Tag Archives: Drupal

Products are Ephemeral, Movements are Eternal

Much has changed in the landscape and culture surrounding the ELMS platform since I first began calling things by that name 7 years ago. There have been changes in leadership, IDEs, hosting, Drupal versions, but most importantly; culture. I knew after my first year or two of development that I couldn’t just create a packaged system for people to use. Anyone can do that, people do that every day as I sit here writing.

No, I had to create something more—something lasting.—something about which I could write and tell my children someday. Anyone can write code, and many do. But code is only as successful as the community built to sustain that code. There are plenty of examples of this in which tribes culminate around a common technology goal and we get things such as Drupal, WordPress, Joomla, etc.

But, what if you started building a platform and didn’t have a support network? What if there was no community? What if people were all part of different tribes and you had to win them over to your side? What if you believed in your platform and ideals so much (too much), you’d put your research, platform, and life on hold to see that it was ultimately successful?

This is one such story. This is the previously unspoken story of the rise of the Drupal @ Penn State community.

Drupal Is a Tool, Among Many Tools

In 2007, Drupal was a dirty word. Drupal was not the blessed platform and, much like today, is not an officially supported platform. As someone who doesn’t believe in such a thing and who knew Drupal, this was odd to me. Why would we not cast a wide net and support a number of of tools? The reason was somewhere muddled in politics, in-fighting, and most importantly, a fundamental philosophical difference in community design. One that is at the heart of many of the political battles we see on a national stage, today: the notion of centralized authorities versus decentralized autonomy and, potential chaos.

So, how were we to go from Drupal being a bad word to it powering psu.edu and hundreds of other systems? If it wasn’t going to come through centralized support, it would have to come from grass roots.

Drupal Is Just a Learning Tech

When ELMS was being showcased in its Drupal 4.7 edition, it was only used to power one thing: a course collaborative space—as in a single course. Collaborative space—as in upload photos and leave comments. That was it. This tool was so powerful a notion at the time though, to build your own space for engagement, that it was a shock to the system. Few were doing this and even fewer were doing it in Drupal.

The desire to convert to the Drupal platform was almost immediate. From that one Drupal system, we built three more and ran tiny Drupal 5 instances on our own. This was neat, but certainly not a threat. It also didn’t scale. It required a full-time employee to manage and build and (constantly) fix four Drupal sites. What threat could four little Drupal sites be?

Five different colleges requested a demo of our four-course, Drupal-based environment. Four, unrelated colleges that were not talking, suddenly wanted to see this rogue college’s work; my work. Why are you using something different? How do you get support? You actually build your own tools?! Who supports that?! There was much dismay and gnashing of teeth—not because we were doing this—but because others didn’t have it!

I Want Shiny Toys

We started to get into the monopolization of our unit’s time simply demo-ing, discussing, and trying to get others up to speed with what they would need to do in order to run something similar. Suddenly, everyone wanted to jump into the deep end and take this previously unheard of risk and put their courses into a CMS. Not just any CMS, mind you; the wrong CMS. The shiny toys syndrome was in full effect and it was a great place to be in. It took up a lot of time… but it was cool. After some time, the “wow” and “scary” factors began to wear off, and we began to form a fledgling community of developers and site builders of drastically varying abilities. We’d meet once a month or so to talk about modules that we had found and how things were going.

It was about this time that Drupal 5 was nearing the end of its life cycle (which in Drupal terms means it was just getting really good) and Drupal 6 was about to be debuted. I was also getting bored. I had four courses. Cool. But I couldn’t really scale myself to meet my current demand . I quickly realized I didn’t want to just be the guy that built new sites in a week or so and talked about it. I wanted more out of life; I wanted automation.

I slapped a hacked D5 system together. We went from four to eight courses in a similar level of scale, but then we kind of hit a wall. I was constantly in maintenance mode fixing issues and meeting very specialized requests. At the same time, people were asking for our “architecture.” Providing this code to others, managing their deployments, and getting them up to speed sucked up a lot of valuable time. Sometimes, I “lost” over half of my week. It was a frustrating and unintended consequence of our success. But in that frustration, I started to notice something: The automation changed the nature and scale of those units that got their hands on it. No longer were IDs glorified HTML developers. No longer did they muck with CSS, JavaScript and HTML on a daily basis. They had a workable tool that allowed them to focus their real talents on thorough instructional design.

School Falls to the Wayside to Save School

It was around this time that I began to get so overwhelmed with all this work that I couldn’t do much with grad school. True, I had joined graduate school to help better prepare me for “the real world” but I felt that I was immersed in it at this point.  After engaging with it, I didn’t really like grad school; I hated the busy work, but I loved the theories and the concepts of technological design.

