Are EdTechers Ahead of the Curve?

My copy of Wired came in the mail last week. As is my habit with magazines, I put it in a pile in a corner of my room, planning to look at it at some point when I just couldn’t stand to read something more “productive.” (Read: when I can’t stand to look at another History book.)

Gary Wolf’s article on Craigslist is an interesting read, and provides (at least in my reading) an interesting insight into how maintaining a purity in organizational culture and delivering a product that just plain works can be even more important than keeping current and offering the latest bells and whistles.

But then I read Robert Capps’s The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine. It’s a really good article about how sometimes low-def, cheap, and simple is actually better than high-fidelity, premium, and blinged-out. Capps gives a lot of great examples, and it’s a good article.

Just one thing, though: I already wrote about the same thing. Months ago.

Back in August, without being clever enough to coin the phrase “good enough tech,” I talked about exactly this sort of approach to educational technology. I argued that it’s precisely this DIY, kludgey, corners-cutting mentality that is what’s so “punk” about EDUPUNK. Quick and dirty, cheap and simple is just better for certain things, and these qualities better match the needs, budgets, and time constraints of digital educators.

So yeah, I know not many people read this, but I like to think that– to a certain extent– I scooped Wired.

Similarly, I was listening yesterday to the most recent episode of This Week in Google— my new favorite podcast– and the subject of Brown announcing that they’re testing the idea of switching their university email to Gmail came up. The discussion– while I usually find the show to be quite thought provoking– was brief and somewhat superficial.

And I couldn’t help but notice that it was much less nuanced and thought-out than a similar discussion that Tom Scheinfeldt, Dan Cohen, and Mills Kelly had last November on the Digital Campus podcast.

These two things, in the last two days, have gotten me thinking– does EdTech have a visibility problem? Are the people working in or on Educational Technology actually somewhat ahead of the curve, and just not being heard in the greater tech community? Does throwing “Educational” in front of Tech somehow take you out of the tech discussion? And is this a positive or a negative?

I just watched the Marx Brothers’ 1932 movie Horse Feathers, and was struck at how little public perception of Academia has really changed in the years between 1932– the year of Hitler’s unsuccessful run for president against Hindenburg– and now. And by how, compared to the rest of the world, postsecondary education really is relatively unchanged since then.

Then as now, academics were seen as dull, myopic, entrenched in a culture that was deeply out of touch with everyday life. And there’s some truth behind those perceptions. It’s part of what makes pushing forward an agenda of technologically progressive, student-oriented education so tough.

But are the EdTechers being taken out of the dialog in the larger tech world because they’re being lumped with precisely the people they have to constantly struggle to try to convert to the new realities of education in the 21st century?

When can we get someone from EdTech as a guest host on This Week in Tech or This Week in Google?

How can we start getting Education coverage in Wired?

Why can’t TechCrunch get Blackboard’s internal documents, like it did Twitter’s?

Or am I asking the wrong questions? Should we revel in our relative obscurity? Can you do more damage when you’re off the radar?


You Could Learn a Lot from a Punker…

Edupunk Mix TapeYeah, yeah, the EDUPUNK moment is long over, but it’s still rattling around in the back of my mind. I wrote about it before, but I really think that a lot of the reaction against the term was based on a misapprehension of what punk is, what punk was, what punk does.

Trying to keep this discussion as academic as possible, I’ll argue this much… or this little: if you read Dick Hebdige or Greil Marcus, you’ll quickly come to see that one of the central characteristics of punk was (and is) the conflation of aesthetic and meaning.

Style is substance. The punk style was about aestheticizing everyday life. Making life art. And art is political. Life is political. Aesthetics and politics are both inextricably bound to everyday life.

Moreover, some people listen to punk rock and only hear noise. Others claim that the phrase was rendered meaningless before 1982, and the bands and scenes that have come to use the term over the years since are simply usurpers and corporate shills.

Let’s take the music out of the equation.

Instead, I’d like to talk about zines.

Punk zines— small, limited-run self-published magazines– were at the center of punk culture, music, and life from the very beginning. From the January 1976 debut of New York’s Punk until at least the year 2000, when the internet began to supplant many print zines, punk rock zines were at the center of the community. For a great look at some of the best (and many of the rest) check out Operation Phoenix Records’ punk zine archive.

