Gardening the wiki, order in chaos

BANKSY shared CC by Troy Holden

When thinking about how to use wikis, I’ve always thought there was a tension between chaos and order. Part of what appealed to me about this technology was that it was a relatively painless and low-risk way of introducing emergence into an institutional context.

So I’ve had an instinctive fear of overly structuring wiki practice, a hesitation that I can barely defend intellectually. But as MediaWiki has moved from an experimental platform to an established part of the UBC online environment, inevitably a new emphasis on structure and process has followed. I expected that progression… what I did not expect is that I would dig the effects so much.

This summer, the Centre I work with at UBC has employed Will Engle (a grad student with UBC’s fantastic School of Library, Archival and Information Studies) to serve as our wiki gardener. And really, gardener is a well-chosen title, in a nifty, permaculturish sense… The challenge has been to observe, ride and channel the energy and activity taking place across the system, planting seeds while gently directing and correcting where needed.

So now the UBC Wiki features what I think is a very clear and useful Main Page, and the use of namespaces for course activity and documentation now features good instructions and examples so newcomers can in most cases orient themselves (though help is available for those that need it). Will also monitors the (rapidly expanding) activity on the wiki, contacting new users and making gentle corrections where needed.

I really like the balance Will has struck between keeping things tidy and doing so with a light and human touch. To get a sense of his approach, I recommend you check out the blog he maintains, it makes great reading for anyone who wrestles with managing a diverse and active community on an open platform. Recent posts have dealt with the implied ownership philosophy on an open wiki, seeding articles, purpose and community

The wiki has become the core platform for our Centre’s online publishing process, allowing for granular reuse, open content syndication and simple but thorough tracking and updating of our resources. To give one fresh example of how this works, this simple overview of open education posted on the wiki can be syndicated on the university’s e-learning info site, as well as any number of other environments as needed. When the wiki is updated, those updates are reflected on all pages reusing that material (whether we know about them or not). And since each page section has its own URL as a subpage (eg:, people can be quite precise in terms of what they reuse.

An exciting side benefit of this approach is that our university is now producing quite a steady stream of OER across this institution, without the presence of a formal OER project. Every time I check out the Recent Activity, I am blown away by the energy, and almost always discover a cool new user creating highly reusable public resources.

So, experience has taught me that order has its place in a chaotic universe. I hope to apply that learning to the disgraceful condition of my desk.

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Break out the tinfoil… I need a new hat.

Brian and Alan beyond the blog

Alan Levine and I show off our metallic sartorial sense of style (Pic by Gardner Campbell)

Exciting synergies abound:

Exclusive: Google, CIA Invest in ‘Future’ of Web Monitoring

The investment arms of the CIA and Google are both backing a company that monitors the web in real time — and says it uses that information to predict the future.

The company is called Recorded Future, and it scours tens of thousands of websites, blogs and Twitter accounts to find the relationships between people, organizations, actions and incidents — both present and still-to-come. In a white paper, the company says its temporal analytics engine “goes beyond search” by “looking at the ‘invisible links’ between documents that talk about the same, or related, entities and events.”

In ‘predicting the future’ via ‘invisible links’, it sounds like there are still a few people in the Agency staring at goats.

Yes, the US Central Intelligence Agency proudly runs its own venture capital operation, In-Q-Tel, quite open in its backing and ownership of a raft of ‘alumni’ companies.

It’s not the very first time Google has done business with America’s spy agencies. Long before it reportedly enlisted the help of the National Security Agency to secure its networks, Google sold equipment to the secret signals-intelligence group. In-Q-Tel backed the mapping firm Keyhole, which was bought by Google in 2004 — and then became the backbone for Google Earth.

I first came across In-Q-Tel via this scathing backgrounder of Facebook (which has had funding raised by Greylock Venture Capital, who share senior executives with In-Q-Tel).

This criminally under-read series from the Washington Post estimated 854,000 people hold “Top Secret” US security clearances, and that “every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications”. So the intelligence community’s interest in enhancing its technological toolset — not to mention make sense of all that data it’s collecting — is understandable.