Something that really stuck with me was the idea of technological artifacts. That technology all throughout history has been intentionally (or unintentionally) designed to have political implications. This was a world-view changing notion for me. Not just that technology was this thing people did, but that it could be used for perceived good or to alter the behavioral patterns of others.

Oddly enough, it was around this time that wiki pages were being populated to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about Drupal. A lot of it had cropped up over the last two years as use of ELMS/Drupal for IDs spreading around. ELMS/Drupal was not something that could be controlled, and this wildfire threatened the stability of established technologies. If people worked and did business for themselves autonomously without blessing, authorities would cease to exist.

Achieving the goal of enabling others to be fully autonomous became my life.  I won’t say how much time I was working officially, but it’s a good thing that at that time my wife was working the night shift. Those days of work could easily stretch into nights with a small break for dinner in-between. School couldn’t even find a place in this new world in which I found myself trying to build. I became quite literally addicted to Drupal. There was just so much to learn and so many cool things really smart people were doing, and I wanted to learn it all. It was the educational experience I never got in college: the practical, hands-on, by-example type of training that just clicked for my mind.

I increasingly abandoned active participation in schoolwork and mostly just investigated theories of technology, started to become more civically engaged, and researched all things Drupal. It is in this intersection of theory, politics, and Drupal, that I began to develop a plan.

The Plague Campaign

I formulated a long document entitled “Plague campaign,” and all communications hinting at the fact that there was a larger plan to everything was tagged with plague from that point on.  There were a few ground rules to the Plague campaign, the first of which was that you didn’t talk about the plague campaign until such a time that the effects were irreversible. Sure, I could ramble to my wife and a few trusted friends about what I envisioned. The rules were simple:

  1. Don’t tell anyone.
  2. Don’t lose yourself in obsession over this
  3. Always remember this is to make this place a better place for everyone, not just you.
  4. Document events and turning points to learn from this later.

“Technology is just technology.” “You need to let it go.” “This isn’t worth making a fuss about just work.” This is what I was told, but this was no longer just a “tech is tech” argument. Drupal had grown leaps and bounds beyond all competition with the maturation of Drupal 6. It was now more of a “what you don’t know can hurt you” argument and, quite frankly, we were wasting time. There were important, world-changing problems we could be addressing if we weren’t so busy arguing about technology solutions and HTML.

The Plague campaign would have to be multi-tiered and untraceable. It had to essentially “just happen” organically.  Political movements of the day drove what I imbued in my technology implementation.. After all, all tech is political. Why not give my tech a political identity and mission with which to alter behavior? I found one, analyzed its methods—not its message—and went about my business.

Information Altruism is Discovered

Plague was the first step of a five-year plan (from my initial employment because that’s when Drupal really started). The goal of that five-year plan (of which I was into two years already) was to completely alter the technical landscape of the university to change the dirty word “Drupal” into the de facto standard. I knew that we were gaining momentum, but I needed a way to accelerate it.

I was still in grad school actively at this point and doing some light research. In analysis of some interviews, I noticed a few patterns. One, everyone who was using the system had talked or heard about the system through me.. Two, they were extremely appreciative of the time I had donated to them in order for them to get up to speed and stand on their own. I knew what had been the impetus of organizational change even in this minor way: altruism. The gift of time. The hours spent working beyond what was required or oftentimes outside the scope of my actual job. Time invested wasn’t just in my own work, it had the power to change more then just systems implemented. It remade the technology of units, increased their efficiency, which would then alter the employees they would hire and the skill sets required of those employees.

Technology had the ability to change the rules by which the people working on the web and online education played. The act of giving away time to achieve transformation would work with an exponential effect if I could give and have others pay it forward. At this time, I started to give my time forward. Not just to learning design shops anymore, but to anyone who had any contact with web systems in any way. By giving away my time, I could replicate what was happening in the ID space with the web-shops and lone-wolf developers around the university.

Simultaneously, if I could get everyone at the University on a unified platform, I would be building a community, and in doing so, have the community pay forward the skills acquired through my initial paying forward. I started to respond “Yes” to any and all work others at the university needed help with in achieving their CMS needs, going even further into time-debt.  I no longer cared about my time, it was more important to supplant Drupal everywhere I could.

And just like that, a community started to form. After I’d help get people on their feet, they’d have a local expert built up with knowledge of how to maintain that system.  Their paying forward often times would be telling someone down the hall about Drupal, or applying knowledge gained to the next Drupal project.  No longer was it one or two doing Drupal, it was a bubbling community.  And the community was getting so large, it needed a flag in the ground.

