Different Ways of Fixing the Web

Several articles in the last several weeks have bemoaned the decline of the web. Yesterday, Alan Levine linked to several of them but then  suggested that the web feels fine to him, and Mike Caulfield commented that many of the features we now view as integral to the open web owe their existence to people who perceived problems with the way the web worked and tried to fix them.  Mike notes that comments and RSS and WordPress were all attempts to fix something about the web that was not quite right.  I’d add Facebook to that list.

( I’ll give you a moment to recover from your swoon or fit of rage)

Just as the comment box tried to solve the problem of conversation or RSS tried to solve the problem of curation, Facebook tried to solve a problem, “How do I use the web to connect to a group of people that is important to me?”   For lots of people, especially non-early-adopters, this is a more important to solve than how to curate information.  There’s a reason Facebook has billions of users. For many people, the ease with which the web allows them to connect to other people is more important that the ease with which it allows them to manage information.  People like Alan have, for a long time, reminded anyone who would pay attention of the importance of story, even on the web.  What makes a story uniquely compelling?  The characters.  Story is so important and so powerful because it puts people (or aliens, or anthropomorphized animals, you get the idea) at the center.  Something like Facebook or Google+, in its own convoluted way, is an effort to put personal connection at the center of the web.

So, why do most of the people I know love RSS and hate Facebook?  Because Facebook did its problem solving in a non-open way, encouraging people to trade their data for “free web hosting and PHP doodads,” as Eben Moglen put it. To anyone who can install fedwiki on a VPS using npm, the bargain Moglen describes seems as bad a deal as he says it is.  To people without those skills, the deal doesn’t seem as bad.  Companies like Reclaim Hosting and Known are doing great work lowering the entry threshold so that more people can manage their own digital identity and realize how bad Facebook’s deal is.

Even so, the open web tools are great for digital homesteading, and not as great for networking.  Tools like Known or other IndieWeb implementations are focusing on POSSE (Publish Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere) and trying to leverage the network effects of proprietary platforms like Facebook and Twitter rather than supplant them.

The existence and success of those proprietary platforms is an effort to solve another “problem” with the web, how to make money off of it. The Vox article to which Alan links addresses this issue directly.  Most web users seem unwilling to pay for content or for their own hosting.  Ergo, we end up with the system of data harvesting we have.

Would the web be better if the problems of social networking and monetization were solved in an open way?  Of course it would.  Goodness knows people have tried the former. Remember friendica, diaspora, appleseed, etc. Sites like ChangeTip are trying to solve the latter   Hopefully someone will succeed eventually.

My sense is that most of the distress over the decline of the web is actually well founded concern that the key problems of the web in 2015 are being solved in proprietary ways that create huge walled gardens rather than with open federated protocols.  That is, in fact, the key problem to solve.



Personal Cyberinfrastructure for Middle School?

I have a pair of tweens at home. The younger one went to a 100 girls of code workshop this week. Since the focus of the introductory level is putting together a web page, I decided it was time to unpark domains for her and her brother that I’ve been sitting on for about a year.

This raises the question, “What do I want my kids to know about digital footprint/ cyber infrastructure /etc?” I threw this out into social media and haven’t gotten much response yet, so as an exercise I’m imagining what a MOOC on these topics, designed for middle school age students, might be like.

I imagine three sections

  1. Why

I like Gardner Campbell’s (in)famous “bags of gold” presentation and Eben Moglen’s warnings about PHP doodads to introduce this, but I’m not 12. Perhaps there are gentler introductions.

2 What

At this point I see the MOOC becoming more rhizomatic. Each participant needs to decide what they want their digital identity to represent. Family history buffs might install a genealogy web app. Students might have a bookmark manager, and so forth.

  1. How

Finally, learners put their plans into action. They choose their tools and learn to use them.

This is a very rough first outline. I’ve posted it at my fedwiki site, so you may fork there or comment here. What did I forget? What would you use to deliver such a thing?

Geeking out as instructional model?

Mike Caulfield has the wonderful habit of, about once a month, posting something that makes you sit up and think.  Last week he did it again, discussing “Geeking out as a conversational paradigm.”  Learning that Mike did grad work on conversation analysis illuminates many of the things he’s written recently and his work on Federated Wiki.

