The Indie Web
Part 8 in my Top 10 Trends of 2014 series
This is an aspirational post. After some 35,000 words in a series that has been pretty critical about the state of education technology in 2014, I want to write about something that gives me hope. I believe we can do better.
I mean, what does an alternative to ed-tech as data-extraction, control, surveillance, privatization, and profiteering look like? What does resistance to the buzzwords and the bullshit look like?
I don’t have an answer. (There isn’t an answer.) But I think we can see a glimmer of possibility in the Indie Web Movement. It’s enough of a glimmer that I’m calling it a trend. It’s my year-end series; I’ll do what I want.
The Indie Web
The Indie Web Movement has emerged out of growing concern that what was once so special and so powerful about the Internet and the Web – in part, that we could build our own personal, digital spaces and from there build online communities – is at risk of being lost. As ASU journalism professor Dan Gillmor wrote earlier this year, “We’re in danger of losing what’s made the Internet the most important medium in history: a decentralized platform where the people at the edges of the networks — that would be you and me — don’t need permission to communicate, create, and innovate.”
The Open Web has increasingly become the Corporate Web, with powerful monopolies controlling key features like “search” and “social,” not to mention the underlying infrastructure that’s always been theirs – telecommunications, the “series of tubes” themselves. We have poured our lives into Internet technologies – our status updates, our photos, our messages, our locations, our fitness regimes, our movie preferences, and more. We have poured our lives into data silos, where our personal information is now mined, the value extracted from it by companies for companies.
The Indie Web Movement wants just that. It encourages people to become creators not simply consumers of Web technologies and in the process to think more carefully about what happens to their digital creations and to their digital public spaces – what happens to our content, what happens to our data. The movement’s principles read:
Your content is yours. When you post something on the web, it should belong to you, not a corporation. Too many companies have gone out of business and lost all of their users’ data. By joining the IndieWeb, your content stays yours and in your control.
You are better connected. Your articles and status messages can go to all services, not just one, allowing you to engage with everyone. Even replies and likes on other services can come back to your site so they’re all in one place.
You are in control. You can post anything you want, in any format you want, with no one monitoring you. In addition, you share simple readable links such as example.com/ideas. These links are permanent and will always work.
The Indie Web posits itself as an alternative to the corporate Web, but it could provide a powerful alternative to much of ed-tech as well, which as this series has hopefully highlighted, is quite committed to controlling and monetizing students’ and teachers' connections and content and data.
The Indie Web isn’t the only point of resistance, of course. It is kin to “edupunk” (RIP) perhaps. And the differences between the Indie Web and the corporate Web are mirrored in the differences between cMOOCs and xMOOCs. Ed-tech should recognize this fight. If it doesn't, it's because some of its history has been erased and ignored.
Beyond the Ed-Tech Silo (Beyond the LMS)
But the market for the learning management system is “red hot,” Forbes tell us. And maybe it is. Desire2Learn raised $85 million this year. Schoology raised $15 million. Edmodo raised $30 million. Blackboard made a bunch of acquisitions this year. And schools are still paying the price.
A “red hot market” for an administrative ed-tech tool doesn’t necessarily translate into a “red hot” attention to teaching and learning. And it certainly doesn’t translate into support for the principles for which the Indie Web stands: in an LMS, students are not in control of their content, their data, their connections. As I argued in a talk I gave at Newcastle University in September, in an LMS
the course is behind a wall. Everything is meant to take place therein. At the end of the course, the student loses access to the course, and to any of the content or data they’ve created. Indeed, the latter is often signed away as part of the Terms of Service. There is one instructor. Maybe two. Maybe some course assistants. They grade. They monitor the forums. The instructors are the center. The content is the center.
The learner is not the center.
The Web, of course, does not work this way.
Rather than continuing to yell about the state of MOOCs and LMSs, perhaps it’s more useful to turn to Jon Udell’s ideas first expressed seven years ago. In his talk “The Disruptive Nature of Technology,” Udell laid out a vision in which K–12, colleges/universities, and open-source programmers are encouraged to help learners create “coherent personal digital archives” that seamlessly integrate with a wide range of institutional systems. Udell argued that these archives should encompass more than just a student’s schoolwork; they should also include personal photos, videos, transcripts, X-rays, dental records, police records, and a million other digital life-bits. The archives should then grow into much larger, abstracted digital spaces in which people manage and maintain all their records and also decide how to push out their records appropriately to various destinations.