The Tipping Point: Drupal Camp 2011

Now that we had people who could be vocal, I wanted a Drupal camp. After all, there were events for other CMSs on campus—so why not us? I quickly found that no one was willing to put up the time or voice to support it. Without funding and backing by any authority, we had no camp. And with no camp, there would be no additional community growth.

At the time I was putting out feelers for people who might be interested in a Drupal camp (getting several positive responses), I learned a Learning Design summer camp was scheduled on campus. Learning Design summer camp and Drupal Camp have nothing in common; but, many learning designers developed content in Drupal thanks to ELMS. So, people could potentially see them as related. Someone asked me if I’d be willing to put together a session of some kind about Drupal for educational systems development and I got to thinking…

If it was really that informal—this learning design session—why not just have a Drupal camp during that time? I mean, if I announced something, found a room and people would listen, who would stop me from talking?? I quickly threw together a wiki page for the Drupal talk but it was no longer just a session: it was for an entire day of Drupal talks; a Drupal Camp I thought I had a lot of slots available when I put down 40 total and was excited to see if anything came of it.

On the first day, we had 40 registrants from just posting the page and sharing with a few list serves. By the end of the month, we had 100. On the day of Drupal camp, six weeks later; we had 130+ people registered and eager to attend PSU Drupal camp. People who registered reached out and asked if I needed help with presentations. Little did anyone know that we accepted everyone who asked, because the “we” was really me and a coworker who helped reserve the location for the event, which was originally only one room, so it was easy!

On the day of the camp, one of the key slides in my opening talk was about the “Pay it Forward” culture. I said this is a key principle in the Drupal community, and we, as participants, needed to mirror the Drupal community as a whole. Even as I spoke, I knew we didn’t really have a community. People were at the camp to listen to people ramble about web technologies, not discuss community and engagement. I knew I lost many, but the key is that I wasn’t trying to recruit many. I was just trying to recruit one “true believer”. One champion who would join me and be as vocal as I was to kick things up to another level. All it would take was just one to be successful…

Unfortunately (for others), we didn’t get one…we got about eight very vocal members and another eight modestly vocal ones. From there, we went forth and started the Penn State Drupal Users Group (PSU DUG) which began to meet on a monthly basis to discuss all things Drupal.

Our users group has grown to as many as 24 people who attend monthly meetings on a regular basis. And the three Drupal camps that we’ve put on (no longer I—but WE) have hit 100+ attendees every year. Next year, we are even talking about having a for-pay, sponsored event where people are brought in to give presentations and people external to PSU could attend…something unheard of just three years ago.

This Is Just the Beginning

And so, any of you out there reading long enough to find this line—I hope you take away this:

As Steve Jobs said..

“When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

Go out there dreamers. Get passionate, get excited, and go change the world. I’ve put out multiple calls to action to get developers off the bench and into the game for not just ELMS but Drupal development at large.  Developments that, when seemingly are for other purposes, always come back around to benefit the ELMS platform.

‘Cause all it takes is one of you to build an army of developers and site builders looking to change things.  Never sit down, never accept the status quo, pay everything you can forward in time, energy and love.  Build these things and give them away for the world to experience and grow from.

Imagine what will happen when more communities come online thanks to this story.  Imagine what we’ll all build together!

ELMS Learning Network: Design Philosophy / Theory

Far more important then the technology you select for anything is the design.  Quality, well thought out and executed design is difficult to accomplish and requires many iterations over ideas.  You need to allow certain concepts to fail and others to flourish and be willing to switch to better ways of thinking mid development at times (and refactor and refactor again..).  This is true of any technology you select and as such, philosophy of design and theory are paramount in the development of the ELMS learning network.

Design Philosophy

In a world of constant chaos of technological design where any 12 year old prodigy can disrupt your entire business model, it’s critical to stick to a method of tool development that can stand the constant winds of disruption.  I won’t go into great detail as to why I chose Drupal over an actual educational platform but the primary reason is flexibility.

A community so vast will breed superior solutions to those found purely within edtech. Have you used or seen any of the popular MOOC authoring experiences? Drupal from 4 years ago slaughters it let alone today or tomorrow’s Drupal!  It is for this reason that the solutions to save edtech don’t lie in the vendors traditionally pushing you edtech.

It is with this philosophy that we’ve won multiple awards for “Innovation” and plan to do so with a development team of 1.  This is possible because the reuse of the work of others leads to a development team of thousands.  While the implementation is only one; the available code-base is produced and refined by thousands upon thousands of developers’ eyes daily.

In the Learning Network though there is one primary implementation philosophy that powers everything: RESTful APIs which in the current Drupal 7 portion of the CIS is powered by the RESTful Web Services Module (restws).

