page that looks like this:


Hover over the icon and you’ll see some other icons appear that allow you see the annotations & highlights on the page, or to highlight and annotate yourself.

The second prompt that shows you there are comments are the icons on the right of the page that look like directional arrows:


This one appears in the bottom right corner of the page on posts that have comments on them (like the one you will see on this post if you are viewing the post itself. For some reason, Hypothes.is doesn’t seem to be working on the home page of the blog). Click on the icon and you are taken to the exact spot in the post that has been highlighted or annotated.

This is still very much an alpha project, but looks promising as a collaborative annotation tool. One of the concepts that I really like about it is that you have the ability to aggregate all of your annotations and comments under one account, something I tried to do many years ago, but gave up on in frustration as the tools that were around at the time were frustrating to use. I want to be able to have a central place that shows me all of my conversations on the web, and this might be a good option.

There are a few things I like about Hypothes.is the project as well. Reading their principles, it looks like they are committed to creating a tool that remains non-profit, free and that works anywhere – important qualities if they hope to garner enough critical mass to make the project a success. The rest of the principles are equally important and you should take a read through.

As more and more websites turn off comments, I can see services like Hypothes.is (and existing tools like the Diigo, which is often forgotten as an annotation tool and used by many only as a social bookmarking tools) are going to be important tools to keep the conversation flowing.

As for the more than a social annotation tool bit I hinted at in the lead, Hypothes.is appears to be framing itself as a tool for discussion and collaboration rather than simple highlighting and annotating.

Hypothes.is will be an open platform for the collaborative evaluation of knowledge. It will combine sentence-level critique with community peer-review to provide commentary, references, and insight on top of news, blogs, scientific articles, books, terms of service, ballot initiatives, legislation and regulations, software code and more.

I am not exactly sure how this bit works yet. But as I play with Hypothes.is I am eager to find out.

Something I learned about the history of the web from the Hypothes.is promotional video. Annotations were an original feature of Mosaic, but disabled at the last minute when the browser first shipped. Which makes you wonder what the web would be like today if comments were enabled from the start through the browser right from the get go.


Big Money

Big money pull a million strings
Big money hold the prize
Big money weave a mighty web
Big money draw the flies

Catching up on weekend news and see that Coursera has landed $20 million more in VC funding. $20 million dollars. That’s bigger than the entire annual operating grant (pdf) Royal Roads University (my previous institution) gets from our provincial government.

Coursera has raised to $63 million dollars in funding. $63 million that it will have to pay back someday. And I wonder how long it will be before Coursera joins Udacity in the pivot game? Could Alan’s Pivot MOOC mashup (used under CC-BY license) be prescient?

Pivot MOOC

Big money make a million dreams
Big money spin big deals
Big money make a mighty head
Big money spin big wheels

I don’t write about MOOC’s much. There are many others who are much smarter writing better  analysis on all this MOOC stuff than I ever could.  It’s like the drunk frat boy trying to talk hockey with Ron McLean. But just in case it hasn’t been blindingly obvious what the end game is for Udacity and Coursera, then let’s be perfectly clear. It is profit. These are corporations who exist to make money for shareholders and investors.

I know. Never let it be said that I don’t state the obvious. This is the limit of my MOOC analysis. Sharp, isn’t it? But I think it needs to be reiterated to remove any doubt for causal MOOC viewers who believe the “save the world” rhetoric.

Of course, this is not new. That has been the game plan from the get go. But whenever something like a pivot happens, or a new round of funding gets shoveled in, it’s important that we stop and remind ourselves of the fact that this is for-profit education that is, in many cases, being built on the backs of a public system. Last year at OpenEd 2012 in Vancouver I remember hearing Athabasca University’s Terry Anderson talk about this rush by public institutions to partner with the shiny new kid on the block Coursera. He made the statement “I don’t know if they quite realize who they have gotten into bed with.”

I was happy Udacity “pivoted” because it is one of those moments that makes the end game even more clear. These are not educators hoping to improve the world, or even improve the lives of their students. Let’s drop the altruistic pretension and do goody good bullshit about making higher education accessible and free for the poor yearning masses. It has always been the ickiest part of the Coursera/Udacity MOOC model. It is about profit.

The Udacity pivot and this latest announcement of VC funding for Coursera remind me of a moment that occurred in the spring while I was at the Connexions conference at Rice University, home of the OpenStax College open textbook project. I attended a Skyped in keynote from Coursera’s Andrew Ng, similar to the one that those who attended OpenEd did a few weeks ago (he did take some questions from the audience at the Connexions conference at the end of his presentation, moderated by Richard Baraniuk).

