Possible futures for innovation and technology in Higher Education

The actual gap between European/ N American tectonic plates or a photo opportunity
The actual gap between European/ N American tectonic plates or a photo opportunity at Pingvellir Visitor Centre?

Kate Bowles wrote an interesting post about how she responded to students’ enthusiasm to use Slack and how it worked out well for her and a group of students in thinking about critical narrative professionalism. I’ve never used Slack but I have heard many good reports of it. Her lovely story of “the everyday nature of artisanal change in universities”  reminded me of my earlier educational experiments with Web 2.0 services such as flickr.com (now much changed), http://del.icio.us/ (apparently in transition), elgg.net (an old favourite and still available as Open Source Software) and of course Twitter, a favourite of many academics but whose use of algorithms is now starting to put off some people. I loved those experiments but a more cynical view from the distance of retirement is of a graveyard of dead or moribund services where some of the undertakers have made off with pockets full of cash or services have morphed into something quite different.

Ben Werdmuller, co-founder of elgg and known.com and not one of those greedy undertakers, has written a powerful essay on how to build an Open Source business. It raised hope for me that there might be possibility for inventive developers and service providers to make a living without fleecing  relying on investors and exploiting users via their personal and activity data.

In particular, I wonder about how software and services that might really help education realise benefits of the Internet in future can come into being as supported services for students and staff. How can the benefits available in artisanal pedagogic change be scaled with technical support across universities?  I already wrote about how building technology is more than a heroic tale of invention and is a messy process of appropriation and working around. Higher Education’s investments in technology have been in infrastructure like networks, computer labs, email services, digital libraries, administrative systems, etc. and of course the ubiquitous Learning Management System / Virtual Learning Environment. When I was working in HE, it was my dissatisfaction with aspects of Blackboard that drove me to try out alternatives such as student blogging, offering Twitter updates as alternative to Blackboard announcements, sharing bookmarks on Delicious, linked within a Blackboard course. A module team I was leading managed to get a Buddypress installation going to provide an Open Source Social Networking Service (SNS) for use in supporting first year students on our module.  After IT support was completely centralised that year, this became possible no longer but we still managed to draw on student personal experiences of proprietary SNS to help them critique their use in business. Each year, students became more aware that there were ‘costs’ of the free service and they applied workarounds but hadn’t thought too much about the broader implications and alternatives until we raised questions with them.

I was interested to see what the business model was for Slack, since it benefited from a huge new funding round in 2015 . In March 2016 Slack proclaimed their goal “One day, Slack hopes to replace email as the main form of electronic communication for businesses.”   Slack’s pricing model is currently ‘freemium’ with 1 free and 2 levels charged per user, with an enterprise version in the pipeline. Less than 1/3 of 2.3 million users pay for service and I would guess that currently most of those are on the Standard or Plus pricing plans.

Something that Web 2.0 services can be good at (certainly in their golden funded early stages) is user experience, and Ben Werdmuller identified that as a weakness of Open Source systems.

It’s difficult for software companies to break into the enterprise market but that’s Slack’s aim. Even ventures like Microsoft Sharepoint who have had some success at the Enterprise level have found to difficult to engage with the complex organisational structures of HE institutions, to move from projects, based in IT Services, to enterprise-wide staff and student applications.

The business models for some SNS like Facebook make member data the product that generates advertising revenue that can have consequences for members.   Stewart Butterfield speaks warmly of Etsy’s business model, having been an early investor, after selling on Flickr to Yahoo.   The reference to Etsy interested me since Gordon Fletcher and I did some research on Etsy in 2012, presented at AoIR in October 2012. We found that there were listings that didn’t comply with ‘handmade’  and that some members were selling goods where their labour was valued little or not at all. Sure enough, the following year, Etsy redefined ‘handmade’ to be not necessarily handmade.  Etsy’s handmade policy is what my dear late mother would have called mealy-mouthed.  On a bit of a puff piece, Etsy sellers make some interesting comments there about flagrant reselling that they apparently couldn’t make at Etsy itself, suggestive of Etsy’s approach to diluting dissent. For me the concept of Etsy (though I am attracted to buying there) seems a bit of a sham. The community and handmade feelgood factor that has helped them to acquire investment and sell shares is more apparent than real – in effect community became a part of the product to be sold as the company was launched.

