On Writing “Learning Content” in the Cloud

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about an experiment looking at the “mass authoring” of a book on Processing (2.0 1.0, and a Huge Difference in Style).

Darrel Ince, who’s running the experiment, offered to post a public challenge for me to produce 40, 000 words as an adjunct to the book using my own approach… I declined, partly because I’m not sure what I really had in mind would work to produce 40,000 words of “book adjunct”, partly because I don’t know what my approach would be (and I don’t have the time to invest in finding out at the moment, more’s the pity:-(….

Anyway, here’s some of my further thinking on the whole “mass authoring experiment”…

Firstly, three major things came to my mind as ‘issues’ with the process originally suggested for the ‘mass authoring experiment’ – two related to the technology choice, the third to the production model.

To use an application such as Google docs, or a even a wiki, to write a book in a sense respects the structure of the book. Separate documents represent separate chapters, or sections, and multiple authors can have access the document. If “version control” is required – that is, if separate discrete drafts are required – then separate documents can be spawned for each draft. Alternatively, if a the process is one of continual refinement, each chapter can evolve in a single document, potentially authored, edited, critically read and commented on by several people.

There are quite a few books out there that have been written by one or two people round a blog, but there the intent was to create posts that acted as tasters or trial balloons for content and get feedback from the community relating to it. John Battelle’s book on search (Dear Blog: Today I Worked on My Book), and the Groundswell book (7 ways the Web makes writing a book better & faster) are prime examples of this. “The Googlization of Everything” is another, and is in progress at the moment (Hi. Welcome to my book.).

The Google Hacks book I contributed a single hack to (;-) used separate Google docs docs for each hack, as described in Writing a Book in Google Docs. (In part, the use of Google docs as the authoring environment was a ‘medium is the message’ hack!) There the motivation was to author a ‘trad’ book in a new environment – and it seemed to work okay.

In each case, it’s worth remembering that the motivation of the authors was to write a book book, as with the mass authoring experiment, so in that sense it will provide another data point to consider in the “new ways of authoring books” landscape.

The second technology choice issue was the medium chosen for doing the code development. In a book book, intended for print, you necessarily have to refer the reader to a computer in order for them to run the code – offline or online doesn’t really come into it. But if you are writing for online delivery, then there is the option of embedding interactive code development activities withing the test, using something like Obsessing, for example. Potentially, Obsessing, and even the processing.js library, might be pretty unstable, which would provide for an unsatisfactory learning experience for a novice working through the materials (“is my code broken or is the environment broken?”), but with use and a community around it, either the original developer might be motivated to support the libraries, or someone else might be minded to provide maintenance and ongoing development and support an engaged and contributory audience. After all, having a community finding bugs and testing fixes for you is one of the reasons people put time into their open code.

The other major issue I had was with respect to the structuring and organising of the “book”. If you want to play to network strengths in recruiting authors, critical readers, editors and testers, I’m not sure that providing a comprehensively broken down book structure is necessarily the best model? At its worst, this is just farming out word creation to “word monkeys” who need to write up each structural element until they hit the necessary word count (that maybe a little harsh, but you maybe get the gist of what I’m trying to say?). The creativity that comes from identifying what needs to go into a particular section, and how it relates to other sections, is, in the worst case, denied to the author.

In contrast, if you provide a book stub wiki page as a negotiation environment and then let “the community” create further stub pages identifying possible book topics, then the ‘outline’ of the book – or the topics that people feel are important – would have had more play – and more sense of ownership would belong with the community.

A more ‘natural’ way of using the community, to my mind, would be to explore the issue of a ‘distributed uncourse’ in a little more detail, and see how a structure could emerge from a community of bloggers cross referencing each other through posts, comments and trackbacks – Jim Groom’s UMW edu-publishing platform or D’Arcy Norman’s UCalgary Blogs platform are examples of what a hacked-off-the-shelf solution might look like to support this “within” an institution?

The important thing is that the communities arise from discovering a shared purpose. Rather than being given a set of explicit tasks to do, the community identifies what needs doing and then does it. Scott Leslie recently considered another dimension to this problem, in considering how “getting a community off the shelf” is a non-starter: Planning to Share versus Just Sharing.

It strikes me that the “mass authoring” experiment is trying to source and allocate resource to perform a set of pre-defined tasks, rather than allowing a community to grow organically through personal engagement and identify meaningful tasks that need to be completed within that community – that is, allowing the tasks to be identified on an ‘as required’ basis, or as itches that occur that come to need scratching?