Network Topology

Stepping back from Drupal to network implementations in general, we need to find a structure that best mirrors a need for structured yet loosely connected environments.  For this reason, I’ve decided to base the ELMS LN on a combination of Star and Fully Connected Topology.  The deployment methodology of the Course Information System being the center of the ELMS universe, drives the creation of course networks.

Star Topology

CIS Star Topology

CIS Star Topology

This topology enables the CIS to have a say in coordinating the connections between all other systems in the network.  While all of these services pictured could live on their own, it’s obviously more helpful that they have a consistent connection back to the CIS when needed.

This is just for the initial setup of the network.  Data systems can then be wired into the CIS so that information is populated automatically and propagated back down to the rest of the services that it is aware of.  This is critical towards making the learning network effectively self aware; this base architectural decision.  Without understanding that this is the base layer, the rest will appear as chaos (and very quickly).

Fully Connected (through the sub-net)

Fully Connected

Fully Connected, distributed systems to power the course

 

This is what the CIS starts to allow to be generated: chaos downstream.  The instances are formulated based on data thats shipped to the CIS / Middleware (other LMS APIs and what not). These instances could connect to all other instances but the only way this would make sense is when the instances are related.
For this, we use a consistent pattern match against the services used in a course network loop.  This can be engineered in a consistent manner as follows: {service}.{college}/{course}.  
Example course sub-net for Math 100:
  • online.college.com/math100 — markets the course and helps organize internal logic for staff roles and web service agent accounts
  • courses.college.com/math100 — the primary outline of the course that helps form a logical instructional flow for students
  • studio.college.com/math100 — the place assignments are submitted
  • analytics.college.com/math100 — an invisible RESTful engine that aggregates data silently for instructors and staff to gain insight into the analytics of the course
This allows all services in the network to easily sniff out other services in the network and broadcast RESTful API communications back and forth.  The CIS can be utilized to understand the topology of a CIS Sub-net as some sub-nets may be made up of a different set of course tools then another.  Maybe the only thing required for a course is the outline tool, why clog up the feature set with tools that are unneeded?

Time frame

ELMS LN is being designed and implemented with a goal of powering the next 10 years of innovative, free, open systems I seek to develop.  To do this, I’ve created several tools over the years to help bring me to this point.  The most important currently is known as Ulmus.  It is a distribution that was specifically created to allow for the rapid creation of new tools to plug into ELMS learning network.  Think of it as the framework of a tool with all the modules, connections and features required at a base-layer to enable a smooth transition into a course sub-net as a new tool.

Web Services also help open the door for bringing non-drupal tools into scope of a traditionally all drupal network.  RESTful APIs can be implemented by any system in any language, as well as the use of LTI to help bridge communications.

At the time of this writing, I am running the CIS (online) and MOOC (courses) distributions in production with several courses.  If I had to rate them in terms of completion, I’d say both are at about 95% stabilization and well on their way to being finalized systems with only minor UI, UX, and bug fixes to go.  CIS’s theme is still in active development as well as a professionally produced ELMS Learning Network Design Guide with detailed visual descriptions of the ELMS “brand”.  Documentation needs a lot of love, but that’s what things like this blog hope to help bridge!

The ELMS: CLE (studio) distribution is available as a proof of concept and will receive full development focus over the next 4 months. Some additional distributions being developed in tandem with hopes of being released over the course of the next year include a centralized helpdesk, a centralized accessibility and copyright auditing system, a semi-centralized error reporting system, a learning analytics repository (lar) and an interactive course object repository (icor).

The post LMS era: Suite of Tools learning networks

*This post is essentially a compilation of work I’ve been spreading out amongst many different mediums, both here on this blog and elsewhere around the inter-webs.  This also isn’t the most logically connected argument, I just needed a break from code.

The first step to changing the ocean is to stop looking to it and instead step in.  Properties of basic physics and hydrodynamics kick in and you are in effect changing the environment that you previous only observed.  Instead of talking about the LMS, the MOOC market, or anything else that I often see learning designers discuss.  Let’s skip ahead a bit. 

Let’s talk about the post LMS society that we wish to create.  The how, where and why.

How do we get to a post LMS era?  I’ve talked about what I felt would cause the eventual end of the traditional LMS before.  Talk is cheap, so diagrams about how to accomplish this would be the next best thing, right?

This video then goes on to show these diagrams produced as a fully functional prototype, with video introduction to the work.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DY7U0cDVtlY&feature=share&list=PLJQupiji7J5f2S0jy05aFjMwGYGEpB4GF

And this talk, which is a rebroadcast of my DrupalcampNJ presentation “Using Drupal to Transform Education” http://vimeo.com/60084560 consolidates the entire thing into one presentation.

