Skip to content


Learning in Public

For the last six weeks I have been running an experimental project at Columbia, an online course called “Reclaim a personal space for education online” but which I think of as “Learning in Public”. The course runs on the P2PU platform and is modeled on the Domain of One’s Own initiative, a fantastic effort to teach students how to build and operate their own online spaces using WordPress and other Free Software. I’ve learned a number of lessons from the first half of the course and produced some resources that I hope will be of use to anyone else who is interested in running their own DIY online course.

Moving online

When Domain of One’s Own first launched at the University of Mary Washington (UMW) it was tied to an undergraduate course on digital storytelling that provided scaffolding for learning the mechanics of how to set up WordPress and operate your own internet domain. Since I work primarily with instructors, who are generally unable to fit such a commitment in a full language course load, I designed this course to operate entirely online and replaced the storytelling scaffolding with an exploration of what it means to move your private learning into a public space. As supporting materials I also threw in a strand of topics giving a technological introduction to the web (what are web sites made of, how are they shared, etc). There are never enough opportunities for general technology education and, while we are being reflective about the effects of using technology, it seemed appropriate to support a similar exploration of how that technology actually works, even if only in outline.

Learning in Public

I have felt for a few years now that we need to do a better job teaching people how to navigate and participate effectively in networked communities. Over the years I have talked with many people running Summer of Code, Wikipedia Education, and other similar community internship or engagement projects. Almost all the participants in such programs run into the same troubles identifying and navigating social norms, learning to use the public communication tools that tie such communities together, and publicly sharing their own work in useful ways.

This is perfectly understandable since I know of no concerted effort to teach these skills, which people often seem to assume are natural abilities for “Digital Natives” or are unaware of how real and valuable such skills are. I think this is the most glaring oversight in all the core curricula out there. For that matter, we could probably run a semester-long technology course on “Technology Triage and How To File Useful Bug Reports” to the great benefit of all involved and society at large. This course is not that one, nor does it include most of the material I would include in a a real “Learning in Public” course since the main focus remains on building personal websites. But, at least informally, this is my first attempt to build up and publish some of those materials where I hope they can do some good. If you are interested in weaving some of those materials into your own courses in future, you might take a look at these three of the pieces I’ve put together so far: What is a Website?, Ethnography of an online community, and Copyright Soup: CC, OER, and Bears, oh my!.

Is any of this actually what people want to learn? So far all of the participants have been focused on building their sites but I am not rushing to judgment. This semester’s group is too small a sample size to draw conclusions from (see Advertising). The material I’ve built so far has been nicely reusable in other contexts around the LRC so I consider that a sign that I am on the right track. Whenever initiatives reinforce each other like that it is always a win in my book, which was part of my goal in designing this experimental course out of mutually reinforcing but ultimately independent tracks. If you are putting together your own online course, I would strongly advise a similar reusable module approach.

The Tools

After running Domain of One’s Own for a couple of years at UMW the origianl organizers of the project spun off a hosting company to help other universities manage similar projects and to provide individual hosting geared towards the needs of the educational community. They call that company Reclaim Hosting and I knew they were going to be the perfect fit when I started planning out this course. They have a great combination of strong values, great support, and rock bottom pricing and I am very happy to have gone with Reclaim for this project.

Since a big part of the goal for this course was to expose instructors to the realities of taking a course in public online so the normal university course tools were not going to work. For better or worse all of the big “MOOC” platforms (obligatory reference to moocthulhu) are locked down to particular instructors and institutions so I built the course on P2PU, a post-OpenCourseWare, pre-MOOC open fever open education platform. That had some pros and cons.

P2pu is effectively a public wiki and suffers from all the common signs of wiki graveyard syndrome, lots of half-finished courses or courses that have not ben run in years and where it is unclear how you could get control of the material should you wish to run on yourself. There are also some signs of technological aging on the platform itself that made me wish I were using WordPress instead. From the fact that they have re-designed the main website to focus on how to run an in person learning group while hiding the actual course listings, I think they are aware of the difficulties and are trying to focus on reusing the existing courses that were finished and are useful. Unfortunately, this makes it all but impossible for people to discover new courses on the site, which should be one of the main advantages of using such a platform as opposed to just building things on your own blog.

