Musings on mashups in the university… are we getting anywhere?

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A mess …, originally uploaded by asmundur.

So yesterday was UBC’s e-Learning Open House, which is a notable event for a few reasons, not the least of which is the chance to drink frosty pints while presenting. Most of the presenters share work they’ve done that they think is especially noteworthy, and it is often most impressive indeed. My officemate Novak Rogic and I took a slightly different tack, figuring we would once again take the opportunity to evangelize a bit about what we called distributed content networks.

Nothing too wild. We divided the poster into three sections: 1) the sources (essentially stuff available by RSS feeds, with an emphasis on academic materials); 2) the mixers (aggRSSive, Pipes, tools like Google Co-Op and my new fave Grazr); and 3) where the output can be presented (anywhere, naturally, including an LMS). About half an hour before the event, Novak came up with the “digital chef” metaphor to connect the process with cooking (ingredients, etc…), and I hope we use that conceit again, it’s got potential.

Nowhere on the poster did we mention RSS. We just had lists of sources, tools and outputs. The reaction from attendees was striking. One of the special challenges of presenting in a poster-session environment is spinning a compelling narrative to a constantly changing group of listeners. Most of them entered our space just looking blankly at our materials, and when I asked them if they had any idea what they were looking at, most just laughed and said no. They typically had no knowledge of what RSS or data mashups were… in many cases I found myself circling back to explaining what a weblog was.

We had many eager listeners, a lot of them said they would follow up with me later. So I guess our presentation could be called a success. It certainly was fun. I am struck by how many people who would be interested enough in technology to attend an “e-Learning open house” would still be unaware of the basic components of social software — all those Time magazine cover stories have evidently had little effect. For all the growth, and all the advances, when I talk with the public I am still trying to explain the same things that I was five years ago. I keep expecting that one day when I walk into a room and ask who is basically familiar with what a weblog is, a bunch of hands will go up… but outside of specialized groups, it never happens.

Before I start to sound more obnoxious than normal, I should stress that I don’t think this is some defect with the people. In today’s world, there are so many things that cry out for our attention. Most of us don’t know a thing about the food we eat. We don’t know where our clothing comes from, and who is making money from it. We don’t understand how our way of life changes the planet. We have only the dimmest and conflicted sense of how power is constructed and exercised. Many of us cannot explain our own behavior much of the time. We are groping to understand the fundamentals of how we learn. In a sense, technology is just one more thing most of us don’t get. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype, or to think as I often do that fluency with social software is an emerging form of essential literacy. But events like yesterday illustrate how even with an intelligent, conscientious and curious bunch of educators that some sort of essential transformation is not something that’s just going to happen around us…

On the other end of the scale, the Moose Camp session on mash-ups for non-programmers (audio here) was also a sobering experience. Certainly, the fact we could even conceive such a session seems to show just how far things have come. A tool like Yahoo Pipes promises that an ordinary person might assemble and reorder data much as we use a word processor to edit a document, an example of that emerging literacy I was talking about.

But thorny experience doesn’t play by the script. Even with these new tools and some very sharp collaborators helping me I still can’t make a modest goal (simple and coherent republication of student courseblogs) happen the way it needs to. Things break down on obscure technical levels (like how different systems output RSS — turns out the syndication standards geeks might have had a point with all that infighting I didn’t understand), and on fundamental levels as well (such as Pipes, OpenKapow and Dapper each going AWOL during one short Moose Camp session). We had no choice but to conclude that as of now, the dream of mash-ups for the masses is tantalizingly just beyond the grasp of the non-programmer. But just you wait!

It seems like a painfully familiar dynamic, expecting that just ahead things will fall into place and something utterly revolutionary will be upon us. But can we assume that things will come together the way we envision? Perhaps our fate is eternally mucking through a messy and promising set of possibilities, with enough useful bits spinning out of the maw to keep us from giving up altogether. Small victories providing a few passionate educators with the means to make big things happen inside a few people’s heads.

10 thoughts on “Musings on mashups in the university… are we getting anywhere?

  1. Dude, you work at an institution (the only one in BC) that offers RSS feeds for its job postings, criminey! So you’ll pardon me if I don’t get too choked up at the situation you describe, because from where I’m sitting you’re at an institution that is part of the vanguard. Depressing, I know. But I really do think a good dose of perspective is needed. I’m no apologist for for technophilic over-promising and under-delivering, but NCSA Mosaic = 1993. 14 years. Look around you. The world *is* changing, and depending on who you are, either too fast, not fast enough, or, said with a zen-like smile, exactly as fast as it is.