So are there alternatives to monolithic LMS like Blackboard, ‘member is the product’ SNS like Facebook and chimera like Etsy?

I can think of two examples that are different but that have two things in common: they are grounded in educational practice, based on clear educational philosophies; and they make use of the Open Source blogging software WordPress.

Student as Producer
Joss Winn and Mike Neary have developed the concept of Student as Producer as part of the project questioning What is a University?

The point of this re-arrangement would be to reconstruct the student as producer: undergraduate students working in collaboration with academics to create work of social importance that is full of academic content and value, while at the same time reinvigorating the university beyond the logic of market economics.

Lincoln’s Buddypress site is active and open and Student as Producer is integral to the University of Lincoln’s plans and operation.

Student as Producer is central to the learning and teaching philosophy at the University of Lincoln, and is embedded within the Teaching and Learning Plan and in all module planning. It is fundamental to everything we do at the University of Lincoln, and is one of the key selling points to potential students.

Domain of One’s Own
Jim Groom outlined the history of DoOO at OER16, that I blogged, and Mark Sample gave his perspective as an educator working with Reclaim Hosting. Jim has moved from within HE to a business setting where Reclaim Hosting offer a fairly-priced service for individuals and universities.

Possible Futures
I can’t lay out a neat plan of how Higher Education can offer technology support for innovation in the future but I do think that the ideas and practices put forward by Ben Werdmuller, Joss Winn, Jim Groom, Tim Owens and Lauren Blumfield can inform a richer possible future than one that relies on Silicon Valley to provide outsourced services or neat packaged solutions.

Where will HE institutions turn for technology services in future?

Of course, I haven’t mentioned MOOCs and their providers but that’s another story.

15 thoughts on “Possible futures for innovation and technology in Higher Education”

  1. Excellent response Frances. I was interested in Kate’s Slack experience as we have educators at my own institution working in the same way and, as a long time user of Slack as a project tool, I do enjoy using it’s extremely friendly UI.

    But I also share your concerns about using proprietary systems and social networks for which the user data is the value of the company. I’m less concerned about this with Slack as they generate use a freemium model that isn’t based on user data value. Having said that, my preference is always for open source.

    Interestingly we are just completing a major project based on WordPress and using BuddyPress as a social layer. We host this externally so we’re free of the constraints of IT services. While we haven’t achieved the UX of things like Slack, we have achieved a much more usable and enjoyable UX than any institutional LMS I’ve seen. So it can be done.

  2. Thanks for your interesting reply Mark. I am snatching a few minutes on my phone before we drive 500km to Amsterdam so can’t find out where you are/ what’s your role:) In the small picture there is no problem with educators using Slack -it’s the bigger picture that I was trying to tease out. How can we be the change we want to make? The interesting thing about the Lincoln example is that management seem to have bought into an educational vision. Even if that doesn’t last, it’s unusual. Other examples of that seem to involve Moocs 🙂
    l like the idea of projects Outsourcing to reputable hosts but then the next challenge is mainstreaming. In Uk, there were quite a few blogging/ social platform Cross-Uni projects but I’m not sure what difference they have made in the bigger picture.

  3. Mark’s comment nailed it for me: “While we haven’t achieved the UX of things like Slack, we have achieved a much more usable and enjoyable UX than any institutional LMS I’ve seen. So it can be done.”

    Since reading this excellent post, Frances, I’ve paused to think hard about my relatively uncritical adoption of Slack in this case. I’ve been reading more widely about Slack’s position in the market, and its business model. And the UX keeps coming up, both from evangelists and critics.

    I’ve been closely involved in LMS selection at the institutional level twice, and both times the silence around UX was deafening. LMS vendors sell on the basis of institutional affordance, not user experience. Canvas was able to make a significant market intervention (given the glacial pace at which the LMS market shifts) because it had a user focus, and even that was quite limited.

    Compared to LMS design which relies on very large captive markets and a monopoly within institutions, social and business communication platforms really have to compete to be easy and pleasurable to use. How would eBay, etsy, even Amazon work if you spent half a day figuring it out? Not at all. Slack goes out of its way to be friendly in communications (just compare the tone of an app update from Slack compared to one from Twitter. Slack natters on about new things with evident humour and is very personable; Twitter says “we fixed things you don’t need to know about. Bye.” Comms101.)