The specific thing that Mike’s post has set me to thinking about is to what extent geeking out is like and not like various dialog-centered instructional models.  My off the cuff response is that geeking out is a sort of socratic method inter partes, where rather than a single leader/teacher asking most of the questions, everyone is socratically questioning everyone else. That feels different to me than Mike’s description of a database synchronization operation, but this may be because the terms come from different domains and not actually mean that the two things are different.

I also think the inter partes  part is important.  Does a geek out work differently when there are big differences between the background knowledge of the various participants (when the databases are way out of sync) or does the connectivist nature of the enterprise allow each participant to plug in where they can and extend the conversation with whatever knowledge they can bring to bear? I look at Mike’s carefully described geek out and wonder, ” What happens to a person at the table who knows nothing about the Joss Whedon oeuvre?”  By #6 (singer/songwriters) we have reached a different and broader topic, which doesn’t require Whedon awareness. This suggests to me that geek outs, because they tend to be wide ranging, can include people with diverse knowledge sets.

Coming back to my first question of how this could be an instructional model, geek outs seem to push against the prevailing educational model of disciplinary silos that focus on deep knowledge in narrow domains.  If your classroom default was a geek out, what would that look like?  Is it amenable to meeting a pre-specified set of learning outcomes. or is the potential for the conversation to go anywhere (think rhizomatic learning) part of the point?


Retrograde Music History

Geoffrey Himes argued recently in Smithsonian Magazine that “we should teach music history backwards.” to take advantage of the desire at least some listeners have to understand the precursors to/influences on the music they like today.  The question of what order to put things in (chronological, reverse chronological, by genre,…..) is a perpetual one for teachers of music history or music appreciation. Why don’t we start with the music they know and perhaps even like?

Himes , although he claims to discuss music history, writes only about popular genres,  In his primary example , he makes connections from Sam Smith all the way back to Rosetta Tharpe.  It’s not hard to see the limitations of the approach, most prominent among them that you have to start with contemporary music that you like and follow where that leads.  What about all the other music?

Especially, how do you span the chasm between folk/popular song and the art music tradition?  Understanding the link between Sam Smith and Aretha Franklin is relatively straightforward.  Making the connection between Smith and Josquin is much less obvious.The chasm is even wider when you consider music without words, a bête noire for many studying music history for the first time. Even if you are working backwards, there comes a point where you must jump the gap to music that seems not at all familiar. Does it make more sense to start at the beginning with a blank slate?

Catching up with Rhizo15

I had originally intended to not add  Rhizo15 to the long list of MOOCish things I started but didn’t finish, but got sucked in via a tangential discussion about social media platforms.  Thanks for nothing , Lisa Chamberlain 🙂     Since I’m a late arrival, I am going to do two for one here:


I think this turn of terminology is a wonderful encapsulation of what rhizomatic learning is about. My subjectives for Rhizo15 are:

  1. Learn more about how to build and facilitate a rhizomatic learning space.
  2. Consider how to square the rhizomatic model with educational structures that run very counter to it , especially in the areas of learner autonomy.  For example, I’ve read multiple responses to the new book Redesigning Americas’s Community Colleges, which advocates  reducing the amount of choice available to students as a way to improve completion.


That segues nicely into the question of measures.  It at least seems nearly self-evident that in an environment that puts learner agency first, measures of learning will also come from the learner.  Learning can happen this way.  The challenge is that most learning is embedded in things called education or training or school.   Someone wants to improve their skills and abilities and is willing to pay for access to support structures that enable that.

People could just pay for supports that help them meet their subjectives.  It’s like life coaching or hiring a personal trainer, just on a bigger scale.  What that scenario ignores is that the kind of learning supports people and institutions are willing to pay for aren’t related to subjectives at all.  They are, for the most part, connected to external economic incentives, especially the willingness to pay workers more if they have a particular degree, license or skill set.  As long as the economic incentives work that way, subjectives will be climbing up a steep incline.

Is all grit the same grit?

This morning as I was checking my twitter stream, I saw that grit had come up again, this time in a chat. The entire concept of grit has been pointedly criticized because it can be summarized as “the ability of poor and/or minority kids to overcome challenges that the white and well-off never have to face.” When your narrative applies only to one ethnic group or economic class, it says less about them than about the system that surrounds them. A recent Atlantic article which describes the lives of students who, in a formally designed education-industry parnership, work the graveyard shift in exchange for tuition remission, sounds very similar. If your parent is a hedge fund manager, you don’t have to even think about how to solve this kind of problem.