The structure and nature of education system deployments is wrong

This is probably one of the more controversial statements that I stand by but typically don’t say.  It shows my generally libertarian, small central authority mentality, for one, and for two: no one is doing anything but it.  Come to us, we are the hub, we can provide everything you need in one place says every vendor out there, and the new MOOC platforms are simply replicating this model in a different location and calling it open.

The structure needs to start at a central point but that center ring needs to be as small as sustainably possible.  It needs to help knit things together and keep the “LMS” data that is currently stored in large buckets, spread out and accessible to new buckets (through a process of LTI resigning).

Opening up new off ramps

This is where I’m hoping LTI will be the Trojan horse it appears to be, as someone noted at my talk in NJ (which I wish we had the audio of).

So, you are advocating that people use these tools that you ship them off to and increasingly, they’ll use the LMS less and less.  Eventually.. you’ll do so much outside the LMS that you won’t need an LMS anymore.

Eureka, we have a winner.  If we build enough off-ramps out of the system that while meeting some people’s needs, doesn’t meet everyone’s, we will eventually connect to other areas that people want to hang out.  This pattern is quite similar to the western growth and expansion of America in the early 1800′s.

People slowly were moving away from the major cities to parts unknown after the revolution.  What changed that caused population migration to explode? Mike Rowe will have you believe it was booze, but I’d contend it was gold and rail-roads.

Well gang, LTI is the railroad, and glittering prizes await those that create proper off-ramps for different tool sets that people are dying to get access to.

But, but, but privacy

Absolutely an issue.  What happens when we start letting people go anywhere and everywhere?  The same exact thing that happens now, we just introduce calculated risk instead of unknown risk.

Huh?

Innovation is happening with faculty every day, every where.  This often times I’d guess is at the expense of telling others about it.  The number of threads you can find on the Internet about cool new tools and different edtech applications is staggering.  If we don’t provide a solution to new cool shiny object xyz, people will find a way around the systems in place to get students into the new bucket they’d like to use.

As set in motion in the last 6 months

 

 

Systems

So I’m doing my part to provide options, how bout you?  These 4 tools are all being developed simultaneously (which completely wrecks me mentally some days, hence this brain dump of a post) but it doesn’t mean that all tools in a network NEED to be Drupal.  It’s just to say that it’s the only system that a single developer could even attempt something this insane through automation.

Drush command

Actual drush command to build 183 drupal sites with a single command. Setting up a massively extended, LTI aware series of new buckets to be accessed after creation. This was a test run at the time of publishing.

Course information system (ELMS:CIS) – Center point and middle-ware communications hub that bridges old world to the new one.

Content tool (ELMS: MOOC) – The instructional design centric course outlining tool.  This is the content outline that all instructional flow and material is attached to.

Social critique tool (ELMS:CLE) – A completely free-form social submission space.  Students openly submit and critique as well as receive instructor feedback in this space.  This posting spends time detailing how and why to build this system.

Interactive Course Object Repository (ELMS: ICOR) – A dumping ground of unique and interactive instructionally significant pieces of material.  This could be polls, quizzes, time lines, slide-shows, content players, media, or really anything that might fall outside the norm that can be embedded as a widget in material via an iframe.

Systems waiting in the wings

Asset management system – (we already have this, but re-envisioned for today) and plugged into the LTI network.  This would ideally be integrated with Red5 and FFMPEG for free media encoding and streaming (yes free) of video with secure delivery via RTMP.

Copyright management spider – content production != copyright management on the fly.  Often times these is a significant legal process that needs to happen in parallel to course development.  Also, imagine a world where people are using resources and you have no idea what they are (like oh I don’t know… always).  The copyright management spider is essentially a spider that crawls and ingests all courses in the learning network and digests them.  Once digested, people go through and fill out all required legal information for the media, or help improve upon the earlier justifications for usage.

Analytics engine – Something that sits off by itself and that all other tools can write to.  I believe that a spec like TinCan seeks to achieve this but not sure.  For the time being I’m writing logical chunks where I could tap in and send off relevant analytic data for processing by another system but haven’t done any work here yet.

Interactive Rubric tool – We’ve built and used one through about 3 iterations of the tool, this would actually use LTI (and other Drupal system capabilities if in Drupal).  It would also be optimized for mobile and responsive design.

 

These are just the tools that I’m working on now or am envisioning for the future.  Fortunately, there has been a lot of positive buzz around LTI and Drupal so I guess we’ll see.  Ahh, mind is much clearer now that I’ve dumped all these ideas on to this adorable blogging platform.

