Musings on mashups in the university… are we getting anywhere?

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A mess …, originally uploaded by asmundur.

So yesterday was UBC’s e-Learning Open House, which is a notable event for a few reasons, not the least of which is the chance to drink frosty pints while presenting. Most of the presenters share work they’ve done that they think is especially noteworthy, and it is often most impressive indeed. My officemate Novak Rogic and I took a slightly different tack, figuring we would once again take the opportunity to evangelize a bit about what we called distributed content networks.

Nothing too wild. We divided the poster into three sections: 1) the sources (essentially stuff available by RSS feeds, with an emphasis on academic materials); 2) the mixers (aggRSSive, Pipes, tools like Google Co-Op and my new fave Grazr); and 3) where the output can be presented (anywhere, naturally, including an LMS). About half an hour before the event, Novak came up with the “digital chef” metaphor to connect the process with cooking (ingredients, etc…), and I hope we use that conceit again, it’s got potential.

Nowhere on the poster did we mention RSS. We just had lists of sources, tools and outputs. The reaction from attendees was striking. One of the special challenges of presenting in a poster-session environment is spinning a compelling narrative to a constantly changing group of listeners. Most of them entered our space just looking blankly at our materials, and when I asked them if they had any idea what they were looking at, most just laughed and said no. They typically had no knowledge of what RSS or data mashups were… in many cases I found myself circling back to explaining what a weblog was.

We had many eager listeners, a lot of them said they would follow up with me later. So I guess our presentation could be called a success. It certainly was fun. I am struck by how many people who would be interested enough in technology to attend an “e-Learning open house” would still be unaware of the basic components of social software — all those Time magazine cover stories have evidently had little effect. For all the growth, and all the advances, when I talk with the public I am still trying to explain the same things that I was five years ago. I keep expecting that one day when I walk into a room and ask who is basically familiar with what a weblog is, a bunch of hands will go up… but outside of specialized groups, it never happens.

Before I start to sound more obnoxious than normal, I should stress that I don’t think this is some defect with the people. In today’s world, there are so many things that cry out for our attention. Most of us don’t know a thing about the food we eat. We don’t know where our clothing comes from, and who is making money from it. We don’t understand how our way of life changes the planet. We have only the dimmest and conflicted sense of how power is constructed and exercised. Many of us cannot explain our own behavior much of the time. We are groping to understand the fundamentals of how we learn. In a sense, technology is just one more thing most of us don’t get. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype, or to think as I often do that fluency with social software is an emerging form of essential literacy. But events like yesterday illustrate how even with an intelligent, conscientious and curious bunch of educators that some sort of essential transformation is not something that’s just going to happen around us…

On the other end of the scale, the Moose Camp session on mash-ups for non-programmers (audio here) was also a sobering experience. Certainly, the fact we could even conceive such a session seems to show just how far things have come. A tool like Yahoo Pipes promises that an ordinary person might assemble and reorder data much as we use a word processor to edit a document, an example of that emerging literacy I was talking about.

But thorny experience doesn’t play by the script. Even with these new tools and some very sharp collaborators helping me I still can’t make a modest goal (simple and coherent republication of student courseblogs) happen the way it needs to. Things break down on obscure technical levels (like how different systems output RSS — turns out the syndication standards geeks might have had a point with all that infighting I didn’t understand), and on fundamental levels as well (such as Pipes, OpenKapow and Dapper each going AWOL during one short Moose Camp session). We had no choice but to conclude that as of now, the dream of mash-ups for the masses is tantalizingly just beyond the grasp of the non-programmer. But just you wait!

It seems like a painfully familiar dynamic, expecting that just ahead things will fall into place and something utterly revolutionary will be upon us. But can we assume that things will come together the way we envision? Perhaps our fate is eternally mucking through a messy and promising set of possibilities, with enough useful bits spinning out of the maw to keep us from giving up altogether. Small victories providing a few passionate educators with the means to make big things happen inside a few people’s heads.

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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