The output of an emergent community effort would potentially be non-linear and would maybe require new ways of being read, or new ways of having the structure exposed to the reader? I tried to explore some of these issues as they came to mind when I was writing the Digital Worlds uncourse blog:


(though it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense without me talking to it!)

As part of the challenge, I was advised that I would need about 16 authors. I’m really intrigued about how this number was arrived at. On the basis of porducity (circa 2,500 words per person, assuming a 40, 000 words deliverable?). When I as doing the uncourse posts, my gut feeling was that an engaging 500-800 word blog post might get say a handful of 50-200 word comments back, and possibly even a link back from another blog post. But what does that mean in terms of word count and deliverables?

Another issue that I had with taking the ‘recruit from cold’ approach were I to take up the challenge is that there is potentially already a community around Resig’s processing library, the obsessing interactive editor for it, and Processing itself.

For example, there are plenty of resources already out in the wild to support Processing (eg at the Processing.org website) that might just need some scaffolding or navigation wrapped around them on order to make a “processing course” (copyright and license restrictions allowing, of course…)? So why not use them? (cf. Am I missing the point on open educational resources? and Content Is Infrastructure.) Of course, if the aim was to manufacture a “trad book” according to a prespecified design, this approach may not be appropriate, compared to seeing the structure of the “unbook” arise as engagement in an emergent and ongoing conversation – the next chapter is the next post I read or write on the topic.

From my own experience of Digital Worlds, I wrote a post or two a day for maybe 12 weeks, and then the flow was broken. That required maybe 2-4 hours a day commitment, learning about the topics, tinkering with ideas, seeing what other conversations were going on. It was time consuming, and the community I was engaging with (in terms of people commenting and emailing me) was quite small. Playing a full role in a larger community is more time consuming still, and is maybe one downside to managing an effective community process?

The idea behind the experiment – of looking for new ways to author content – is a good one, but for me the bigger question is to find new ways of reading and navigating content that already exists, or that might emerge through conversation. If we assume the content is out there, how can we aggregate it into sensible forms, or scaffold it so that it is structured in an appropriate way for students studying a particular “course”, If the content is produced through conversation, then does it make sense to talk about creating a content artefact that can be picked up an reused? Or is the learning achieved through the conversation, and should instructor interventions in the form of resource discovery and conducting behaviour, maybe, replace the “old” idea of course authoring?

In terms of delivering content that is authored in a distributed fashion on a platform such as the UMW WPMU platform, I am still hopeful that a “daily feed” widget that producing 1 or more items per day form a “static blog” according to a daily schedule, starting at the day the reader subscribes to the blog, will be one way of providing pacing to linearised feed powered content. (I need to post the WP widget we had built to do this, along with a few more thoughts about a linear feed powered publishing system built to service it).

For example, if you define a static feed – maybe one that replays a blog conversation – then maybe this serves as an artefact that can be reused by other people down the line, and maybe you can post in your own blog posts in “relative time”. I have lots of half formed ideas about a platform that could support this, e.gg on WPMU, but it requires a reengineering (I think), or at least a reimagining, of the whole trackback and commenting engine (you essentially have to implement a notion of sequence rather than time…).

(To see some related example of “daily feeds’, see this ‘daily feeds’ bookmark list.)

So to sum up what has turned out to be far too long a post? Maybe we need to take some cues from this:

and learn to give up some of the control we strive for, and allow our “students” to participate a little more creatively?

See also: Learning Outcomes – again . It strikes me that predefining the contents of the book is like an overkill example of predefining learning outcomes written to suit the needs of a “course author”, rather than the students…?

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

One thought on “On Writing “Learning Content” in the Cloud”

  1. There’s so much I like about this post, but to me, this passage is key:

    “If we assume the content is out there, how can we aggregate it into sensible forms, or scaffold it so that it is structured in an appropriate way for students studying a particular “course”, If the content is produced through conversation, then does it make sense to talk about creating a content artefact that can be picked up an reused? Or is the learning achieved through the conversation, and should instructor interventions in the form of resource discovery and conducting behaviour, maybe, replace the “old” idea of course authoring?”

    I still cling to the hope that emergent, conversational authoring can be hacked into an artifact that might be accessed in “old” ways… but maybe that’s a vestigial trait of my upbringing. I never wanted to give the impression that I didn’t think content was important in that post of mine you link to above – but why shouldn’t we be able to think of suggested structures and guidelines for interaction as viable forms in their own right? I don’t think anybody is saying we can’t, but so few OERs look that way.

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