Although we’re currently nowhere near this idea, how can businesses, educational institutions, and governments alike not consider the importance of giving individuals control over their digital archives? Or their learning analytics data? Open formats such as XML and RSS have opened the door, but they’re just a first step to a solution that will require our insistence on and commitment to imagining coherent, aggregated hubs of content and functionality that we each can own and manage.
Or as some in the Indie Web put it: “publish on your own site, syndicate everywhere.” POSSE.
Reclaim Your Domain
But first, you gotta own your own site.
I repeat this often: one of the most important initiatives in education technology is the University of Mary Washington’s Domain of One’s Own. The Domain of One’s Own gives students and faculty their own Web domain – not simply a bit of Web space at the university’s dot-edu, but their own domain. UMW facilitates the purchase of the domain; it helps with installation of WordPress (and other open source software); it offers support – technical and instructional; it hosts the site until graduation. And then, contrary to what happens with the LMS, the domain and its content is the student’s to take.
You can frame it as an e-portfolio, sure. Or you can frame it as an opportunity for students to “learn to code” and as such to boost their employability. Or you can frame Domain of One’s Own as a foundation for an ed-tech Indie Web Movement, and something that’s spread to multiple campuses this year – Davidson College, Emory University, the University of Oklahoma, and CSU Channel Islands are all now piloting “Domain”-like initiatives.
An ed-tech Indie Web Movement has other important working parts too (and these reached their own important milestones in 2014): Reclaim Hosting – a spin-off of Domain of One’s Own in a way – which makes it easy for teachers and students to have their own websites, launched a “Domain of One’s Own” package for institutions or organizations. The DS106 community and DS106 Radio (which turned 3 this year). P2PU, which continues to build open source tools for indie online learning efforts. LibraryBox, “an open source, portable digital file distribution tool based on inexpensive hardware that enables delivery of educational, healthcare, and other vital information to individuals off the grid (version 2.0 was released in February). The Learning Locker, an “open source learning record store.” Howard Rheingold’s Peeragogy Handbook (version 2 hit the streets on New Year’s Eve). The OLDaily, which remains the only ed-tech newsletter you need. Connected Courses – “a collaborative network of faculty in higher education developing online, open courses that embody the principles of connected learning and the values of the open web” – which ran a “course” in the fall of 2014 and plans to continue into the new year. Known, which launched in public beta this fall with a tool to help people “reclaim” their social media data and is working on services expressly for teachers and students.
Bonus: there were two “Reclaim” “hackathons” this year (disclosure: I was at both), where a small group of folks talked through and built out bits and pieces of an alt-ed-tech infrastructure. (We even had dinner one night in the former Black Flag “church,” which is now a fancy, hip restaurant. A good reminder about what can easily happen to punk and to indie. Let's all keep an eye what happens next to Minecraft since Microsoft bought it this year.)
Ed-Tech and the Templated Self
Too often, education technology views students as objects, not as subjects of the educational process. (Of course, schools have a much longer history of doing precisely that.) As Seymour Papert observed in Mindstorms, “One might say the computer is being used to program the child.”
The “programming of the child” that Papert identified in 1980 is now hard-coded into so much of ed-tech and of tech writ large, particularly social networks. Despite their frequent invocation of “personalization,” these technologies present users with a very restricted, restrictive set of choices of what they can do, of who they “can be."
It’s what Amber Case calls the “templated self.” She explains this as:
A self or identity that is produced through various participation architectures, the act of producing a virtual or digital representation of self by filling out a user interface with personal information.
Facebook and Twitter are examples of the templated self. The shape of a space affects how one can move, what one does and how one interacts with someone else. It also defines how influential and what constraints there are to that identity. A more flexible, but still templated space is WordPress. A hand-built site is much less templated, as one is free to fully create their digital self in any way possible. Those in Second Life play with and modify templated selves into increasingly unique online identities. MySpace pages are templates, but the lack of constraints can lead to spaces that are considered irritating to others.