Then I got to thinking about doctors (of the medical variety) and face a conundrum. Every doctor I’ve ever known has said the process of becoming a doctor was difficult and required them to push themselves through all sorts of challenges. Many of the behaviors we ask of aspiring MD’s (cramming for MCAT’s , surviving the schedule of medical residency) look like what the grit narrative asks of those who are poor. Is medical education an example of a bad system, that applies the harsh demands of the grit narrative to even those who aren’t poor or minority, if they progress in the the most competitive parts of the educational system, or is there another explanation? Is there some sort of substantive difference between the two models, one being bad and coercive, the other being strenuous and character-building in a Teddy Roosevelt kind of way?

I am pondering all this in part because of one of my children, who has, for almost half their life, answered the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with the answer pediatric neurosurgeon. Said child is bright and inquisitive, and hasn’t demonstrated all that much grit. But he/she hasn’t had too, yet.

The Limitations on the Wiki-ness of a Happening

One of the great challenges and opportunities of the fedwikihappening has been learning a new workflow, one that lets go of the notion of a single canonical version of a document and relaxes the usual focus on who wrote what. Collectively thinking through how to do that, and what tools could support it, was a fascinating experience.

That said, there were at least a couple of ways in which the journaling model that Mike presented wasn’t fully realized. First, my daily wiki surfing was defined by the happening participant list. Second, the shared conversation had a particular focus, a good bit of it meta-wiki-ing. I found myself not creating some pages because of concerns about how they might not gel with the audience that was my fellow happening participants. Otherwise, my site would have had more pages about folk music and Internet privacy than it did.

Because of the happening, there was a certain sense that we, like the pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, were on a journey together. I have note how the federated wiki journaling model may be more like side-by-side play, where there’s occasional interaction and sharing, but the key process is individual.

I’ll be very interested to see how things evolve once the formal happening ends and interactions between participants become more occasional and haphazard.

The Polar Surveillance State

Those of us over a certain age have regarded with bewilderment the now annual appearance of elves on shelves, not part of the Christmas of our youth. Now at long last, hidden in the depths of the Snowden leaks, the truth has been revealed.

Elves on shelves are , it seems, a symptom of a sea change in North Polar behavioral monitoring. Following the lead of the NSA and GCHQ, Santa , realizing that more and more of children’s behavior is online, has in recent years reallocated resources, including many senior elves in the Naughty or Nice Division, to SIGINT, Sleigh-Installed Gear for Interception of Network Traffic. Exploiting the TEMPEST vulnerability, high-altitude, single-reindeer sleighs monitor children’s internet behavior via leaked electromagnetic signals. A complex sleigh-based system of laser communication relays delivers data to the arctic undetected. What, you may ask, has this to do with elves on shelves?

The reassignment of senior elves to the SIGINT program has left traditional elf intelligence activities to junior staff. Not surprisingly, the stealth capability of new recruits isn’t as well developedas the more senior agents they have replaced. leading to a frightening number of early morning discoveries by surveilled children. At some point, North Pole PR gave up trying to explain the phenomenon and decided to have field agents hide in plain sight.

Of skills and shortages

In one of her recent end of year posts, [Audrey Watters discusses skills] (http://2014trends.hackeducation.com/skills.html). She mentions the regularly mentioned notion of a skills shortage, where employers, particularly those seeking workers with technical skills, can’t find qualified workers. The more I think about this, the more dubious it sounds.

We think of the labor market just like we think about markets for smartphones and commodities. These markets are supposed to be responsive to the law of supply and demand. If there is a shortage of plumbers or machinists,or insert occupation here , the price of that worker (in wages, benefits, and perks) will rise until more workers are attracted to the occupation at the new price point. So, is a shortage really a shortage? After all, the unemployment rate is still almost 6 percent and , once you add in discouraged workers and those employed part-time out of necessity, there would seem to be many potential workers who could fill these hard to fill positions eventually.

Eventually is an important word. Since these positions are skilled, it takes time for would be machinists, clowns, etc. to retrain, creating a lag. As Audrey points out, employers used to deal with this lag by hiring someone, then training them. Now, employers expect to hire individuals who are work ready, as [Cait Murphy points out] (http://www.inc.com/magazine/201404/cait-murphy/skills-gap-in-the-labor-force.html). Workers are now expected to acquire the skills they need at their own expense, rather than being paid while they receive on the job training. This moves the supply curve. If you’ve been out of the workforce while retraining, and especially if you’ve acquired debt to fund that training, you’re less likely to be demanding about salary, benefits, and working conditions.