Category Archives: creativity


Inspired by (or copying depending on your perspective) this Modern Met post.


Find something in your house. Take a picture. Let your imagination churn. Make as many different augmented versions as you can think of. Help others see what’s in your head.

Submit it on DS106 using the tags VisualAssignments and VisualAssignments1255.

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Tom Woodward

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Tom Woodward

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Tom Woodward

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Tom Woodward

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Tom Woodward

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Tom Woodward

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Tom Woodward

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Tom Woodward

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Tom Woodward

If it seems like playing . . .


If it seems like I’m playing lately it is because I am. The last week or so has been an exploration of all sorts of fairly odd things. Markov chains, Twitterbots, McRibs1, photo walks to name a few items.

These are easy things to dismiss as trivial. It’s not necessarily obvious how these strange wanderings connect back to outcomes that other people may want or how they mesh with the idea of online learning at VCU. I believe that’s because we’ve created a belief that (in many things) we know both where we are (point A) and where want to go (point B) and that whatever gets us between these two points most “efficiently” is the best path. I’m going to try to both justify the value of a wandering path by pulling in pretty disparate examples2 from time/space with some recent examples of these wanderings coming to fruition.

Similar patterns of over-narrowing happen in lots of areas. People tend to think they know lots of things they don’t.3 I see elements of this narrowing in terms of the echo chamber, the specification focused patterns of today’s world4, and the general lack of joy evident in work and school.5

Here’s a fairly typical pattern for me.

Stage One – September 2011

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 2.56.57 PM
On Sept. 22, 2011 at 10:48 PM6, I took a picture of a random artifact from my youth and put it on insta-facebook-agram so one of my friends could see it. Based on his enthusiastic interest, I decided to figure out how to make a digital version which I had as a working product on Sept. 24th.

Stage Two – August 2013

Nearly two years later (roughly August 8), I stuck my head in a meeting and heard a complaint about a Buck’s Institute tool. I knew from my vast experience with PHP fortune sticks two years earlier that I could make something like what was requested. The details of that exploration are in this post. The short version is that I opted to learn a chunk of javascript because I couldn’t manage rotate the variable independently in PHP. That got me involved with javascript libraries which in turn opened up a few other avenues of creation. A few days later, I made a gif randomizer which let me know I could randomize images as easily as text.

A few more days and I built some bean shaped math manipulatives I’d seen while helping to unpack supplies at an elementary school. This pushed me into touch libraries because the students most likely to use them would have iPads instead of laptops. That same basic concept (you can make user-movable things on the internet) branched into sight word refrigerator poetry after a conversation with a high school English teacher. This was finished up around August 27.

The same basic concepts came back again on September 19 when I built this getting-to-know-you page for the ITRTs after seeing this Dan Meyer post from back on August 7. I agree it’s not the most wonderful example of technology but it did open up a few conversations and I had an ITRT ask if they could move the red dots. My response was sure if they could figure out how to do it. This allowed me to squeeze in a quick Firebug/Inspect Element/CSS conversation and bring up that this is how some middle school kids had been tricking their parents about their online grades.7

Stage Three – November 2013

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 4.01.40 PM
Jump to another job and a few months later. A conversation between Gardner, Jon, and myself wanders to the idea of algorithmic construction, Twitterbots, and human attempts to derive understanding8. In many ways the #ds106 generator is a combination of all of these wanderings (and more). Like the best fortunes (sticks or otherwise), there is ambiguity to parse and use to construct meaning. There is also the combination of paths I’d taken previously- Google –> StackOverflow and Github. Little bits and pieces adding up.

At the same time we’re working on a logo for Online @ VCU. Thinking about what we hoped to accomplish and what I’d like the logo to represent led me to think of networks and connections which resulted in some flash backs to some interesting things I’d seen digging through javascript libraries back when I was trying to drag beans around. I’d remembered trying to do something with D3 and collapsible force nodes (just because I thought they looked interesting). That led to the idea that our logo should represent a networked relationship. On top of that being interactive would be an interesting plus and . . . for the next step an organic logo that is built by the actions of our users would be pretty interesting.

I don’t know if it’s heutagogy or combinatory play9 or maybe something else I haven’t learned a word for yet. Things like this happen all the time. It all adds up and comes together in beautifully unexpected ways and it’s not just information or skills- it’s people as well. In the end I really believe it is about interesting intersections but how will you know what to blend if you don’t wander around a good bit? My goal is to be interesting by being interested.10

Currently, I’m also prying at using a IFTTT recipe to capture my Twitter stream in a spreadsheet for analytical experiments and possible use later as a variable generator.

I remain, I hope, usefully deranged.

1 Strangely, McRibs and I have coincided before.

2 All the links are from my Diigo links rather than looked up for this post. I mention that because it’s an example of what I mean by seemingly aimless wanderings coming together at points in time.

3 It could be that my belief that we don’t know what we think we know is derived from a similar confirmation bias but I usually see that pattern cycling towards confidence rather than less . . . but I would think that wouldn’t I? . . . this does get meta pretty quickly.

4 Or 1945

5 It is not a coincidence that both teachers and students go insane with happiness when school is canceled for snow. Consider just how thankful both groups are to have one day of not going to school.

6 The NSA knows everything about me.

7 Crazy on so many levels. The students would pull up their online grades and change them in the browser. It’s like super ninja level whiteout.

8 Algorithmic oracles and Markovian driven divination both have a nice ring to them.

9 Not a victim of Churchillian Drift- Einstein did say that.

10 Amiable weirdness would be acceptable as well.


I was in an elementary school Friday and there was a line of stars with rules written on them. Most of them were fairly sad and/or boring- don’t smoke, don’t play with markers (?), don’t leave your buddy etc.