And hey, while the CIA has had a colourful history, surely the change President will swing the digital security state into a groovy vibe. Once the technology filters down, predictive web monitoring of students will be a boon to educators. I can’t wait for the iPhone app. Let’s not dwell on the past. I’m reminded of a song from a Canadian band:

Going too far
We won’t go too far
None of us will go too far
Maybe sometimes we went too far
But now we won’t!
Because we’re real nice guys!

That’s enough thinking for now. We’ve got work to do, websites to build, compelling online experiences to imagineer, edupreneurial ventures to launch…

But first, one more tinfoil hat picture:

This is what Web 2.0 looks like!

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The Open…

EDUCUSE Review cover
This is my first day officially at work in weeks, so I only have time for a brief shout-out to the current issue of EDUCAUSE Review, which takes on open education as its defining theme, each feature article going into issues beyond simply sharing content as open educational resources.

I hope to blog a little more about some of the goodies here, there is an impressive set of feature contributors: David Wiley (on openness as a core value of education), Vicki Davis (on why open content is not changing students’ lives), Dave Cormier and George Siemens (on the deeper implications of open courses), Maria H. Andersen (on a broadly constituted open faculty) and Carolina Rossini (on open education as a foundation for an open world).

It was an honour to co-write a piece on open ed tech, and it was fun working with Jim Groom to pull it together. Part of me wishes we could just dump our instant messenger logs and transcripts of late night phone rants in lieu of an article, that’s the part of the process I’ll remember most fondly. Looking at it now, I see all sorts of holes, or places we might have gone into more detail… but I suppose that’s why we have blogs. For instance, I would like to work up the implications of this post by Jim into an examination of how higher education might act as a steward of knowledge on the open web.

Congratulations and special thanks to EDUCAUSE Review editor D. Teddy Diggs, who pulled this issue together. Teddy is simply a fantastic editor, it’s always a pleasure to see what she does to mangled prose. And she has a special gift for handling neurotic writers — or, so I’ve heard…

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Modern scholarship is a race against its own obsolescence

Library card catalog shared CC by John Kannenberg

I got my first experience of this reality when I was a graduate student of literature in the mid-1990’s. Back then [cue nostalgic music], if someone needed to assemble a list of references to research a given topic, at least part of the process worked something like this:

* Consult the print index of the Modern Language Association (MLA) International Bibliography, a massive multi-volume reference work that purported to index all scholarship in the field over the previous decade or so. Most major research university libraries could afford an updated set every couple of years. There was a separate set that indexed older works, nearly as large. Because of the sheer size and value of the reference books, they could not be taken out of the library. Scholarly publications were indexed by keywords, authors, and broader subjects such as literary themes. But obviously, due to the limitations of print, the number of entries and the number of places an item could be indexed in the volumes were limited. You were not likely to find entries published in non-traditional sources, and you had to know almost exactly what subjects and keywords you were looking for before you began looking.

* As you wade through the volumes of the MLA International Bibliography, carefully write down by hand the citation information for articles that might prove to be useful.

* With your list of possible sources in-hand, consult a library card catalog — a rack of small wooden drawers containing index cards listing the contents of that particular library. One by one, you would hunt through these cards to see if the research journals or books you were looking for were available at your library. If they were not, you could either strike that option off your list, or if it looked particularly important you might initiate the lengthy and occasionally costly processes involved with an inter-library loan. (Assuming of course you were not beginning your research two or three days before the deadline.) If the item was available, you wrote down the location in the library stacks where it might be found.

* Wander the stacks of the library, gathering large volumes (when they were indeed on the shelves, when they were not checking the shelving point and the carts and hoping for the best), each one containing a 15-20 page article that may or may not prove relevant.

* Since periodicals usually could not be taken out of the library, set up with a photocopier and copy each article by hand, one page at a time. Copies not cheap, especially when your income comes from student loans and part-time minimum wage jobs.

* Take home your stack of articles and finally get the chance to read them properly. Realize that at least half of them are not as relevant as they once seemed, and that many others are devoid of anything like useful information or insight.

* Plan another trip to the library.

This cumbersome process actually involved something resembling skill, some people were better at it than others. We took orientation classes in “research methods” to learn the basics. Because I worked part-time at the library while a student, I was something of a savant at gathering research — I could usually get most of what I needed for a short paper in only four or five hours! My ability to work the stacks was something that gave me an edge as a student, and I assumed this ability would serve me well as a scholar for many years.

