Tag Archives: mediawiki

I develop free software because of CUNY and Blackboard

For two reasons, Blackboard is the key to why I develop free software.

The first reason is historical. I first got into free software development because of my work with the CUNY Academic Commons project. As spearheaded by Matt Gold, George Otte and others, the Commons is intended to create a space, using free software like WordPress and MediaWiki for members of the huge community of the City University of New York to discover each other and work together. The project is not pitched as a Blackboard alternative, for a number of reasons (primary among which is that the Commons’s Terms of Service prohibit undergraduate courses from being held on the site). Still, the Commons was conceived, at least in part, out of frustration about the near lack of collaborative tools and spaces in CUNY. And more than anything else, Blackboard (by which I mean Blackboard Learn, the proprietary learning management software that has been CUNY’s official courseware for quite a few years) is the embodiment of what can be so frustrating about academic technology at CUNY: central management, inflexibility, clunkiness, anti-openness. In this way, Blackboard begat the CUNY Academic Commons, and the CUNY Academic Commons begat Boone the developer.

There is another reason why Blackboard is integral to my free software development. It is ideological.

Short version: I love CUNY and I love public education. Blackboard is a parasite on both. Writing free software is the best way I know to disrupt the awful relationship between companies like Blackboard and vulnerable populations like CUNY undergraduates.

Here’s the longer version. I’ve been affiliated with CUNY in a number of capacities over the last decade: PhD student, adjunct lecturer, graduate fellow, full-time instructional technologist, external contractor. I’ve seen many parts of CUNY from many different points of view. Like so many others who have philandered their way through CUNY’s incestuous HR departments, my experience has rendered a decidedly love/hate attitude toward the institution. You can get a taste of the what CUNY hate looks like by glancing at something like @CUNYfail. The love runs deeper. Those fortunate enough to have “gotten around” at CUNY can attest to the richness of its varied campus cultures. In every office and every department on every campus, you’ll meet people who are innovating and striving to get their work done, in spite of a bureaucracy that sometimes feels designed to thwart.

And the students. CUNY is the City University of New York, the City University. It belongs to New York, and its history is tied up with the ideals of free education for New York’s residents. While the last few decades have seen the institution (as a whole, as well as a collection of campuses) evolve away from these ideals in various official and unofficial ways, it’s impossible to step into a CUNY classroom without getting a sense that CUNY still serves as a steward for New York’s future. CUNY is too huge and its population too varied to make general statements about the student body, but I’ll say anecdotally that, of all the universities I’ve been associated with, none even approach the level of racial, economic, and academic diversity that you find on a single campus, to say nothing of the system as a whole. CUNY is (to use a lame but apt cliché) a cross-section of New York: her first-generation Americans, her first-generation college students, her rich and her poor, her advantaged and her vulnerable. (See also Jim Groom’s I Bleed CUNY, which makes a similar point with a lot less abandon.)

Public education is a public trust, maybe the most important equalizer a state can provide for its citizens. CUNY, with the population of New York City as its public, could demonstrate the full potential of public education in a more complete and visible way than perhaps any other public university. It’s for this reason that it breaks my heart and boils my blood to see CUNY money – which is to say, student tuition and fees – poured into a piece of software like Blackboard.

In virtue of their age, undergraduates are inherently a vulnerable population, and CUNY undergraduates – reflecting as they do the full demographic spectrum of New York City itself – are doubly vulnerable. Many CUNY undergraduates go to CUNY because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t go to college at all. This imposes certain moral strictures on those responsible for managing and spending the money paid by CUNY students in tuition and fees. Wasting CUNY money is a far worse crime than wasting, say, shareholder money in a private company. Shareholders have freedom; if they don’t like your management, they vote with their feet/wallets/brokers. CUNY students, by and large, do not have the same freedom; it’s safe to say that, for most CUNY students most students, big-ticket NYU and Ivy Columbia are not reasonable alternatives. CUNY students are, in this sense, captive, which means that their hard-earned tuition money is captive as well. Thus it is a very bad thing to spend that money on things that aren’t worth it.