    On a more practical level, can you post the specific problem you have been trying (unsuccessfully so far) to solve, complete with example feeds (if they don’t compromise anyone’s privacy) and a request for help on this blog? I guarantee you that the wisdom of your crowd of readers will bring 7 workable solutions in the door before the end of the week. Guarantee. (Oh crap, what have I just promised!)

  2. Scott, I didn’t mean to suggest I thought I worked in a backwater — far from it, there was some amazing stuff at the Open House, and I met a lot of super-smart people.

    And I know the world is changing, but I question sometimes how effectively we can chart a path amidst it all. I expect things to keep changing, but almost certainly not the way we think they will.

    I feel like I have blogged this multi-platform filtered aggregation problem on this blog quite often, but never to the point of providing URLs, and never as an explicit cry for help. I’ll think about that, if only to push your guarantee.

  3. I’ve had the title of an article in my head for a while that encapsulates a little of what you say here: “Is Higher Ed ready for Web 2.0, and do we really care?” That’s in my more despondent moments. What’s interesting about the mashup stuff, even if you’re just looking at pulling in many different kinds of sources via RSS into a reader, it could actually make an academic’s life much easier. Having all the latest journal articles come to you rather than having to go out and fetch them is much more efficient. I do have the sense that the world is changing and sometimes I fear higher ed may get left behind. But I think we have to keep working at it, especially when it gets hard.

  4. It is funny how perspective informs our own sense of success or failure. When I look at UBC’s weblogs & Agrssive or Calgary’s roll out of Drupal -I get green with envy. You’re doing stuff on an institutional level that is quite remarkable, and gives smaller universities in the States referent points for seeing these social networks and open source CMSs fly at major research institutions. For the moment these tools may only be harnessed and fully utilized by a few forward-thinking faculty members, but the fact remains that things are changing fast, and the academy will be part of that whether they can fully conceptualize this at the moment or not.

    And to second Scott, I don’t feel alone when I read these blogs and I think through them I begin to understand how several of us, by the very social networks we promote and proselytize daily, offer a venue to help each other think through these problems. I think Scott’s throwing down of the gauntlet is a wonderful act of faith in each other and the possibilities for further defining the future of our institutions collectively.

    Finally, Brian, given the work I have seen at UBC -I would say that muck and mess does not come at the exclusion of a coherent, well-conceived vision of the future. Dare I say brilliance as I return to Agrssive in my minds eye again and again.

  5. Re. Scott’s hivemind promise… I’m certainly happy for URLs to be happy in my case.

    Re. the rest… Keep the the support, guys. There’s certainly good stuff done here, and Brian’s a big part of it. But prophets aren’t always recognized in their own lands etc.

  6. Goodness, “happy for URLs to be happy?” Was I drunk? No. Just tired.

    I meant, of course, “happy for URLs to be made available,” natch.

  7. Good post, Brian. I think you, the other commentators on this thread, and our ilk owe ourselves a round of drinks.

    I suspect that anything smacking of code, be it XML or HTML (i.e., doesn’t have to be real code) is a mental block for many in academia. It’s a shibboleth, not a workflow challenge.

    Think, too, about the geek horizon, or about what happens when someone clicks on any RSS, subscribe, etc button (assuming they get that far) – they’re rewarded, or punished, with either a page of neat XML, or a version of the page they just left. Either way it’s the end of that exploratory probe.

    Part of my frustration with the Second Life as Web 3.0 meme is that we’re still trying to get education into Web 2.0. Heck, Web 1.0 is a big step for a non insignificant number.

    Your point and Scott’s about time, attention, and history really resonate.

  8. Thanks all…

    Laura – great cooment, I agree the appeal to ease is key — though it all too often falls on us to make it so. I often find with emerging technologies that there are some core usability gaps that completely throw people, especially when there are conceptual challenges as well.

    Thanks Jim — I feel like my post made me seem more frustrated than I am. I was trying to highlight a) that even as things change I find myself doing the same things and b) that the objectives keeps shifting, and that even as things progress they do so in ways that were never expected. I guess things have advanced, but our biggest successes don’t necessarily meet our objectives from three years ago — which makes planning and fighting for programs inside an institution a challenge. Accountability is not a bad thing, but tough to do with a moving target.

    Thanks Jon — I think the Scott Leslie Guarantee Smackdown is coming. And public URLs are happy URLs anyway.

    Bryan — not much for me to add, but “yeah!”

  9. But hey, aren’t you at least glad you’re not a “learning object discoordinator” anymore;-)

    Green with envy, yours truly, a still learning object discombobulator (or, to adopt my preferred new job title, a la D’Arcy, “emerging technology shit disturber” 😉

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