While I think it is great that p2pu gives people a public platform for building freely licensed course, if I were doing it over again I would just build it in a Reclaim Hosting account. Maybe next time I’ll do that and use it as an opportunity for a BuddyPress component. In the meantime I will be completing the course as initially planned so that I don’t contribute to the wiki graveyard, but as I go I am also migrating all the content over to github at this address: so the materials can be more widely used.


P2PU’s advice is right on point here. Organize a local community, even if offering the course publicly, and start doing that organizing a month before you start the course. This is where I need to put the most work next time around. While the course has generated decent interest, people seem very reluctant to join a course already in process, especially people who work at universities. If I had spent more time lining up all the interested parties before starting the sessions, the course would have been larger and the discussions correspondingly more diverse.

Reuse and the future

As I mentioned earlier, I have found a number of ways to reuse much of the content created through this course, whether in individual consultations with instructors, a forthcoming group workshop trying to condense the course into one hopefully memorable afternoon, or as a series of blog posts coming out later this month. I also think some of it may end up in the Reclaim Hosting documentation. One of the things that continues to surprise me, even 13 years after my first free software/free culture experiences, is just how widely things can spread when they are freely licensed. My introductory lessons about WordPress may be useful for Reclaim not because they are the world’s best but because almost all of the copious WordPress documentation online is under a restrictive copyright license and reclaim freely licenses their own documentation.

After this term I want to keep some of the momentum going by collecting other general technology and education material in the same github account. Feedback or contributions are certainly welcome. If you don’t have a github account, you can just send me an email. I’m ian@ this site’s domain name.

Speak and the world will listen

When Jim and I founded Wikiotics almost four years ago, one of our goals was to make it as easy to exchange native audio recordings as others have made it to exchange flash cards. Our first step towards that goal was adding audio to our existing picture and text “picture choice lessons“. Now, I am proud to say that we have built our first specifically audio focused lesson type, one who’s materials can be collaboratively edited and then streamed from the site or downloaded for offline practice.

Many of you may already be getting lessons like this from language podcast sites and know the value of the format. Podcast are a widely used source of explanation and new practice audio for students looking to grow beyond language fundamentals. Adding this existing format to the Wikiotics toolkit would, by itself, have been a useful addition but we’ve gone one large step further by making it as easy to create or re-create these lessons as any other wiki page. This capability opens up interesting possibilities for collaborative creation, editing, and remixing.

For example, what if you like a lesson but want the practice audio in a different dialect, or perhaps from a speaker of a different age or gender? With static files you are simply stuck and have to look for other sources entirely or try and make do with materials that are of marginal use in your studies. If those lessons are in Wikiotics, you can replace just the small bits of audio you want to change and save a new version of the lesson, all while leaving the rest of the instruction and explanation material intact. Similarly, if you want to take a lesson designed for French speakers and give it to students who only speak Hindi, you can replace the instruction and explanation audio while preserving the practice audio and the way that material is gradually introduced and repeated over the course of the lesson, making it possible to directly collaborate and share materials across national and linguistic lines.

You can see three examples of this new lesson type on the site already. Two (1 and 2) are part of the introductory Mandarin Chinese unit and cover greetings and polite forms of address. Both of these are actually portions of the static audio lesson from this public domain FSI lesson that I converted into our more flexible format. The third lesson comes from a kindred project wiki-babel and covers polite forms of address in French. Take a look and don’t forget to hit the ‘edit’ button to see how simple it is to create and re-create these lessons.

This makes four basic lesson types and the first to build on top of our new flashcard interface which will be the basic system for creating and editing lessons going forward. As always, please feel free to send any ideas and other feedback straight to me or start up a new conversation about them with the group, and thanks for being part of Wikiotics.

Crossposted with the Wikiotics blog.

Taking OSCon by Wiki

OSCon was a wonderful experience, and not just because the weather back home was 30-50 degrees warmer. During the three days that Jim, our volunteer Jamela, and I ran the Wikiotics booth, we were almost constantly busy talking to interested people and showing off the site on our lovely borrowed monitor. (Thanks for the loan Kenny!) It was a great turnout, especially since our fledgling resources kept us from offering the kinds of swag, food, and other tempting prizes that always move so many feet during conferences.