Drupal is a social movement

I’ve stopped talking about Drupal as the dominant platform recently.  Now it’s not because I don’t feel that it is — even though I’m blogging from WordPress right now I feel that Drupal is the best platform.  But the thing that shines brightest in the Drupal community is just that… the community.

Sure, the hook and alter system are fantastic.  Sure it’s extendable and ultra flexible.  If you really know what you’re doing you can bend Drupal to your will without breaking a darn thing. But none of that would be important without the people who get up and drive the Drupal bus every day.

The people in the above photos are just a few of the thousands who have stood for DrupalCon and Drupal Camp photos over the last many years.  Every event I’ve gone to someone inevitably tries to get a group photo.  Partly I think because they can’t believe the sheer volume of people there, interested in learning about a web development platform.  Now it’s time to spread this community to the education world.

I started a discussion thread on groups.drupal.org recently that seems to have caught some fire and I hope continues to burn (see article Forming a Drupal in Higher Education Consortium).  Drupal already has a major foothold in many universities and colleges but I don’t know that people really understand the scale to which this has taken place.  A recently study by w3techs.com found that:

“Drupal is used by 27.7% of all the websites whose content management system we know and that use .edu as top level domain.” http://w3techs.com/technologies/segmentation/tld-edu-/content_management

So how to best keep this momentum going?  I’ll be putting together a document soon and sharing it with the community about how I think we should be positioning Drupal in higher education. Here are a few of the main points so far:

  • We have seen nation wide budget cuts and need to continue to innovate in the face of tight budgets, increasingly doing more with less
  • Standardizing on Drupal and we can unite staff roles and technology stacks on the web under a common platform.  No other web platform could power websites, intranets, learning management systems, content management systems, knowledge bases, blogs, asset management systems.  Train your staff once, deploy against multiple web projects.
  • Hang out in common IRC channels, unite social media presences under consistent hash tags, as well as form a website that can aggregate to all drupal.{myschool}.edu sites participating in the consortium.
  • Create a list of best practices such as reasons to use certain modules and distributions as well as those recommended for use in education
  • Pay knowledge forward, ultimately we’re all trying to serve the interests of faculty and students so let’s help advance things forward together

I’ll have a more complete document for my vision for what a Drupal in Higher Education Consortium would look like but these are my key thoughts at the moment.  You’ll notice most of them are structured around the people impacted by the world of today as opposed to “views is awesome and drupal is king”.

Drupal is much more then just technology much in the same way that I am much more then just a programmer.

To me, Drupal is an idea that aligns heavily with the fundamental mission of education — empowerment.

Some additional thoughts on this topic

Open Source Learning Environments, they’re about STUDENTS DUMMY!

I was recently reading a literature review about open source in higher education.  If you can get your hands on a copy of the document I highly recommend it.  To summarize, Williams van Rooij identifies five reasons that all literature cite as to why open source in higher education is awesome-sauce:

  • Social and Philosophical believes (Education is thought it should be free so code / systems should be too)
  • Software Development Methodology Benefits (design in the open, collaboration)
  • Security and Risk management benefits (many eyes on code, collaboration again)
  • Software adoption life cycle benefits (less chance of lock in, constantly updated / improved by others, collaboration…again…)
  • Total cost of ownership benefits (reduction in cost because of distributed programmer base and their…collaboration)

Does anyone else notice a problem here though (other then Williams van Rooij)?  Other then collaborative and strategic mission blah blah, blah, WHAT DOES CODE COLLABORATION HAVE TO DO WITH STUDENT LEARNING?!?  Nothing.  She identifies that all these papers talk about how great open source is but they all attack the problem from the same angle — money, collaboration, lock in, risk assessment… essentially a whole lot of awesome manager bullet points on a PowerPoint slide.

  • We participate in Open Source
  • Our Students Use Twitter
  • Our Teachers Use Facebook
  • Our IT staff saved X dollars last year
  • We were able to do more with less resources
  • Insert bottom line and philosophy crap here

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Those are some great reasons to adopt open source software (OSS).  Open source technologies are all about community development and a culture that fosters open development; often times breeding more successful solutions.  My issue is exactly what the author find to be lacking in the research: pedagogical Reasons for educators to adopt OSS.  How does OSS improve the instructional transaction between instructor and learner?  How does it solve issues related to open education? How does it solve the growing divide we see between haves and have-nots when it comes to education?  Can it solve these issues? Can it even begin to address these problems or is it purely something great for tech circles to engage in and IT philosophers to write papers about?

