Tag Archives: ds106

WordPress in education, meet the free software community. And vice versa.

There’s a huge, amorphous community of people using WordPress in education. Let’s call it WPedu. There’s another huge community of people involved in the WordPress free software community. Let’s call it WPorg.

WPedu, meet WPorg. WPorg, meet WPedu.

WPorg should know that WPedu is killing it right now

I’d like WPorg to know that WPedu is kicking some serious ass. Take DS106 as an example. DS106 is a distributed course on the topic of Digital Storytelling (that’s the “DS”), where students all over the world – some of whom are enrolled in credit-bearing DS courses at their colleges, some of whom are just tagging along for the ride – use their blogs to complete assignments of various sorts. WordPress, FeedWordPress, BuddyPress, and a bunch of custom hacks are used to aggregate content from hundreds of participants into a single stream. The whole thing is built around the idea of openness: existing, open standards like RSS are being used to federate standalone instances of WordPress (alongside any other system that outputs RSS).

People working on free software – like you, WPorg! – should be flipping out over how awesome that is.

Similarly impressive innovations can be found all over the WPedu world. The innovation is motivated by the love of the work, and by principles: education should be open, individuals should control their data and their online identities, software should be free as in speech. These are the very same principles that are close to the hearts of free software enthusiasts.

People involved in the WPorg community should be spending more effort reaching out to WPedu people. The software developers, instructional technologists, faculty members, and other people working in WPedu are a huge, largely untapped resource for the free software project. People working in K-12 and universities, especially those working in public institutions, often have an incentive (even an imperative) to be sharing their work out to the larger community. (Contrast this with the fact that for-profit WP devs actually have a disincentive to contribute, an issue I wrote about recently.) People in WPedu are experts at piecing systems together, at writing documentation, at community moderation, and so on. They often enjoy flexible job descriptions and fairly loose oversight, and they’re less beholden to financial issues than people working in the private sector. Thus, for many WPedu people, it’d be quite concievable to shoehorn some free software work into their workweek. Most of all, WPedu people are totally awesome people – you have to be pretty awesome to put up with the lackluster pay and ridiculous bureaucracies that education folk have to deal with. Start talking to these awesome people. They have incredible ideas about where WP should go, and they have the resources to help get there.

WPedu should start tooting its own horn

On the flip side: WPedu, you are doing some cool shit, and deep in your heart, you know it. So don’t be afraid to talk about it. It’s true, ome of you are blogging, and that’s great. These blogs are usually addressed (understandably enough) to fellow WPedu people – “here’s a cool new way to use WordPress in a university”, etc. But you should stop qualifying yourselves: Lots of the stuff you’re doing is legitimately a cool new way to use WordPress, period, and you should be proud of that. Own your excellence and innovation.

I come from WPedu, so I say this from experience: there’s too much modesty, bordering on mousyness, among WPedu innovators. Many – most? – of you were never formally trained in software development (or design, or support, or documentation, or whatever). I know I never was. And being embedded in institutions founded on the very notion of Expertise – you can’t spell University without PhD – makes you too unsure of your own skills to reach out and get involved. Here’s a secret: Most of the people in the WPorg community came from non-technical backgrounds, too. (IMO, that’s one of the things that has made WordPress successful, but that’s a topic for another post.) You deserve to be involved, just as much as any of the current community contributors. Three-quarters of expertise is having the confidence to get involved.

If that’s not enough persuasion, here are some practical considerations.

  1. When you build systems using a piece of software – like, let’s say, a student blogging system using WordPress – you become dependent on the future development of that software. By getting involved in the community – submitting patches, doing beta testing, participating in support forums, writing plugins and themes, blogging, etc – you can earn a seat at the table where decisions about WP’s future are made. When your voice isn’t heard, someone else’s voice will be heard in your place. And, as someone who straddles WPedu and WPorg, I can say with confidence that edu and non-profit voices are way underrepresented in the WP project.
  2. Very Important People, such as your boss, your promotion committee, public and private grant committees, and so forth, will be Very Impressed by a list of contributions to free software projects. If you can tell funders that your software has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times (as we are unashamed to do with the CUNY Academic Commons project), and if you can tie this into a broader narrative about engaging meaningfully with a broader public, it can help to guarantee your financial continuance, if you know what I mean.
  3. It’s the right thing to do. The work that you’re doing at your institutions is helping your students in a huge way. If, by putting in just a bit of extra work, you can increase the potential beneficiaries of your work by ten- or one-hundred- or one-thousand-fold, why wouldn’t you do so?