This has profoundly important implications for education technology, particularly if we recognize the role that education plays in identity development. Do schools want to churn out templates? Or templated people? (Don't answer that question.)
What are the implications of adopting tools that surveil and extract and control students? What happens to identify formation under these circumstances? What happens when we give students little leeway in expressing themselves as learners online? What are the implications of adopting tools that give students only a small range of avatars and status updates and profiles and backgrounds? Will education technology simply become a new and powerful way to demand conformity from students – and to demand they play out that conformity not just in the classroom but in a long-lasting data profile?
What do my “Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2014” imply the answers to those questions might be?
Corporate Ed-Tech is Not Inevitable
Ed-tech doesn't have to be dystopian. But really, we gotta do better.
We tell ourselves these fantastic stories about science and technology, about scientific and technological progress. Often these stories are incredibly teleological. The ending is pre-determined. The future of [fill in the blank: wearable technologies, artificial intelligence, disruptive innovation, unbundled corporatized education, whatever] is inevitable, you’ll hear people say. As though “It Is Written,” as though the tech gods have decreed… and so shall it be.
How interesting, once again, in these grand narratives, that regular folks are the objects, not the subjects of technological change. The subjects of technological change are all “roaming autodidacts” – white and male and middle class from the global North. The rest of us find ourselves just carried along by a story of “innovation” and “disruption” in which we have no say except to turn the page and buy the app and nod along with this so-called “happy ending” in which we actually find nothing but misery and poverty and precarity and loss.
But see, we do have a say. We do have agency*. Nothing is inevitable. The history of education and ed-tech isn’t already written. E-books are not inevitable. Google Glass in the classroom isn’t inevitable. MOOCs aren’t inevitable. Outsourcing isn’t inevitable. The reluctance to fund public education isn’t inevitable. “There will only be 10 universities in 50 years time” isn’t inevitable. We can choose. We can fight.
(*B. F. Skinner did not believe in free will. Skinner is probably the most influential figure in mainstream ed-tech. So make of all that what you will.)
Moreover, technology doesn’t have to look this way. It doesn’t have to be about data extraction and user exploitation and control and surveillance.
That being said, we do need to come to terms with the forces that gave birth to modern-day computing: World War II and cryptography. To build an alternative is to build against computing’s history of command and control. But Donna Haraway told us that 21 years ago. We should know that already, right?
And let’s not forget, in 2014 we finally got a working model of Xanadu. Ted Nelson, who coined the term “hypertext,” has been working on the project since 1960. Xanadu still points to a radical vision of computer-based composition. An alternative vision.
Even the Web we have now – corporate or otherwise – isn’t the only Web we could have. Instead of a nostalgia for “the Web we’ve lost,” we might think about “the Web we can build instead.”
The Web we can build instead needs to be open to women. It needs to be open to people of color. It needs to not view the global South as a new market for exploitation. It needs to lower the barrier to entry… ya know, just like Facebook did, but without screwing people out of their personal data.
The work of Mike Caulfield has been a beacon for this alternate vision. I know a lot of folks find his excitement about the Smallest Federated Wiki befuddling, but it gets to some of the things that I’ve talked about here in this post and in my talks this year. In his keynote, “Federated Education: New Directions in Digital Collaboration,” Caulfield points towards a radical re-ordering and re-thinking of the digital tools educators use for knowledge building and sharing.
And that is probably what this moment in history demands of us. A radical re-ordering of education and of education technology. Not new flashcards or adaptive assessments or digital textbooks or annotated YouTube videos or celebrity MOOCs or VC-funded bullshittery. Something else. Something indie. Something that re-centers the learner. Something that de-centers the textbook and testing and ed-tech industries. Something that says our data as learners isn’t a "red hot market" to be extracted and mined by others but is something we want to be able to control, pull up, look at, and – yes maybe – share with others.
The problem isn't that "indie" gets so easily adopted and appropriated and contorted by the mainstream. Go ahead. Let them pull our demands for learner-centered ed-tech into the belly of the beast and see what happens! The real challenge is to make the Indie Web accessible and inclusive and open. That’s the challenge for all of ed-tech, of course. It's actually the most subversive challenge of all. And that’s the next post in this series.
This post was first published on December 16, 2014.