Then there were these two and I cannot tell you how happy they made me.
Don't hike in skinny jeans
Don't ride a wild horse unless it's ok

Introducing Randomness


I had a great time at UMW’s Faculty Academy. Got to meet a number of people face to face for the first time which is always interesting.

I was lucky enough to be able to present as a plenary speaker1 as well. After being repeatedly told to “bring my A game” I had completely psyched myself out. In direct retaliation I decided to introduce as many elements of “randomness” as I could into this presentation.2 I’m not necessarily arguing that all three made the presentation better but it did make it more interesting to me and I think they did add some interesting elements for the audience.

Element One

The day before the presentation I had already come up with two slide decks with two very different themes. One, had tattoos as the visual element because I thought the idea of things people were willing to have jabbed into their skin with needles made for an interesting visual theme. The other presentation was based around the danse macbre woodcuts from the Black Plague. Neither one did quite what I wanted and the macabre one was too depressing even for me.

So I decided to do a version of Deck Wars/Battle Decks. Essentially, I sent out an open call to Twitter requesting images.

Punish me. Send me url to any image & i will use in presentation tomorrow at #umw #masochist #ds106 #begging

The idea was to have no control over which images were chosen and then to use all of the images in the presentation. I did get a variety of very odd images but did not manage to use every one. A PDF of the presentation with some rough notes is here. The notes may have something to do with what I said but, then again, they may not.

Some facts about the images-

  • 24 of 36 submitted images were used
  • 1 image advocated snorting cocaine
  • 1 image discouraged snorting bacon salt (not submitted by the same people oddly enough)
  • 2 images had profanity (1 was used in the presentation)
  • 28% of the images included animals
  • 47% of the images included humans

Element Two

I didn’t present until 2:00 so I went around in the morning and interviewed a few people. I then cut up the video to include in the presentation. This worked out pretty well and I like the end result, audio aside3. I think this kind of tight turn around using people known to the audience can be a unique and powerful way to snapshot certain conversations. I believe the immediacy makes the end product seem more pertinent and I hope it inspires some people to realize they can make video less of a monumental task while still being able to use it in a powerful way.

Element Three

I had the groups talk in groups at the table and then had the tables submit the top 3 ways that student skills seemed to be deteriorating via a Google Form. My plan was then to put this into a word cloud and break down what aspects of the standardized testing mentality created these issues. Part one and two worked well but for some reason my end goal slipped my mind and I didn’t explain how we got to those problems at all. I think in part because I didn’t ask people to stick to short phrases and the tag cloud ended up being messier than I would have liked. I should have used something from ManyEyes and done something more sophisticated (like what I embedded below). This should have been the best and most important element had I not botched it. Basically, I ended up doing what I had intended to do here in the workshop on the next day.

If you share my masochistic tendencies, the full presentation is below. I’ll warn you I start off rough but do improve some.

Watch live video from umwnewmedia on

1 I had to look it up. It’s Higher Ed speak for “Second Tier Keynoter.”

2 Amateur psychologists please feel free to run with what that indicates about my personality.

3 Reasonable, non-frightening mic will be ordered soon. Recommendations for a DSLR mic?

Cool Hand Luke

1 Story – 4 Icons

Assignment: Reduce a movie, story, or event into its basic elements, then take those visuals and reduce them further to simple icons.

That’s my attempt above. I tried to stick to a three color scheme. The first image is supposed to be a parking meter. My wife was unable to ID it. It needs work. Hopefully the other three are at least identifiable.

I don’t use vector drawing tools very often. I clearly need to spend some more time with them to get some skills but that was half the reason I attempted this. My learning is now public, fairly messy, but most of all not really what I want. That is ok. It’s fun. It isn’t a contest. I’m enjoying it. I do not fear Jim Groom’s red pen.

You might also notice that I’m doing assignments in and around the #ds106 course but not necessarily all the ones that are assigned, nor am I necessarily doing them in the order they are given. I’m doing extra “work” with the interest and energy moves me1. I may go back and do some. I may not.

I like the MOOC idea. I find it valuable to have a group of people moving through the roughly same ideas at roughly the same time. I like the freedom I find in the structure. What worries me is how just calling something a course seems to bring a ton of baggage with it. People worry about not completing every assignment, being compared to others/graded and, most depressingly, being found wanting. I’ve seen this in the blog posts of participants and the comments of people I know in “real life” who’ve opted not to participate.

I see this mentality as a direct result of our educational system – adults, scared to try new things, as a learned response. I don’t blame the people. I think I see how this point is reached systemically. It’s just a pretty depressing legacy for a system that claims to produce life-long learners. It’s going to take an enormous amount of time and work to fix something buried this deep.

So, I’m inviting you to take part. If you’ve wanted to play along but haven’t because of lingering fears or doubts, come on in. The water is fine. The people couldn’t be nicer2. Jim couldn’t grade you if he wanted to3. Hey, there’s even a rather bizarre participant-run and -created streaming internet radio station.

Inspired by Colt Rane who ought to be making a huge number of English teachers happy with this image. He’s got one for the Great Gatsby as well but I don’t remember the book well enough to know if it’s good or not.

1 Clearly animated gifs got under my skin for some reason.

2 Even an odd Nazi photoshopping (by a non-class member) incident seems to have been settled fairly amicably.

3 Grades are for paying customers. All you might get is helpful feedback or compliments.