Zines were always the best embodiment of the DIY ethos of punk, because they had the lowest barriers to entrance. All you really needed was a pen, access to a photocopier, and a stapler, and you could be a zine publisher.

Thinking about the notion of “edupunk,” thinking about what punk culture can teach us about instructional technology and digital pedagogy, I think zines are a natural place to start. So: what can we learn from punk zines that we can apply to edtech? What follows is a short sketch of some things that have occurred to me, trying to answer that question.


All you need is Sharpies, tape, and a Xerox machine.

There’s actually two lessons here: first off, as I mentioned earlier, the barriers to participation in the zine community are very low. Likewise, it’s important for people to keep the barriers to participation in educational technology low.

But more important, punk zines made it obvious how easy it was to make one yourself. They left the scotch tape exposed. White out was obvious. Typos and spelling errors were prevalent. This was, in part, an aesthetic decision. And it has the effect of encouraging and creating a DIY community. These sloppy mistakes let readers know, “this isn’t hard. You can do this.”

I’m not arguing that edubloggers or people designing drupal or WordPress based course management sites should have spelling errors, or the like. But sometimes it’s good to “let the reader see the scotch tape,” so to speak. Let students know how you did it, that it’s easy, that they can do it themselves. Don’t try to make your site look like the slickest designers’ sites. Those sites look inimitable. Instead, use design to encourage your students to follow your lead, to be active content producers, and not passive consumers of web content.

Fast and ugly is better than slow and pretty.

Not pretty, but eye catching...While separating aesthetics and substance is impossible, content is primary, and style is secondary. Get stuff out there, even if it doesn’t look perfect. Regular content production is more key to success than producing pristine, beautiful sites. Besides, “pretty” and “well designed” isn’t as important as eye-catching and visually interesting. The best zines weren’t polished, but they used striking images, high contrast, strange juxtapositions, and other striking visual elements to add visual appeal and interest.

Don’t cover what your audience can find elsewhere.

Your zine is not going to be Rolling Stone. Create a niche by providing content people can’t find anywhere else. Similarly, don’t recreate the wheel with your educational website. If there’s already a perfectly good online archive related to your topic, use that, rather than recreating it. Cover highly specific topics that aren’t covered elsewhere, and cover them well.

And on a related note…

If there isn’t a scene, make one.

The word “scene” has gotten a lot of bad press lately. The term scenester has come to mean a poseur, a person who jumps onto the bandwagon, using conspicuous consumption and emulating a dress code to try to appear cool.

Scene, not too long ago, meant the opposite of that. It just meant community. The punk scene was made up of people who went to shows, made zines, played in bands, and the like. And zines were a great way to help bolster, or even create, a scene. There’s only two punk bands in your little town? Start a zine. Highlight what all is going on with those bands, with their fans, speak to the interests of people who might want to be part of a scene. Zines help to foster community by letting people know all the stuff that’s going on.

Edtech has the same potential. Create a community of interested users– link people, get them passionate, get them to see how your subject is related to other topics in their lives. By thinking of a small town punk scene, we get a model of “community” that’s a lot more than Web2.0 hype.

Change things up when they get boring, but stay consistent enough that people can find you.

Zine makers don’t have a lot of pressure to keep things the same. They’re not answering to a board of directors, investors, employees, or anyone but themselves. This means that you can change things up whenever they get dull. But the most successful zinesters in terms of getting and maintaining readership are always the ones that keep things consistent, to a degree. Keep the title the same, use the same logo. Keep the format, or at least the general nature of the content, reasonably consistent. Otherwise repeat readers will feel cheated.

The same temptation is there in digital media– nothing has to be permanent. But to really get eyes on your page, and keep them there, it’s important not to change everything up too often. While making parts of your website dynamic and fresh is important to getting return visitors, it’s also important to keep enough elements similar and consistent enough to make people feel they know they’re at the right place and know their way around.

There’s always some lonely kid in rural Iowa who needs to hear what you’ve got to say.