Connexions is all about open textbooks; free for students, CC-BY licensed for reuse and redistribution. In his keynote, Ng spoke about the importance of projects like Connexions and open textbooks in general as ways to reach the goal of free and open courses for all. This happened one day after I read an Inside Higher Ed article which pointed out that Coursera had an affiliate deal with Amazon whereby Coursera makes money from the sale of textbooks. For each textbook sold, Coursera gets a slice from Amazon. So, on one hand, Coursera is extolling the virtues and importance of open textbooks to the open textbook crowd while on the other they are using textbooks as a source of revenue, selling them to students. To me, it came across as hypocritical and was one of those moments where I saw clearly through the fog.

Big money got a heavy hand
Big money take control
Big money got a mean streak
Big money got no soul

It’s about the money, and I wish that Coursera would join Udacity and drop the pretense because altruism alone doesn’t have a good enough ROI to pay back $63 million in investments.

God, Geddy Lee had great hair.


Thinking about a BC textbook booksprint/hackathon

Drupal Code Sprint

This week we have started talking about how we can make a BC textbook book sprint a reality in the spring of 2014. These are still very preliminary plans, but I’m very jazzed about the potential.

A book sprint is inspired by code sprints in the software development world where, in a very short time with a number of participants, something concrete is created. In the world of academic software development, I think of projects like the One Week, One Tool project out of George Mason University, which has given us tools like Anthologize and this years Serendip-o-matic  developed in an intense one week burst of coding frenzy. (aside: I am a big fanboy of the work of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason. They have built some wonderful digital tools over the years, including Zotero, which I really should have included in my support what you use post as it is a tool that I do use every day for my research).

In the textbook hacking space, there has been some great projects that we can draw inspiration from, including Siyavula in South Africa, the Utah Open Textbook project , the Finland hackathon that produced a math textbook in 3 days, and (over the past weekend), the Creative Commons supported textbook hackathon at the University of Otago in New Zealand that produced a first year media studies and communications textbook.

This last project is especially interesting for 2 reasons. One, we are looking for a media and communications handbook for our open textbook collection and even though this will be create with a New Zealand focus, there will probably be material in there that we can use as a starting point to create our own media studies and communication textbook.

Second, one of the goals of the event was to create a textbook book sprint cookbook; a guide for others to use who wish to do a similar event. I love serendipity. Needless to say, I am looking forward to getting my hands on that cookbook, and have to applaud the crew involved in the project for recognizing that capturing the process is just as important as the final result. Open FTW.

As I said, these are really early days in our planning, and one of the first pieces we need to figure out is whether we create something from scratch, or whether we modify an existing resource. While many of the examples so far have focused on creating something from scratch, I actually think there is great value in having a book sprint where we remix an existing resource instead of creating from scratch. Remixing works is still a foreign and uncomfortable idea with many challenges (both technical and cultural). A remix-a-thon might help us address some of those issues head on and develop some real and concrete tools that could empower and enable others to look at remix as a viable option.

We also have to figure out the right mix of people to be involved. Obviously there will be faculty (subject matter experts), but what kinds of resources will we need to support them? Technical support, developers, editors, designers And how do we begin to facilitate the work? It needs to be tightly focused to meet the tight deadline. What kind of pre-event work needs to be done so that by the time you get to the event everyone is prepped and ready to roll? These are all questions that we will need to answer in the coming weeks and months as we begin to flesh out this plan.

Photo: Drupal code sprint by Kathleen Murtagh used under a CC-BY license


The most important feature of an LMS

Sometime it’s hard not to feel snarky when you read stuff like:

“Really,” says Ms. Manning, “most Stanford faculty wanted to use a platform that they read about in The New York Times.”

Really? That is what faculty want in an LMS? The one that is mentioned in the New York Times? If that is truly the case, then online learning in higher education really is as borked as all the doom mongers are saying.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so snarky. Perhaps I should be happy that Stanford – an institution with massive resources – is willing to put some of those resources into the development of an open source LMS like edX (although there is no shortage of existing open source LMS projects that could have benefited from those resources). But when I read that the motivation to support an open source learning project is to improve the “brand” profile of the institution to make sure faculty feel like they are working with the “right” platform because it is the most popular kid in the playground instead of improving that platform for the benefit of the learners, well…yeah. Snarky.


What Connected Educators should takeaway from our parental survey on WiFi in schools

tl:dr: Are you a teacher using technology in your classroom? Help parents understand how you are using it. Tell them how and (more importantly) why you use it. Parents don’t know & we need to know.