And Blackboard is not worth it. Vats of digital ink have been spilled expounding Blackboard’s turdiness, and this is no place to rehash all the arguments in depth. A short list, off the top of my head:

  • The software is expensive [EDIT 9-21-2011: See this post for more details on cost]
  • It’s extremely unpleasant to use.
  • It forces, and reinforces, an entirely teacher-centric pedagogical model.
  • It attempts to do the work of dozens of applications, and as a result does all of them poorly.
  • Blackboard data is stored in proprietary formats, with no easy export features built in, which creates a sort of Hotel California of educational materials
  • The very concept of a “learning management system” may itself be wrongheaded.
  • As recently reported, the software may be insecure, a fact that the company may have willingly ignored.
  • Blackboard’s business practices are monopolistic, litigious, and borgish

In short, Blackboard sucks. Blackboard supporters might claim that some, or even most, of the criticisms leveled above are false, or that they apply equally to other web software. Maybe. And I certainly don’t mean to downplay the difficulty of creating or assembling a suite of software that does well what Blackboard does poorly. But the argument against spending student money on something like Blackboard goes beyond a simple tally of weaknesses and strengths. As Jim Groom and others have argued for years, shelling out for Blackboard means sending money to a big company with no vested interest in the purposes of the institution, which in the case of CUNY is nothing less than the stewardship of New York City’s future, while the alternative is to divert money away from software licenses and into people who will actually support an environment of learning on our campuses. Frankly, even if Blackboard were a perfect piece of software, and even if its licensing and hosting fees were half of what it costs to hire full-time instructional technologists, programmers, and the like to support local instances of free software; even if these things were true, Blackboard would still be the wrong choice, because it perverts the goals of the university by putting tools and corporations before people. The fact that Blackboard is so expensive and so shitty just makes the case against it that much stronger.

As long as our IT departments are dominated by Microsoft-trained technicians and corporate-owned CIOs, perhaps the best way to advance the cause – the cause of justice in the way that student money is spent – is to create viable alternatives to Blackboard and its ilk, alternatives that are free (as in speech) and cheap (as in beer). This, more than anything else, is why I develop free software, the idea that I might play a role in creating the viable alternatives. In the end, it’s not just about Blackboard, of course. The case of Blackboard and CUNY is a particularly problematic example of a broader phenomenon, where vulnerable populations are controlled through proprietary software. Examples abound: Facebook, Apple, Google. (See also my Project Reclaim.) The case of Blackboard and its contracts with public institutions like CUNY is just one instance of these exploitative relationships, but it’s the instance that hits home the most for me, because CUNY is such a part of me, and because the exploitation is, in this case, so severe and so terrible.

On average, I spend about half of my working week doing unpaid work for the free software community. Every once in a while, I get discouraged: by unreasonable feedback, by systematic inertia, by community dramas, by my own limitations as a developer, and so on. In those moments, I think about CUNY, and I think about Blackboard, and I feel the fire burn again. For that, I say to CUNY (which I love) and Blackboard (which I hate): Thanks for making me into a free software developer.

New BuddyPress plugin: BP External Activity

On the CUNY Academic Commons we have a MediaWiki installation running parallel to our WordPress/BuddyPress installation. In the past I had hacked together an inelegant and constantly breaking solution for importing wiki edit notifications into the BP activity stream. I’ve just written a small plugin called BP External Activity which solves the problem by using the BP activity API and RSS.

The plugin can be used to pull items from any RSS feed and add them to your BP activity stream, with customizable text. It’s feature-light right now (and requires some hand-coding to work) but it’s still pretty much the coolest thing ever. I will update it to be better when I get around to it.

Get BP External Activity here.

Displaying the BuddyPress admin bar in other applications

Cross-posted at the CUNY Academic Commons Dev Blog

By popular demand, here’s the method we used at the CUNY Academic Commons to get the BuddyPress admin bar to appear on the non-WP/BP portions of our site. In our case, that means MediaWiki and bbPress, but theoretically this method could work for any kind of software out there.

I should note that I did not devise this method. It was invented by the inimitable Zach and Lucas of Cast Iron Coding.

The concept is as follows. A bit of jQuery looks for a div of a certain ID on a page and, when it finds it, opens a dummy WP page that contains essentially nothing but the BP admin bar loader, which then appears on your page. Download the zip file containing the necessary files (admin-bar-integration) and follow these steps to make it happen.