Network. Promote yourself mercilessly. Work with a faith that, even though you’re only publishing fifty copies of this little zine about a band that only three people you know are interested in, there are people out there that care.

As much as local scene is important, punk has always been just as much about knowing that you are part of a diasporic tribe, an archipelago of like-minded souls, living in isolation, disaffected with and disenfranchised from their surroundings.

This feeling of being a member of a lost tribe bred a need to network, to promote oneself, to try to find readers anywhere you can find them. There were even zines dedicated to compiling lists of other zines with contact information and reviews. The best of these was the amazing Factsheet 5. F5 enabled people to connect nationally– even worldwide. People separated by geography were united by common interests. A teenager in rural Iowa could discover a hardcore punk group from Norway, and buy their self-released seven inch via mail order. Zines created a culture that could not be confined by geography.

This all sounds a lot like how its more utopian advocates describe as what makes the internet unique, doesn’t it? Digital technology allows us to pull from a community that is bigger than the classroom. You can connect with the small community of passionate experts and people who are engaged with the subject matter from all around the world, providing you can make the connection, can get the word out, can make your presence known to the people who want and need to participate.

Make friends with a disgruntled Kinko’s employee.

The easiest way to reduce the cost of producing a zine is to steal photocopies. If you can photocopy your zine in the breakroom at work or have a friend who hates his job at the copy shop who can make copies and not charge you, the price of production drops to nearly zero. It even was seen as something that added to your punk zinester cred.

Now, I’m not really advocating people in digital pedagogy steal from corporations. But take advantage of whatever free services you can from the for-profit sites. Video and audio hosting can be had for free. APIs allow you to harness some of the bandwidth and programming skills of the corporate sites. If you can get it free (and legal) why pay for it? If you have access to an API, why reinvent the wheel?

Likewise, steal (or rather borrow) code liberally. If you see someone else doing something interesting, whether it’s a piece of CSS, part of their layout, an interesting use of a Google API– whatever– try to look under the hood, and see how the other guy does it. Steal it. Make it your own. If it’s something that’s hidden on the user side, heck– drop ’em a line and ask ’em how they did it.

We’re trying to build a scene, here, and that requires dialog and cooperation.


Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is all about creating an engaged community of learners collaborating in the creation of knowledge, rather than the top-down “banking” model of education that sees students as passive receptacles of knowledge. I believe that new instructional technologies and digital scholarship really do have a place to play in helping to foster this liberating vision of the role of education.

The problem is that (while there’s definitely exceptions) educators and technology specialists haven’t been the best at fostering such communities of learning, that many people in these camps hold a strong attachment to their “expert” status. Addressing lay audiences in their own language, at their own level of understanding, is too often dismissed as “dumbing down” the material, rather than being clever enough to engage a broader audience in the discussion. This isn’t everyone, and many in both circles are actively struggling against such patterns, but the pattern persists.

With that in mind, why not try looking to more grassroots movements that have been successful at creating engaged communities of creator/consumers? It’s been rather famously said that only a handful of people picked up the Velvet Underground’s first album when it debuted, but that each of these people went out and started their own bands. The same could be said of many zines. Who knows how many young writers were inspired to write by reading Aaron Cometbus, or started drawing comics after reading John Porcellino‘s King Cat. Zines have been great at building community, inspiring emulation, and making people want to go out and do something.

Yeah, the idea of “edupunk” may be a bit frivolous, but I think there’s something there. Punk culture does certain things well that the cultures of education and technology development haven’t always done so well. Maybe it’s not so crazy for a few of us to think about setting aside our tweed blazers and Bugzilla tee-shirts for leather jackets and Doc Martins.

The beautiful photos of the Papercut Zine Library in Cambridge, MA are courtesy of gruntzooki.


The “Edupunk” Thing.

As Rob MacDougall pointed out, “Edupunk” seems to be the new hot meme in the edublog world.

I’m coming a bit late to the party, as the term was coined almost two weeks ago, which in the blogosphere seems to mean a thing’s ready for its postmortem… Well, unless it’s LOLcats. LOLcats has legs.

If you’re not hip to the right circles, or just behind on your feed reader (I’m both), click around these entries. Follow the hyperlinks. Check out the blogs of the people posting replies. Make sure you’ve got a couple hours on your hands– for such a new concept, it’s generating a lot of dialog. Which is awesome in and of itself, honestly.