Just before I finished my Masters, I was walking through the library and noticed tables loaded with shiny new computer terminals, and that one of them was set up with a CD-ROM version of the MLA International Bibliography. Out of curiosity I sat down and entered a few queries. I realized that my hard-earned foundational skills as a scholar could be easily surpassed by any newcomer with the ability to type a few words into a search box. What had once taken long hours of careful process could now be done in a few minutes, and with tools far more forgiving of error. I had spent years developing abilities that were rendered obsolete in an instant. As I recall, this realization left me with a sense of euphoria.

And of course the context of searching, identifying, gathering and reproducing information has only continued to evolve with dizzying speed. With so much changed about how research is now performed, what amazes me most is how little has changed with scholarship itself. Literary studies incorporate references exactly as they did back when I gathered them by hand. Articles are evaluated the same way. They are published in more or less the same places, in many cases more expensive for libraries to acquire than they were fifteen years ago. And if you do not belong to an authenticated university computer network, these works are effectively inaccessible to you.

Some things do not change so easily. It’s a race against obsolescence.

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Viva la wiki

Based on today’s buzz on Twitter, one might think there’s an emerging consensus that wikis in higher education are a dead end, or at least a bad fit. A big part of that perception would be drawn from the title of the Inside Higher Ed piece they are responding to, “Whither the wikis?”

The title is unfortunate, because I think author Steve Kolowich (who interviewed me for the piece) makes some worthy and astute points that get lost in a broader implication (ie, wikis are over) that strikes me as unfounded.

Since I am a relentlessly affirmative person, I’ll start with the stuff in the article I agree with.

Wikis have mutated. Wikis have evolved since the days of Ward Cunningham. Jason B. Jones, an associate professor of English at Central Connecticut State University is quoted: “While it’s true that there aren’t a ton of formally wiki-based scholarship projects out there, there are lots of resources that are, if you like, wiki-inspired… Whether it’s the idea of user-generated content, or inviting many eyes onto a project (e.g., CommentPress), or, tools that facilitate collaboration, such as Google Docs or Zoho Office, wiki-like ideas are increasingly important to the scholarly community.” A lot of the activity that might have happened on a wiki a few years ago (like co-authoring a paper with a few people) is obviously better suited to an environment like Google Docs. And if the intent is to invite discussion and annotation on a substantive work, then a more structured format like WriteToReply has obvious advantages. But these developments don’t suggest that wikis are obsolete, but that they have evolved and can take many forms. And CommentPress is just one example of how the better content management systems have developed to support collaborative writing and editing.

People have identities. Kolowich points to the disappointing uptake of projects like Scholarpedia and AcaWiki as evidence of the failure of wikis to take hold in higher education. In fact, if I read the article correctly the failure of these projects to take off is the only evidence presented that wikis as a technology are in decline. (And even on this point, the article acknowledges that some discipline-specific or community consultation wikis seem to be quite successful.) Does the lack of activity on these cherry-picked “broadly imagined academic wiki projects” reflect on the technology itself, or on a misguided impulse to create centralized, homogenized spaces for inquiry? The article notes the need for individual contributors to receive attribution, which is a fair point, but I think the problem goes deeper than that. The web should be a place that can facilitate a wild diversity of perspectives and voices — that’s what makes it such a cool place. Creating some sort of superstructure and expecting people to willingly subsume themselves to its logic makes no sense outside of certain specialized applications (like creating an encyclopedia, for example). This highlights a niggling dissatisfaction of mine about some OER discourse, which seems to envision resource creation processes so standardized that distinct and idiosyncratic voices are put at risk.

But broadly writing off wiki technology based on these observations oversteps the argument. There is obvious value to wikis as part of an online toolkit, especially for the creation of open content. I think WikiEducator has been a success, I certainly admire its role in the open education community. I’ve been part of a few collaborations hosted by the New Media Consortium (the Spanish language Horizon Report, the Open EdTech group) where the wiki played a useful role in facilitating on-site and virtual collaboration working toward the creation of a formal paper. There’s the NMC’s original Horizon Report itself, of course.

And let’s not forget the imaginative and valuable work that can be done on wikis housed outside formal academia, like Wikipedia.