  1. Upload the file page-component.php to your WP theme directory.
  2. Create a new page in WordPress. The page should be blank. In the Attributes box, select the Template called “Component (do not use)”. Name the page bpnavslug and publish it, making sure that you take note of the permalink. You’ll need that URL (relative to your site’s webroot) in step 4.
  3. If any part of your site creates a menu or a list of your WordPress pages, you’ll want to exclude this empty page from those listings. Find the function call wp_list_pages in your theme (often in header.php or index.php) and add an exclude argument. For example, if the page number of bpnavslug is 4, make sure all references to wp_list_pages read wp_list_pages('exclude=4').
  4. Open the file bp-bar-integration.js. On line 3, you’ll see the path /bpnavslug/. Replace it with the path to the bpnavslug post you created in step 2.
  5. Upload bp-bar-integration.js to your server. For the sake of argument, I’ll put mine at /wp-content/js/bp-bar-integration.js.
  6. Now let’s turn to the application where you want the admin bar to appear. Open the theme file that contains the </body> tag. In bbPress, for example, this is usually footer.php.
  7. Immediately before the body close tag, paste the following code:
    <div id="bpContainer">
  8. Next, open the template file that contains the document head (header.php in bbPress, for instance). Make sure that jQuery is also called somewhere in the head. If it’s not, the following code will call up jQuery on a standard installation of WP:
    <script type='text/javascript' src='/wp-includes/js/jquery/jquery.js?ver=1.3.2'></script>
    Now paste the following line somewhere in the head (make sure it comes after the call to jQuery):
    <script type="text/javascript" src="/wp-content/js/bp-bar-integration.js"></script>
    Be sure to replace the src attribute with path from your upload in step 5.
    Finally, you’ll have to include the CSS for the admin bar. On a default installation of BuddyPress 1.0.3 or less, the following code will work:
    <link rel='stylesheet' id='bp-admin-bar-css' href='/wp-content/plugins/buddypress/bp-core/css/admin-bar.css' type='text/css' media='screen' />
    On a more recent version of BP (1.1+), the admin bar stylesheet has been rolled in with the rest of the styles. Either create your own stylesheet containing just the admin bar code, or import the entire stylesheet:
    <link rel='stylesheet' id='bp-admin-bar-css' href='/wp-content/themes/bp-default/style.css' type='text/css' media='screen' />

A note: This method appears to be incompatible with the Google Analytics WP plugin (which appends Google’s JS to the footer of every WP page, and thus into bpnavslug, and ends up gumming up the works). You could probably get around this with some creative if-statements in the GA plugin itself.

Good luck. Because of the diversity of people’s setups, I can’t guarantee that this method will work for everyone, nor can I provide support to everyone who tries it. But I do encourage you to post whether you’ve been successful in the comments, and to help each other figure things out.

Sharing hacks

Open Ed 09 just ended, and I’ve got lots of things to blog about. Here’s a quick one that came out of a conversation that I had this morning with some of the guys from UBC’s Office of Learning Technologies (Enej, Michael, and Alex, if I’m remembering correctly).

The conversation started off as a show-off session of the different things we were doing with the combinations of WPMu, BuddyPress, MediaWiki, and so on. After some oohing and aahing (that’s what I was doing, at least), we turned to the question of why we – groups of people doing such complementary stuff – aren’t in better contact with each other. Finished, polished stuff is pretty easy to share, through outlets like the WordPress plugin pages. Only sharing the big stuff, though, means only helping each other a fraction of what we could. After all, things that have been formally released are bound not to need as much input from the community as unfinished, rough code. Moreover, arguably, our days are consumed as much by the small hacks and workarounds as they are by the big plugin projects.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by Stevie Rocco | Drinking this coffee got me giddy about sharing code

Communication about code is a hard thing. On one end of the spectrum is internal communication. The gang at OLT keeps internal notes of the small hacks they do on their system, as do we at the CUNY Academic Commons. On the other end is end-user documentation, meant for a broad and largely non-technical audience. The kind of communication that’s missing here is the stuff in the middle, between groups doing similar sorts of work.

What are some good ways to get this kind of sharing moving? What we’re trying to do at the Academic Commons is to keep a development blog. The success of this strategy is limited by a couple factors, though. First, other people have to know where the blog is, and add its feed to their readers, to glean any benefits. Second, a dev blog is only as good as what you post to it, and I for one have a real tendency to think that lots of things are simply too small to bother with. As a result, only the big things tend to get posted – but then we run up against the problem I mention above.

So here’s a rule that I’m setting for myself: If an issue/hack/workaround/patch/spitshine takes more than two hours for me to figure out, I’m going to blog about it. The more I put out there – even if I think that it’s not all that significant – the more likely someone else is to find it and make use of it.