Personally, I find the concept deeply intriguing. Ultimately, a lot of what people are talking about as being “edupunk” is very similar to things I’ve been trying to express for a while. An appreciation for the DIY ethos– the concept that fast, quick, and handmade is better than slick corporate cookie-cutter product any day of the week. A desire to get people to get their hands dirty with all the new tools available. The understanding that sometimes you need an Allen wrench, and sometimes you need a sledge hammer. Advocating that educators going past the standard classroom interaction is the essence of “best practices.” The concept that being in a classroom shouldn’t keep students from being autodidacts, but should rather encourage it. Using Web 2.0 tools (when appropriate) to make students interact more, participate more, and allowing them a greater amount of ownership and stewardship of their work. Acknowledging that Blackboard is too badly designed and inflexible to be the killer ap of courseware it’s become.

Of course, I’ve been a big fan of and advocate for punk, DIY, zines, and the like for– wow… over fifteen years. So this sort of thing has an intrinsic appeal to me. Something that co-opts the DIY ethos and combines it with new media and progressive/radical pedagogy? That’s just custom-tailored to my tastes.

The term’s a bit silly, of course. And the term’s too new to really indicate any real community or cause. But I’m glad the term’s been coined. Ultimately, if the meme gathers enough steam, and actually comes to be a real thing, a movement, philosophy, praxis, approach, critique, whatever… It will have come out of Jim Groom coming up with a term that provides an umbrella of linked concepts under which different people can gather.

I hope it does. I’d gladly call myself edupunk if that came to pass.

Even if it doesn’t, it’s definitely come to generate a really interesting conversation.


One qualm I have to express, though, related to an association made by several critics of the not-yet-extant “movement,” as well as some of its advocates.

Punk was never, ever, only about anger and nihilism.

That’s an impression that comes from too many people painting with much too broad a brush, and the overstatement of the impact of the Sex Pistols.

The Ramones had an edge, but blind, dumb joy drove their music, just as often as anger. The Clash had more righteous indignation than undirected anger. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers are, to my mind, totally punk rock– and JR writes songs about romantic awkwardness and being a baby dinosaur. The DIY ethos that has driven so much of the last thirty years of punk music and culture found its incubator in the garage bands of the sixties. Listen to the Shaggs singing (with no sense of melody or harmony, let alone any sense of irony) about how great parents are. Listen to the One Way Streets singing “We All Love Peanut Butter.” You can’t hear anything but sheer joy in these songs.

I thought Bob Mould proved conclusively in 1984 that punk had a lot more emotional depth and complexity than angry adolescent rejection. Why does this impression persist?

Assuming that punk– and anything that, like the notion of “edupunk,” draws on the legacy and ethos of punk– has the emotional complexity of the Incredible Hulk is just patently wrong.

Sure, punk is often about smashing the “system.”
And sometimes anger makes you want to smash things.
Sometimes, it’s political– the system is too broken to be repaired, and needs to be cleared away before new options can thrive.
Sometimes, it’s just the sheer joy of breaking things.
And other times, you’re motivated by a sense of play and fun– detourning the mechanisms of a system, subverting it, disrupting its self-seriousness, and trying to provoke positive change.


Digital Pedagogy Done Right!(tm)

If anyone hadn’t gathered from my multiple cartographically-themed posts in the last couple weeks, I’m taking a course on History and Cartography this semester.

I want to take this opportunity to praise two of the websites we visited this week– TypeBrewer and ColorBrewer. Both of these projects quite successfully combine several elements that seem to be essential to good use of new media for pedagogical ends.

For one thing, they’re quite well-designed– they’re easy to use, the interface is straightforward and easy to use, and there’s not much of a learning curve. Similarly, they do what new media does best– they take something quite nuanced and complex and make it simple. The lessons you get experientially from toying with typography or colors in mapping, if you had to do this by trial-and-error, or even worse by hand, would be quite time-consuming and difficult, and you’d risk losing the forest to the trees.