I shouldn’t make it sound like there’s no overlap between WPedu and WPorg. There is. But it’s much smaller than it should be, given the direct parallels between the ideological goals of the free software project and the ideological goals of the educational enterprise

I’m working on a couple ideas that I think will help to bridge some of the gaps between WPedu and WPorg. I’ll share more about them when they become more well-formed. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about how to move these mutually beneficial connections from the realm of the practical to the actual.

Do something about SOPA

Hey you! Do something about SOPA and PROTECT IP..

The Stop Online Privacy Act (and its cousin in the Senate, the PROTECT IP Act) are inching closer to passage. Time is running short for you to do what you can to stymie this legislation, which could very well destroy the open internet as we know it. (Don’t know about SOPA? Get a nice overview in this short video, or check out Jeff Sayre’s helpful bibliography of resources about the bill.)

Why you should care about this

If you are reading my blog, you likely fall into one of a few camps, each of which has a vested interest in preventing the passage of SOPA and PROTECTIP:

  • If you are a developer, user, or advocate of free and open source software, you have several reasons to be concerned about the proposed legislation.

    For one thing, the small-to-medium sized web organizations that are most likely to be targets of SOPA’s blacklisting protocols make up the bulk of the clientele for many web developers I know. These organizations generally do not have the visibility or high profile to put up a stink when and if they fall prey to overzealous “copyright” claims, nor do they have the deep pockets to fund the necessary legal defenses. The danger is especially great for websites that accept – or are built on – user-generated content, like many WordPress and BuddyPress sites; SOPA provides for the blacklisting of entire domains, based merely on the a few pieces of “offending” content, even if the content was not created or posted by the domain owners. Over time, these threats and constraints are bound to make the development of these kinds of sites far less feasible and attractive, resulting in less work for developers – and less development on the open source projects that are largely subsidized by this kind of work.

    On a deeper level, those who are interested in the philosophical underpinnings of free software – the rights of the user – should be terrified by the prospect of media corporations gaining what amounts to veto power over our most fecund channels for the exercise of free expression. Free software lives and dies alongside a free internet. When one level of our internet infrastructure (DNS) is under the control of a self-interested few, it makes “freedom” at higher levels of abstraction – like the level of the user-facing software – into an illusion.

  • If you are an educator or an instructional technologist, especially one who endorses the spirit of open educational movements like (the OG) edupunk and ds106, you should be flipping out about SOPA.

    At an institutional level, thoughtful folks in higher ed and edtech have been fighting for years against a FERPA-fueled obsession with privacy and closedness. They’ve made strides. Platforms that foster learning in open spaces – stuff like institutional blog and wiki installations – have become increasingly commonplace, demonstrating to the powers that be that, for one thing, the legal dangers are not so great, and for another, whatever legal concerns there may be are far outweighed by the pedagogical benefits to be reaped from the open nature of the systems. The threats put into place by SOPA are likely to undo much of this work, by tipping the scales back in the direction of fear-driven policy written by CYA-focused university lawyers. Advocates of open education, and the platforms that support it, should be keen not to let their efforts go to waste.

    At the level of the individual student, the case is more profound. The most promising thread in the story of higher ed and the internet – the thread running through Gardner Campbell’s Bags of Gold and Jim Groom’s a domain of one’s own – is, in my understanding, founded on notions about student power and agency. Users of the internet are not, and should not be, passive actors and consumers of content. Instead, they should take control of their (digital) selves, becoming active participants in the construction of the web, the web’s content, and their own avatars. SOPA and its ilk are an endorsement of the opposite idea: the “ownership” of creative content on the internet is heavily weighted toward media companies, which is to say that you are allowed to be in control of your digital self until it causes a problem for a suit at MPAA or RIAA. The entire remix/mashup culture of ds106 is impossible in such a scenario. If you think that this culture, and the ideology of student personhood that underscores the culture, is worth saving, you should be fighting SOPA tooth and nail.

What can you do? Write a blog post. Join or support the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Most importantly, if you are an American, contact your representatives in Congress. The Stop American Censorship site makes this easy, and gives you all the talking points you’ll need. (“This bill is a job killer!”)

Do it now!