Monthly Archives: June 2009

Empowering through openness – my application for the OpenEd 2009 travel scholarship

This blog post is my application for one of the travel scholarships to OpenEd 2009. Here’s how the prompt goes:

  1. What you would “bring” to the conference? What can you contribute, be it a willingness to volunteer to moderate a session, some special expertise or project, an already accepted proposal…
  2. What you see as the most critical issue facing you in your efforts around Open Education, and how you think the conference can help you address it?

I approach the subject of Open Education from two different angles. The first angle is a humanist one. I’m trained as an academic: I’m doing my doctoral studies in philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center. This academic training fuels an interest in education, and especially the way that education might (or must) move toward openness as time passes. The second angle is a technical one. I’m (in the process of becoming) a coder and developer of web applications. Working primarily with open source applications like Wordpress, Mediawiki and Drupal, I’m developing an increasing sense of the user-empowering potential of open source software. These two angles on openness converge in my career in various ways, both in my day job as an instructional technologist at Queens College and as a developer for the CUNY Academic Commons.

As such, I think I could bring to OpenEd 2009 an interesting perspective on the nature of openness. As a user of – and contributor to – open source products, I can speak confidently to the community benefits that emerge when powerful tools are developed in an open way. And, more specifically, as someone who has used these tools toward both educational purposes (for example, in support of blogging initiatives both in my classes and in the classes of others) as well as in more broadly scholarly contexts (like the community of collaborative research that the CUNY Academic Commons is designed to foster), I have a concrete sense of the way in which openness in one realm – the realm of software – can foster and feed another kind of openness in the educational realm.

In service of these (somewhat abstract!) goals, I’m willing to participate in as many concrete ways as possible at the conference. I’m an active and energetic Twitter backchannel user (see, for example, the Twitter conversations I took part in at this year’s THATCamp, as well as my previous musings on the role of Twitter at conferences). In discussions both on and off Twitter, I can offer up experience both theoretical (I am a philosopher, after all) and practical (I’m also a geek). I’d also be happy to moderate a panel, if I were asked to do so.

As for what the conference will do for me, I envision that my attendance at OpenEd 2009 would help me to further bridge the gap between the practical and the technical that characterizes so many of the things I do in my career. As an instructional technologist, I think it can be easy to think of yourself as a purveyor and teacher of tools, tools that merely replicate the kinds of learning that have always happened in classrooms. This, after all, is often the path of least resistance. The challenge, I believe, is empower faculty members (and, ultimately, the students themselves) not only to use technology but to understand the extent to which it shapes the world and, by extension, ourselves; only by appreciating this can an individual engage with the technology in such a way that it expands (rather than controls) his or her humanity. Openness is the linchpin: students cannot make the connection between what happens in a class and what happens in the rest of their lives unless the window between the two is open. So I guess my goal is to see what kinds of practical approaches are being taken by people in positions similar to mine, in order to help faculty and students understand how they can empower themselves by embracing openness.

Getting Read It Later items to the Kindle

Lately I’ve been using Read It Later as a sort of temporary-bookmarking system. Between my RSS feeds and my Twitter stream, I come across much more text than I can stop to read in the middle of the day, and Read It Later provides a pretty elegant combination of tools of saving these pages for later – a Firefox extension for marking pages and an iPhone app for reading them. An especially great feature of the RIL iPhone app is the way it handles offline reading. When I sync my list, it stores a copy of the source web page, which I can then either read in its original HTML form or after RIL applies its remarkably reliable text-extracting algorithm. In this way I get a lot of reading done while on the subway and away from internet access.

Read It Later on my Kindle

Read It Later on my Kindle

When I got a Kindle recently, I thought that it would be ideal to shift some of this long-form reading from the iPhone to the Kindle’s larger and easier-on-the-eyes screen. A bit of searching turned up Kindlefeeder, a website that will collate RSS feeds and send them as a single document either directly to your Kindle (incurring a $0.15 charge from Amazon) or to your email address, whence you can then transfer to the Kindle via USB. RIL provides feeds for a user’s reading list (here’s mine – you may have to edit your RIL privacy controls to make sure that your items feed is not password-protected). I plugged this feed into Kindlefeeder, but immediately ran up against a wall: RIL’s feed contained titles only. Since my goal was to make my reading list available offline, I needed full feeds.

This seemed like a job for Yahoo Pipes. (Bonus for me: I had never given YP more than a cursory glance in the past, so this was a good chance for me to learn the ropes, er, pipes.) The strategy: hand my RIL titles-only feed to YP, and tell YP to fetch the full text of each item and store it in item>description of a new RSS feed. Then, subscribe to the YP RSS feed with Kindlefeeder. Here’s a sample:

You’ll notice that I’ve filtered out feed items pointing back to That’s because the NYT (1) breaks up most articles into multiple pages, and (2) publishes pages that are uniform to submit to a single parse. NYT feeds are thus handled by a different pipe, one with a few extra steps. First, instead of calling up the item>link from the RIL feed, I get the printer-friendly version (so that it contains the entire article text on a single page). Second, I filter out the header and footer material (advertisements, navigation, etc.) with “cut content” under “Fetch Page”. If, in the future, I find myself sending a lot of items to RIL from another source with similarly uniform markup, I might create yet another filter to strip the extraneous content off.

The final snag in this setup: free Kindlefeeder accounts will not fetch RSS feeds created by Yahoo Pipes, because these feeds take so long to create and therefore put undue stress on Kindlefeeder’s servers. At $20/year, the ability to transport my reading list to the Kindle seemed worth it to buy a Kindlefeeder premium account. So congrats, Kindlefeeder – you got a customer out of me. (Another cost justification – it’s possible to use a similar process to fetch the entire contents of various magazines from the partial feeds they publish on their websites. $20/year is pretty cheap for unlimited magazine subscriptions on the Kindle.)

So go make some computer technologies of your own. Get out of the house and go do it!