    For educators to poach space on platforms who are growing their markets in other sectors means, I think, that we have to accept the ups and downs of their roadmap and their ultimate business goals. For me, this means accepting that our teaching is ephemeral. We are making pop-up courses where we can. There’s a really strong conflict here with the wish to create durable communities.

    Final small note, the initiative you haven’t mentioned that I think has really strong teaching potential: Mike Caulfield’s Wikity. It’s with Mike that I’ve had the longest conversations about UX as a fundamental problem of hospitality to non-tech and low-tech users. I work with students for whom Twitter is an obstacle to participation, not for privacy or ethical reasons, but just working out how it works. It’s a step up from there to more or less anything designed by people who know their way around GitHub, and sometimes that step is just steep enough to stop people even having a go.

      1. Thanks for that link Paul – I’m travelling and can’t view videos on current bandwidth. MOOCS are relevant and l think they deserve a separate post. l have another couple of relevant issues that have been bubbling around inmy mind so I think I need a series of posts 🙂

    1. Thanks for that very rich comment Kate -plenty to unpack. When I’m back on full cream bandwidth, I’m going to dig out our exchange re hospitality (and technology) on # fedwiki.
      I got as far as setting up a wikity account but have done nothing with it. l need to spend more time on known and wikity.
      My thoughts about UX have been that while SV do it better, it also degrades once they move into self-financing era.
      l have started to think about not for profits so l should look at wikipedia and others. Paul mentioned MOOCs and l realised l don’t know much about how Futurelearn compares with others.
      Thanks to all of you – this is a very helpful Convo.

      1. In your comments on MFD I mentioned that I had an early experience of being burned by Ning. There were lots of educators using Ning to teach, and it was just a lovely environment. So easy to customise, personalise and inhabit — a hospitable space on the web, that made students feel that their writing looked good when LMS forums still looked like HAL typing. As I’ve found Slack critics pointing out, UX is sometimes the gateway drug to dependency.

        So when suddenly Ning pulled up the drawbridge and required users to pay, even a nominal fee, this taught me a big lesson about travelling lightly and being ready to let things go. And for me, this is really at odds with values that I mind about, especially in developing learning communities that last over time, so that successive intakes of students can be welcomed by those who’ve already completed the course.

        Paul’s right, I think, to bring in MOOCs. There’s a very big and multi-petalled Venn diagram here with UX at its centre, that includes all the social channel experience that students bring as expectations of how things should be.

        1. “UX is sometimes the gateway drug to dependency”
          That’s the perfect summary for Koller’s video, and one of two parts of Amazon’s strategy they want to replicate (the other one: sourcing the most content of good educational brands).

        2. Hi Kate,

          I never really bought in to Ning but I watched it come and go with interest as I did with other apps that were adopted at some time or other. For this reason, although I use and love things like Slack, if I’m building something to last for use in L+T it’ll be based on open source software that has stood the test of time, has an active dev group around it and is highly customisable and extendable. The latest app we’ve built is based on WordPress and BuddyPress (and other plugins) and it does everything we need including the ability to finely control the UX.

          Cheers

          Mark

  4. I have pointed out in Kate’s original post an open source clone to Slack (Rocket.Chat). Interestingly, another set of alternatives is appearing fast: many existing services have started to offer similar real-time chat as Slack, as an integration into their core product. I think for instance of gitter.im being integrated with GitHub, or carrot.com being integrated with reddit.com (interestingly carrot is a real-time chat service cannibalising on the core asynchronicity of the core service reddit, although with some evanescence à la Snapchat). A subtle detail is that in both cases the live discussion service and the core service allow for maintaining separate identities on each (although authentication retains the authentication mechanism of the core). I am not sure what that is, but possibly it is because those companies realise the community is what has most value, and what is now the core might actually evolve (think LinkedIn and Microsoft, with its changing line of products).