The backing is coming in time. Admittedly what I’ll be posting is mostly collaboration commentary but phrased how we all need to be shaping the conversation — collaborative efforts directly impacting learning experiences.  Here’s some of the ways that  the whole educational process can benefit from a distributed learning environment.  OSS in house as well as free / open services available on the web.  I group all of these  under an umbrella term I am deeming an Open Source Learning Environments (OSLE):

  • Open software leads to open standards – If your unfamiliar with open education, SCORM, and OER, I suggest looking into them further.  These are all concepts born out of the open source movement in education.  They directly impact the student / teacher relationship because it reduces the number of times resources have to be re-created.  Someone, somewhere has written a lesson or whole course on everything from String theory to what is Chord progression.  It’s out there, search for it and let the open standards move that content between systems.  Or better yet, if it’s truely open just point your students to it for a lesson or two.  Seeds of my previous article are being planted all over the place…
  • OSLE embrace social media formats — Enter Vimeo, YouTube, Flickr, Picasa, Blip.tv,… need I go on?  Sure, these technologies are often times distracting, but OSS breeds transmission standards and formats that allow things like Vimeo and YouTube to display their videos within your course just by knowing the url (ala Embedded media fields in Drupal).  There’s a wealth of [legal] educational material on YouTube that provide a great way to have students react to documentaries and other articles.  For example, the white-house posts all most all media there in some form for a civics discussion or students can watch parts of Discovery and PBS programming for science concepts.
  • Improved teacher to student communication — We’ve reached a point where e-mail is impersonal and students don’t want us bugging them on their FaceBook, mySpace, and twitter social spaces.  But there are still great opportunities to leverage the power of social technologies to benefit student – teacher interactions.  We added online rubrics (open Drupal project) to several online classroom settings and now students get richer, more detailed feedback then ever before possible online.  New modules are created everyday for Moodle, Drupal, WordPress and the rest that hook better and better social services together.  Imagine an internal Gigya service for education and the potentials of optional, cross-posted participation.  Or, [and I just started looking into this] a diigo environment specific to a course environment in Sticky Notes (Drupal).
  • Improved student learning through collaboration — remember when collaboration was just setting up a wiki, giving people accounts and telling them to edit stuff?  Remember how painful that was to get setup, painful to manage, painful to teach people how to use the technology.  All those barriers are melting away.  Sites are 1 click creation, accounts are pervasive (openID, LDAP, co-sign), and the wall between the student and the teacher known as technology has turned into an open plain.  Students can set up their own OSLE on blogger or WordPress to create a semi-professional learning resource of their own.
  • Instant Online Portfolios — “I have all this great work I did in class” no longer has to be a problem.  Ideas aren’t trapped in endless Word files, presentation scripts, Drop Boxes (*dig) and Power Point slides.  Projects are collaborated on in Google docs, they’re discussed in Blogger, they’re viewable on YouTube.  Students can leave higher education with a toolbox showing everything they’ve been able to accomplish while in school.  Are you enabling their work to be portable through Views and pointing them to post to social services? Or are they still dumping their knowledge to a drop box?  The knowledge economy of the future will demand they be able to sell themselves and their ideas before they graduate.
  • Production Creativity — Do you remember early 2000 how long it took to produce a high quality learning resource?  Never mind the mindlessness of uploading HTML in DreamWeaver or Homesite (old school); how about creating a high quality video?  The cost of creation is so much lower (which is what social media is all about) but think of how much higher quality resources we can create as education providers now then before?  And for that matter, how many MORE educational opportunities we can create.
  • Distributed Learning Environments — How often do you see  “experience using FILL IN SPECIFIC TECHNOLOGY” on a job application and it not be something generic like Word or Word processors? For the longest time I heard from people “we need to unify the student experience” and I have ALWAYS disagreed.  Students are tweeting, IMing, texting, watching a movie, taking your course, and thinking about what they’ll do in an hour when they’re done reading…all at once.  They are distracted and constantly moving between frames of reference and environments.  Your branding changing a little bit when linking off to another system isn’t going to kill them; if anything it’s only going to help them be more marketable.  Diversify the learning environments and engage students in a variety of systems so they learn to utilize a wider skill set.  The more experience they have using a multitude of systems the better off they’ll be, their work environments are only going to be changing at an ever increasing pace.
  • Learning Experience Design — This is a philosophy that’s becoming more apparent at my place of employment — Learning Experience Design.  We don’t just want students to come to our bland –insert default theme here– course / learning environment.  We want students to get sucked into the material.  The more engrossing and engaging the EXPERIENCE, the more likely you are to get them to close twitter, their phone, turn off TV and focus on your content.  Embed YouTube and they’ll be in your material watching YouTube, not on YouTube watching LOL-Cats videos in between your lectures thanks to “related videos”.  Leverage open tools so you can leverage the magic that is good theme design.  Remember, like it or not we’re not just selling knowledge, we’re selling a commodity.