The phrase I just used, "lessons you get experientially," leads me to the next thing I really liked about the sites. Neither was didactic or painfully "educational." I grew up with teachers for parents in the eighties, and I was exposed to my fair share of "educational toys." The ones that I learned the most from were the ones that put the emphasis on "toys" rather than "educational." The interface of these sites is quite pleasing, the "work" you do is quite entertaining… You PLAY with these websites, rather than being instructed by them. And even the most nose-to-the-grindstone, masochistic grad student would rather PLAY than WORK. The element of play encourages continued, protracted use, and thus a more nuanced understanding than a site that simply tells you that A is more effective than B but less successful than C. Moreover, these are somewhat intuitive, aesthetic "lessons," not simple right/wrong issues. The protracted play gives a better SENSE of best methods– and sensibility is more important than dualistic right/wrong treatment of the issues.

Finally, by keeping the options limited and embracing the KISS principle, these projects could be put on the web as free flash tools. If the creators had made them too cumbersomely complex, or if they had been created in 1997, they probably would have ended up as expensive CD-ROMs that would have had less impact on fewer people…

Both pages are doing some of the most important things right when it comes to online pedagogy, and I was just blown away, honestly.


ARGs and the Classroom

I attended the annual conference of the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association last week. It was fortuitous, maybe, to have this week’s James Paul Gee reading on the potential of video games as pedagogical tools, as I had the opportunity to attend several Internet and Video Games panels. One panel in particular made me reflect back to this course, and instead of just doing a gloss of the readings and the websites I’ve visited, I want to use my post to discuss the ideas I encountered in this panel.

J. James Bono, from the University of Pittsburgh, presented a paper called “Playing with Disaster:  Serious Games, Alternate Realities,and Atlantic Storm.” This paper brought up the pedagogical possibilities of something I’d never heard of– Alternative Reality Games. These are a new development, a web-based type of game that is without a single platform– the game is outside, it’s in the minds of the participants, it’s essentially research-as-gaming. Players find clues and put together remarkably difficult puzzles cooperatively, in a “game” the elements of which could be anywhere– on any website, in the form of an SMS text message, even in that dreaded IRL world. For those of you unfamiliar, as I was, with the idea of Alternative Reality Games, or ARGs,as I was, I encourage you to check out the Wikipedia article linked above– it gives a good sense of what ARGs are, and how they work, and it’s pretty well-written for a Wikipedia article.

Another presenter, Angela Colvert, of the University of London, discussed a project she undertook with two primary school classes she taught: she assigned her fifth grade students to create an ARG, specifically targeted at the fourth grade students she also taught.  While the project was, due to the students’ ages, a rather simplistic project about an alligator who lives in the London Sewers, the project immediately suggested a whole set of ideas in my mind– what if an assignment for grad students in CLIO was to design an ARG for students in an undergrad course, one based on an actual historical event or mystery? One class would acquire an invaluable set of skills based in information design, and the other could finding new approaches to research– in an environment of a “game,” which whether we’re gamers or not, is often more fun and engrossing than reading a textbook and memorizing dates.

The final paper in the panel that related to this class– I’m excluding a wonderful piece about the Japanese aesthetic principle of mono no aware in the Nintendo video game Pikmin 2, because it simply doesn’t apply– was by Terence Brunk of Columbia College.  While his paper was actually an analysis of the narratological principles that can be seen in two “serious” online games– the type of game that is created specifically with the social consciousnessof its player in mind.

This paper really brought home the potential of ARGs as opposed to more traditional video games– no matter how many options you present a player, video games are essentially goal-oriented and thus fairly linear. Eventually in the process of game design, you have to decide that the player must complete Level 1 before entering Level 2. While they’re interactive, video games still have much the same linearity of text. And this is reinforced by their very nature: they’re pre-produced, complete worlds. Add-ons like they have for the Sims or when they add new areas to an MMORPG are limited fixes, and must follow the rules previously established.

The role of the “puppet master,” the person who essentially creates and maintains the ARG, often modifying the next step, puzzle, clue, or plant based on previous outcomes, is in many ways essentially very similar to the role of an excellent educator– they challenge their subjects, altering results to outcomes, constantly pushing the problem further. I think it could be a really useful tool for this reason.