Closer to home, wikis are a bigger deal at UBC than ever. We have the newly launched UBC wiki, which people can use for everything from one-off pages to extensive ongoing research for specialized topics or courses.

The wiki is also integral as the content engine for our emerging online publishing framework. For instance, our unit has developed a WordPress plugin that allows MediaWiki content to be rendered live within any WordPress environment. (You can get the plugin here.) For example, this faculty resource guide can be rendered in WordPress here. It can simultaneously be syndicated anywhere else (such as a partner organization), with the content adopting the look and feel of the local site.

We also provide YouTube-style embed code in the “toolbox” on the left-hand sidebar of our MediaWiki pages so people can grab syndicated, dynamic open content themselves and put it in any web environment, including an LMS (wiki version here).

Why do this? Well, imagine a widely used piece of content like a basic WordPress how-to tutorial. This open content tutorial might be re-rendered in more than a dozen places, many of which we may not know about. If the content is updated once on the wiki, that update is automatically rendered on all the downstream environments.

Also, our MediaWiki install uses a pretty slick “Wiki Book” extension, which allows users to assemble, organize and print cleaned up PDF copies of any wiki pages on the system. (Our resident web guru Novak has posted a screencast of the process.)

So using the wiki as the foundational environment for our content creation allows for easy collaborative writing, and maximum flexibility and reusability. We see big potential here… for open content in courses, for our internal (but shared) documentation, and much more.

Other units here are beginning to use this framework for much of their own online publishing (I’ll share these examples as they develop, some of them look great). We have even hired a graduate student in library studies to be our “wiki gardener”, to gently guide activity and to help put structures in place to provide a semblance of order without losing the flexibility that makes wikis great. Check out Will’s fantastic blog on his process and thinking, it’s an incredible evolving resource in itself.

If wikis are dead, it’s a freakin’ zombie-fest over here.

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Real Fun with Google

Via the most groovy Free Art and Technology (F.A.T) lab, detailed schematics and instructions on how to build your own (fake) Google Street View car.

Once you are set up, the possibilities for dissonant diversion kind of become self-evident…

Google Street View Drunk Driving Part 1 from james powderly on Vimeo.

Thanks to BennettForSenate (whose fab new show on WFMU is a welcome discovery) for turning me on to F.A.T.. Describing itself as “an organization dedicated to enriching the public domain through the research and development of creative technologies and media. Release early, often and with rap music. This is Notorious R&D”… I will be undoubtedly be returning here often in the future for inspiration and for solace.

And I’ll undoubtedly be ripping it off… everything they do is released public domain.

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Canada Day

We are the people.

Another perspective.

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Learners as partners in tool selection

Andre Malan is someone with so much talent and smarts I don’t know how to introduce him. He’s done incredible work as a coder and thinker for our blog and wiki platforms at OLT and beyond (if you read The Bava, you’ve probably heard about it). He’s also developed a well-deserved reputation as someone who can speak with passion and vision about educational technology in the broader sense — witness his very impressive Terry Talk.

Oh, did I mention the dude is still an undergraduate student?

Andre gave a provocative presentation at the recent BC Educational Technology User Group’s Spring Workshop, which he called “Educational Technology, the Users’ Perspective”, riffing off the fact that more than 95% of ed tech users — ie, the students — are not typically represented at conferences.

I’d urge you to read his short overview, and check out the engaging presentation video embedded there.

I recall two particular ‘aha’ moments, both so commonsensical I hesitate to mention them. The first was when Andre suggested that students be brought in as partners in selecting the tools being used to support the course objectives. Nothing fancy, the instructor simply takes the time at the beginning of the course to explain which tools the students are expected to be used, and why. At this time, students are invited to make their own suggestions — maybe they know something that will work better? Maybe their preferences won’t work for whatever reason, but can it hurt to have the discussion? It seems so obvious as a teaching strategy in higher ed, but how often is it done?

The other aha moment is a bit more counter-intuitive, if only because the clip shows someone who admits their limits in terms of knowledge. Andre interviewed other students for his presentation, and for whatever reason this segment struck me as significant… I almost entitled this post “the power of ‘I don’t know'”. On the question of “what educational technology would make life easier for you?“:

I am not exactly sure why I find this response compelling… maybe because I suspect it is common. Maybe because it cuts against the grain of so much ‘net generation’ thinking in our profession. And maybe because if we want to engage students like this in terms of online environments, it seems all the more important to have the kind of discussions referenced above.