I’d love for someone to write articles proving some of the claims above so that they are more then just ‘best practices’ but that’s part of the point of writing this.  To get you to ask yourself, are you leveraging any of these approaches above or just a few?  Are you fully embracing the potential of an OSLE or are you just playing here and there to make your management happy?

Are you working towards another bullet point, or towards actually changing the lives of your students?

  • Your move

Global success, Global failure of the CMS/LMS needs to stop

We need to rethink the way we go about implementing and building large-scale university systems.  I started answering a post recently on Drupal.org about a Moodle / Drupal merger.  The commenter was saying that Moodle could be plugged into Drupal somewhere down the road as a module because of how much better Drupal is at…well.. everything (outside of LMS).  As I started to respond, it occurred to me that this fits in well with a system design I’m working on.  Let’s lay out an example of how you’re screwed now…

  • You bought into a CMS / LMS (one package)
  • People said “OMG this does everything possible but nothing well”
  • This CMS / LMS is bought out, losses popularity, is no longer maintained, is too expensive to hire independent people / your own people to keep afloat
  • You need to move to something new and soonish because everyone’s clamoring for it and you’re just waiting for the day something breaks that no one knows how to fix

So right now, your stuck in one system and want to start looking at another.  You can look at Moodle and hope that your SCORM packages will transfer correctly.  You can look at Sakai or any number of other projects and say the same thing.  OR, you can do what I’m doing currently and start looking at NO, ONE, SOLUTION.  I know you’re saying “but Bryan, didn’t you mean just the Drupal solution”, no. Drupal is not the answer. Plone, WordPress, Moveable Type, Joomla, PHPNuke, Moodle, NOTEPAD is not the answer.

We need to start looking at systems development based on a services and scalability perspective.  No one system is going to solve that problem.  We need to start looking at what systems do well and then play to those strengths in the creation of a service.  Right now I’m planning out the new version of ELMS (version 3) and it doesn’t involve just 1 Drupal site / system.  In fact, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t even just involve Drupal.  It involves a star / ring based network of systems approach to network design.

Here’s a sample setup

  • A lightweight, data transmission and organization system at the center.  This is either Moodle or Drupal (or anything open source that meets data / record keeping needs).  It also polls the rest of the systems to pull together a view of all data relevant to users in a portal type of display
  • It then dictates to all the other systems in the network what users can access what, who’s in what course, what courses are running.  All that fun stuff.
  • Other systems in this setup include:
    • A CMS. Something that presents course content and presents it very well.
    • A social media management system (SMMS).  I’ll be making another post shortly hashing this lightbulb out a bit more but think a SMMS that’s specific / internal to your learning ecosystem is the future.
    • Syllabus / course objectives communication system.  This is more of a traditional LMS with JUST the course framework and pacing components involved.
    • A Communications system.  Forums, FAQs, Email, all that traditional communications management stuff
    • Blogging platform — A space onto itself that’s a living community where students / staff can blog about whatever (or make course specific ones).  Free flowing, loosely knit together via track backs and comment streams
    • Wikispace for collaboration — kinda dur what to use here…

So, what I’ve proposed above is more of a communication between and across systems.  Things like single sign on systems and simple modules within each project could allow users to flow seamlessly between them.  RSS and XMLRPC calls could allow session / user display data to flow seamlessly across each.  The most important thing though is that any system can be any CMS/LMS choice.  Example of that….

  • Core LMS / data system is Moodle
  • CMS is Drupal
  • SMMS is Drupal
  • Syllabus system is WordPress
  • Communications system is Plone
  • Blogging platform is moveable type
  • Wiki collaboration via Wikispace

All systems can now scale independently of one another both people, database and server wise.  We all have people around EVERY major university that have people with these skills right?  And one big barrier to switching to 1 standard is that ” we have Plone/Drupal/Moodle/WordPress/Joomla/Wikispaces programmers that will all be re-trained on Plone/Drupal/Moodle/WordPress/Joomla/Wikispaces”.  So avoid the barrier, play to your staffing’s strengths.

Will some need to be retrained? Definitely.  But there’s no longer a global success, global failure involved. We don’t have to worry about “what happens if we all go Drupal and the project fizzles?” and the same can be said for any other system.  I have my own personal preferences to different systems and coding practices (obviously) but a lightweight communications system could be cobbled together between each system to allow information to pass freely.

Everyone keeps their skill set, everyone keeps their system of choice, everyone wins! Thoughts? Comment here or on twitter @btopro