Two moments in particular jump out at me from the conference. The first happened on Thursday when Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the first wiki and the man who coined the term, stopped by our booth to find out about the project. Finding out that he likes what we’re doing and now has us on his mental list of wikis felt like winning a nerd merit badge. I actually yelled “Lexical validation!” after he walked away, which might qualify for some sort of nerd award all by itself.

The second moment actually happened regularly throughout the conference as people walked past our booth. It was the moment as they walked past, read our sign, and you could all but see the curiosity grow until it forced them to swing around and walk back to the booth to find out more. That felt amazing every time.

We’ve got a lot of work ahead if we’re going to keep that kind of interest building. Thankfully the rest of the summer pilot promises new lessons, new lesson types, a new interface, and a new method for creating and saving lessons. Those should all start turning up one by one over the rest of the summer weeks.

Before I head back to that I want to extend a warm welcome to all the new friends and potential collaborators we talked to last week. Also, a great thank you to O’Rielly for the non-profit booth, to Jamela for helping out, and again to Kenny for the monitor loan that let us demo the site to so many people.

Crossposted with the Wikiotics Project blog.

OSCon and the Unconference

Jim and I are in Portland, Oregon right now, in the midst of two great events, OSCon 2011, which begins on Tuesday, and the Community Leadership Summit, which just wrapped up this evening. This brief space between the two seemed like a good point for an update.

New blog

First of all, welcome to the new blog! After the drumbeat project’s spring re-design removed blog functionality from all the project pages, we’ve been a bit too isolated, and too busy to build new communication infrastructure. That all changed at the Community Leadership Summit where I found enough time during coffee and lunch breaks to migrate all the old content onto this, more permanent blog.

Community Leadership Summit

The stolen moments I took for blog work were surprisingly in keeping with the general theme of the Leadership Summit, which is an unconference specifically focused on the issues of community building and management in the Free Software context, where blogs are a commonplace tool.

We met a lot of great people and will hopefully see many of the over the coming week at OSCon.


Since we were lucky enough to get one of the non-profit/community booths at OSCon this year, what we manage to see of the event is going to depend a lot on who comes by our little corner of the exhibit hall. We will be over in booth 224, if that ends up meaning anything for navigation purposes during the actual conference. More importantly, we’re right near the restrooms and across from the Wii lounge so we expect both foot and virtual tennis ball traffic to be high. If you’re at the conference, we’d love to meet you.

New interface

Anyone who does stop by the booth will get a sneak peek at the new interface design Jim has been working on for the past few months. The existing design was built with the picture choice lesson type in mind and does little to make use of the flexible backend that really makes Wikiotics a different kind of wiki project. Jim and I are both very excited about the new interface and would love to show you some of the new potentials, either at the booth, or in August when we push the final changes to the site.

You flattrd’d my paypal!

Finally, we’ve opened up a couple of new convenient donation options: payal and flattr. While you are no doubt all familiar with paypal, many of you may have not seen flattr before, which is a social payment system that has been growing in popularity within the free software and free culture communities. As always, contributions are warmly appreciated, whether those are financial or otherwise

Crossposted with the Wikiotics Project blog.

Lessons just for you

Last week we explored how to use collaboration inside the Wikiotics community to build better lessons for each other and we saw how this can produce great results for material like weather vocabulary. But what about the parts of language that are more complicated? What about concepts like “beautiful”, “fun”, “boring”, and “interesting”? We each have different ideas about what these concepts look like and we are unlikely to be able to come to a consensus opinion.

Different worldviews welcome

This week we are shifting the focus from consensus to individuality and asking everyone to build personal lessons based on some shared vocabulary. We want to see your take on some common concepts, your viewpoint. Don’t worry about making lessons for someone else, build a lesson as practice material for your self and at the end of the week we will take a look at the different versions people have built for themselves and see how useful moving away from consensus can be.

How To Participate:
1) Log in.
2) Go to the lesson: and click on "Copy" at the top.
3) Enter "user:YourUserName/Adjectives" into the copy box and hit enter
4) Click on "Edit" at the top and change the images using the "find new image" link next to each page. That will let you search on flickr for a better picture. If you are getting too many results, try clicking the "Restrict to project's Flickr group" box when you are searching.
5) Save your new lesson and add a link on the Adjectives talk page.

As always, thanks for being part of the community!

A note on user pages

If you want to know more about User Pages and how to use them, our User Page Instructions has what you are looking for.

Crosposted with the Wikiotics Foundation blog.