My HTML5 Word Cloud

The school district I live in (SD61 in Victoria BC) has been dealing with a contentious issue for the past 2 years that has held up the installation of wireless networks in a number of our schools. A vocal group of citizens has had a 2 year sustained campaign lobbying school district trustees with the message that WiFi is not safe. That the EMF radiation given off by WiFi routers and WiFi enabled devices pose a health risk to students.

I have been hesitant to blog about the fight here because I know what is coming in the comment section, if the comments on my other site are any indication. This spring, concerned that the anti-wifi camp was winning and influencing our school district trustees, I set up a website to counter some of the claims they were making and to begin to make an argument that I felt was being lost in the health “debate” – that there are pedagogical implications to having schools without ubiquitous internet access enabled by wireless technologies like WiFi.

To make a long story short, the local parental advisory council (PAC) collective for the district (known as VCPAC) intervened with the district and said they would do a parental survey to give the SD trustees some more information about whether or not parents felt that WiFi in schools posed a health risk to their kids.

The results of that survey have been released (if the links to VCPAC don’t work, you can download the survey summary (pdf) and parent comments (pdf)) and I wanted to make a point about the results for connected educators who use technology in their classroom: please tell parents how you are using it and why you are using it.

The results show that there is concern about WiFi in schools, but not for health reasons. While the aggregate numbers show some levels of concern, the details of what those concerns are become much clearer when you read the comments. There are many parents are struggling to see the value of not just wireless technology in the classroom, but the role of technology in the classroom period.

To make it clear, this survey was done based on the notion that WiFi poses a health hazard (a risk that public health officials have continually rejected). The VCPAC did quite a good job of separating the health from the “appropriate use of technology in the classroom” argument in the buildup to the survey but still, those fears about how technology is used in the classroom are abundant in the qualitative responses.

Here’s a sample of what parents are thinking/saying. I should say that I don’t know if these are concerns of people who voted for, against, or were of no opinion in the qualitative questions of the survey.

“I don’t have as many health concerns about wifi (let’s face it, it’s everywhere) as I do have access concerns. Kids may be bringing smartphones, tablets etc and therefore wifi in schools enables our kids open access to everything on the web – THAT is concerning. Can we assume that everyone has parental controls on their kids devices?”

“As a parent of a child in kindergarten I find no specific or positive need to computing or information processing systems. As a matter of opinion elementary students should have no need to access anything related to wireless communications. Even teenage students moving into high school should have no need for WiFi devices within an academic institution.”

“I do not think kids should have unlimited wireless access to the internet while at school. Increased accessibility will increase the use of Cell phones, iPads, and iPods during school hours. This practice should be actively discouraged.”

“Children in Elementary school do not require internet use to learn. Can they not “hardwire” internet into each classroom? Why is WIFI required? How much internet use is needed to justify WIFI?”

“Computer games becomes the new addiction which destroy kids’ future. Most education don’t realize that yet. There are so many kids who are stuck and hooked up with computer games. It is a tragedy.”

“Computers and technology are completely unnecessary at the Elementary school level. Elementary schools should focus on the 3 R’s Reading, (w)Riting & (a)Rithmatic. If they don’t learn the basics in Elementary school, when are they going to learn the basics?”

“Dont have health concerns but do have concerns about kids being able to access information on electronic devices they bring; also don’t believe there is a demonstrated need.”

Now, like many parents, I also have concerns over how technology is used in the classroom, and that it is used appropriately and with purpose and intent. But unlike many parents, I have a perspective informed by my network connections. Because within my PLN I am connected to many educators working in the k-12 system who are doing amazing things with technology in their classrooms and, as a parent,  I want to help set up the conditions for those amazing things to happen in other classrooms as well. Which is why I got involved in this fight to make sure there is wireless access in our schools to allow those amazing things to happen.

So, here is my plea as a parent with kids in the k-12 system to the connected teachers who are using technology in the classroom. Help parents understand how technology is being used in your classroom. Become an informed advocate as to why you use technology in the classroom – what it is you are trying to achieve by using technology. Parents don’t know, and we need to know so that when really basic decisions like enabling connectivity happen, we can help support your continued use of technology in schools.

Thanks. And I would appreciate it if you could pass this blog post on to any connected educator using technology in their classroom.

As for the survey results, I believe that these will be forwarded onto SD61 trustees, who will then likely reconvene their standing WiFi committee. Here is hoping that these results will help put this issue to rest in our district, and can be used in your district if you ever need to fight a similar battle.

Image credits: Word cloud of open ended responses to VCPAC parental survey by Scott Leslie used with permission. Note that words which appeard less than 25 times are omitted from this image.