I feel like I am doing Andre’s talk a disservice with my half-baked musings — I hope you’ll check out his session for yourself.

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Fair use is your right to call a lawyer when YouTube illegally deletes your video

Critical Commons gets screwed on fair use

I was heartened by the emergence of Critical Commons, a site and service dedicated to combating the fear, uncertainty, and doubt around fair use and copyright. Critical Commons also provides “an online tool for viewing, tagging, sharing, annotating and curating media within the guidelines established by a given community… to build open, informed communities around media-based teaching, learning and creativity, both inside and outside of formal educational environments.”

They even did a funny take on the Hitler ‘Downfall’ meme, thereby asserting that this sort of remixing is protected both as fair use and as parody.

Alas, due to a copyright claim, huge swathes of Downfall remixes are being deleted en masse from YouTube via the company’s automated ContentID system. (More on this system here.) That includes the Critical Commons video — see the screenshot at the top of this post.

Reminders of a similar episode in which a video where Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig demonstrated fair use was also taken down

There’s yet another Hitler Downfall video that explains the issues better than I can. Watch it while you can.

Obviously if this sort of mistreatment can happen to informed and prominent advocates such as Critical Commons and Lawrence Lessig when they are exercising legal rights, the scope of permitted expression for the rest of us is even more constrained.

And consider this episode in comparison with my last post. Whose interests and values are being promoted and protected by the law as it stands? And who gets screwed?

On a related note, Apple continues to promote its proprietary interests by refusing to allow Flash development and the Scratch app. They ban apps by Pulitzer Prize winning satirists. (I highly recommend Jared Stein’s excellent post on Apple and the open web.)

Now, YouTube and Apple have every right to make decisions in terms of maximizing their profits. But a key distinction is made by Tom Hoffman. We might tolerate this behavior as consumers, but surely as educators (especially those of us who receive public money), we should expect a higher standard?

At the very least, these actions should have us questioning whether Google, Apple, and countless other companies who act the same way can ever be trustworthy partners. It’s clear that academic values will never match up against corporate profits and synergistic alliances for these companies. Their priorities speak clearly for themselves, we will always be secondary markets at best — especially since educators seem uninterested in defending and asserting their values. Not when there are shiny new toys to play with.

Educational technologists talk a big game about the deep transformative effects of digital media. If this is indeed the case, then the control and ownership of digital environments should not be a trivial afterthought.

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You can’t break the law if you own it

Let’s start this off with one of my favorite songs, a blast from New Orleans, “Don’t You Just Know It” by Huey “Piano” Smith:

Huey ‘Piano’ Smith & His Clowns – Don’t You Just Know It
Found at

(BTW, anyone else out there digging Treme?)

Now, if you loathe yourself as much as I do, give up 30 seconds of your life to listen to this third-grade rip-off:

YouTube Preview Image

The melody, arrangement, man-to-woman vocals, the call-and-response chorus… virtually identical. But the words are slightly changed, presumably just enough to avoid paying royalties for using the original. That’s its reason for existing, to cheat the artist (still alive, could probably use the cash). There is no sense of tribute or commentary that might exist in a mashup. This is a work that was made solely in the interests of commerce.

Ironically, the knock-off is entitled “Life is Beautiful”, even though this copy sucks all the life and beauty out of the original. All that remains is the sound of monetized culture. If I walked into your house and heard Huey Smith, I would be expecting a night of musical delight and a kick-ass party. If I heard “Life is Beautiful”, I’d be leaving as soon as possible, before you cranked up the Michael Bolton or the Kenny G and tried to sell me some Amway.

Perhaps I’m overreacting again. Now that I think about it, Smith was probably screwed out of his publishing rights by some other sleazeball many years ago. This may be a relatively benign instance of corporate-on-corporate crime… Given the concentration of media ownership, maybe just some sort of inter-departmental accounting error.

This kind of thing happens all the time. Think about it next time some music industry executive says they are protecting the interests of the artist.

PS: thanks to Grant Potter for passing on a nifty musical antidote.

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