    A completely separate thread of ideas is this:
    https://whispersystems.org/blog/the-ecosystem-is-moving/
    It is quite technical, but discusses the concept of federation, how modern web services succeed in the marketplace, and the way old distributed protocols are being recentralised for profit.
    This is mostly relevant in this paragraph:
    “””Indeed, cannibalizing a federated application-layer protocol into a centralized service is almost a sure recipe for a successful consumer product today. It’s what Slack did with IRC, what Facebook did with email, and what WhatsApp has done with XMPP. In each case, the federated service is stuck in time, while the centralized service is able to iterate into the modern world and beyond.”””

  5. I’ve just been commenting on Mike’s latest blog which is (uncannily) about what might be the conceptual obstacle to people using Wikity. My persistent sense is that this is UX for low-tech and non-tech users, and again I think Slack has a clever focus on onboarding (not that this is a good thing, just that it’s a thing.) So it doesn’t surprise me at all that Coursera have this focus too, because if your business model is world domination, you have to make the world want the product you’re dumping.

    The behaviour of the global sugar industry is never far from view. My sense of conflict is increasing. Leonard Cohen: “We love the easy and the smart”.

  6. Some of what I might say here I just posted to Kate’s post. As this goes, human conversations are sloppy, which also makes them interesting. In my play with open-source alts to Slack, they start out feeling the same, and then you start tripping on sharp rocks. A sense of nimbleness helps, and also accepting the impermanence of most things.

    I might push back bit on your list of “fallen” tools. Yes, del.icio.us a once nimble, elegant tool got sold up the river and trashed, but I’ve still been able to export all my bookmarks back to like 2006 into pinboard, which has much of the same features and more. Stuff changes, for good or bad. It’s not bout the platform, but the ability to bookmark, and tag, and syndicate outward that matters.

    And flickr always gets a bad rap. Yes, it’s different from 2004, but so am I. What other online service still works after 12 years? I have a soft spot for maybe the first “social media” site I used, where the use of it for individual purpose (storing photos) could have add-on advantages by putting them in contacts with other people, with tags, albums, etc. I use flickr daily, it holds 49,000 of my photos, but also is an invaluable tool for me to remember what I was doing, where and when. More than that, it’s open API let me make tools like http://pechaflickr.net and unlike Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, flickr has never broken their API in a way that stops older things from working. Heck, the recently restored the Notes feature.

    If flickr went south tomorrow, I would be sad, maybe mad, but not broken. It’s what I like to call “co-claiming” (over reclaiming) because I have, organized away from flickr, all 49,000 photos. I am not beholden to a company’s service, yes, I would be put out, but I am in full control of my photos.

    Your post and Kate’s made me think of Jon Udell’s noting of “trailing-edge” technologies (https://blog.jonudell.net/2013/10/11/moocs-need-to-be-user-innovation-toolkits/), which really in a way includes WordPress, and cpanel managed domains- these are not blockchain VR controlled drones. Jon’s description of what he pursues, in line with the idea of “user innovation toolkits” is very much “artisnal” – I have to include a long quote here:

    ————————-

    There’s a reason I keep finding novel uses for these trailing-edge technologies. I see them not as closed products and services, but rather as toolkits that invite their users to adapt and extend them. In Democratizing Innovation, Eric von Hippel calls such things “user innovation toolkits” — products or services that, while being used for their intended purposes, also enable their users to express unanticipated intents and find ways to realize them.

    Thanks to the philosophical foundations of the Internet — open standards, collaborative design, layered architecture — its technologies typically qualify as user innovation toolkits. That wasn’t true, though, for the Internet era’s first wave of educational technologies. That’s why my friends in that field led a rebellion against learning management systems and sought out their own innovation toolkits: BlueHost, del.icio.us, MediaWiki, WordPress.

    My hunch is that those instincts will serve them well in the MOOC era. Educational technologists who thrive will do so by adroitly blending local culture with the global platforms. They’ll package their own offerings for reuse, they’ll find ways to compose hybrid services powered by a diverse mix of human and digital resources, and they’ll route around damage that blocks these outcomes.

    These values, skills, and attitudes will help keep a diverse population of universities alive. And to the extent students at those universities absorb them, they’ll be among the most useful lessons learned there.
    ————————-

    I am not crazy about the word “artisnal” but what it means to me is valuing the craft of handiwork over the tools. If you hone your craft, you can switch tools easily.

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