Syndication and dead-easy open content reuse

Structured Serendipity
Structured Serendipity shared CC by Giulia Forsythe

Sometimes encouraging developments sneak up on you. I’ve done my share of hand-wringing lately about the apparently dwindling fortunes of syndication. But a few very promising items have pulsed through my trailing-edge feedreader lately.

From Gardner Campbell, this nugget of recursive wisdom:

Web syndication really does think about the web as a vast database, and each site on the web as potentially a dynamic, curated representation or slice of that database. But the database is itself constantly refreshed because the web that feeds the database of the web is the web of human curiosity, expression, and meaning-making.

Also, I’ll be following the impressive and exciting work by David Wiley and Bill Fitzgerald on transclusion and syndication that motivates the Candela WordPress work, and the super-cool wiki federated reuse thinking and building from Michael Caulfield. These are all welcome reminders that the state of the field is not as dire as I sometimes tend to think.

I thought I’d share an example of out-of-the-box syndication and transclusion that’s being adopted more or less spontaneously by students here at Thompson Rivers University. We have been slowly rolling out our own instance of MediaWiki, with a small but growing cohort of early adopters that includes a course on legal perspectives. This is an interesting group, there are a large number of students divided into more than twenty groups to develop public pages analyzing historic Canadian cases from a variety of legal schools of thought. It’s been fascinating to see how some groups have put more effort than others to understand what the system can do in terms of presenting their work with things like layout commands, and to observe how particularly effective techniques are noticed and re-adopted by other groups as the semester proceeds.

One very cool feature of MediaWiki that the students have discovered and are using relates to syndication. If you look at this page, you will see the students have used an image of Ronald Dworkin to enhance their text. If you click through to the image, you will see that it is drawn from the Wikimedia Commons, and the TRU wiki media file has remarkably detailed metadata outlining where the image came from, the licensing of the image, and where else on the TRU wiki the image is being used. In other words, pretty exemplary reuse of a public knowledge resource.

What’s exciting is how easy it was for the students to do this. If you go to the source media file page on the Wikimedia Commons, you’ll see a number of reuse links on the sidebar. If you click “Use this file on a wiki”, you are provided with the basic MediaWiki markup, ready to use on your own page. In this case – [[File:RonaldDworkin.jpg|thumb|RonaldDworkin]]

What’s so cool is that once you add this code to our page, MediaWiki InstantCommons then adds this file into the TRU wiki’s media library, so the file is only downloaded from the Commons once, and there is a local copy with our own metadata and usage tracking on our system. (FYI, there is also a WordPress plugin with similar functionality.)

And again, this was functionality that students more or less figured out on their own, and a technique most of the Legal Perspectives groups are using to incorporate copyright-compliant images into their public work. The Wikimedia Commons is one of the most impressive sources of open media available to us, and with projects like this to harvest more high-quality learning media for the Commons, its future seems bright.

Open tools, open media, and syndication. Observable open content reuse in the TRU student population. Nice to end the week with some love-mongering for once.



I’ve been enjoying the series of posts by Jim Groom inspired by The Internet Course. His dip into the language of 2001′s Using the Internet to Strengthen Curriculum perfectly captures the prevailing attitudes of many online educators around the time this book was written.

Jim reproduces this page, so loaded with revealing language that it may serve as an edu-historical Rosetta Stone to decode early stages of the nightmare from which we may never awaken.


Somebody should do a dissertation on the values embedded in guides like these.

Jim notes the language of “taming” and “managing” that dominates the text, and the jaw-dropping assertion concerning the “hazards” of “serendipity”. Faced with a novel environment of “immense potential” and “immense challenges”, the response is not to investigate and to understand, but to assert authority and control. Not for any self-serving reason of course, but “for our students”.

Jim suggests this mindset lies at the heart of the command-and-control nature of learning management systems that became a dominant medium around the time when this book was written. Speaking for myself, I was transported back to my experiences as an educational technologist during this period. Back then, I was involved with the development and implementation of a number of “learning object repositories”, which might best be described as platforms designed to promote the sharing of learning resources — but only proper learning resources, and only shared with the right sort of people.

It can be fun in a dreary sort of way to bash the LMS. But it would be unfair and incorrect to simply blame the vendors for the many disturbing values built into these systems. I took part in a lot of conferences, workshops and focus groups with higher education people who attended those “learning object” sessions because they were interested in reusing materials using the as-yet untapped power of the world wide web. I listened as “serious” educational leaders dictated that the platforms require users to adopt unfathomable and complex metadata to ensure that no tangential learning materials be encountered by mistake. I took part in meeting after meeting where technology leaders and faculty representatives demanded strict access controls to limit sharing within elite consortia or collections of funding partners, or even within faculties or departments. Later on in the process, I would try to facilitate workshops with other groups of working educators that rightfully complained that the resulting systems were unwieldy and useless. I took part in evaluations that tried to divine some value from these costly efforts, and watched the project grants run dry.

Then I’d go for beers with the poor coders and developers who were trying to build and support these systems, and commiserated with them on the thankless and impossible nature of the task. Around this time, I started to keep in touch with some of these people via the new-fangled technology of blogs, which seemed to work pretty well as platforms to support sharing of resources and to stimulate cooperative discourse. And we had fun. Maybe that’s why the serious people rarely saw much value in these trifles.

It was around then that I began to distrust the serious people in educational technology.

Partial credit

pepsi add and subtract

“If you have three Pepsis and drink one, how much more refreshed are you? You, the redhead in the Chicago school system?”


“Partial credit!”

Kind of humbling how a few seconds of animated comedy can effortlessly make so many of the points I’ve struggled with over a decade of doom-mongering… One more reason for me to question what I’m doing with this blog.

Casting Matt Damon,  er… Troy McClure as the star instructor is a nice touch.

(Thanks Jason!)