API Nirvana – The Content

Long, long ago Kin and I did the API Nirvana presentation at Open Ed 2016.

The following images are screenshots of the presentation embedded above. I described the construction in reveal.js here. There’s a good chance the images below link to the right slides in the presentation. I need to think through how this particular workflow might work better as it seems wasteful to take screenshots this way . . . 1

Slide one is a visual mashup of Kin’s logo and Nirvana’s smiley face font/color.



I find the API path one of temptation. It leads me to question many things and I struggle with what I should be spending the time to tweak, to massively modify, to try to make perfect for me. It is a battle but a better one than tolerating whatever I’m given with no recourse.

API tools allow me entirely new levels of IFTTT types of flow– and a flow where I’m dictating far more of the process without the need for a 3rd party intermediary. There’s lots of power there and lots of potential to eat huge chunks of my time as well.

It brings up lots of big picture questions about who owns what. With APIs I can increase the percentage I own and make the services/data interchangeable should I need to move on.

I built a lot of this presentation with my kids around me. As a result they still break into random Nirvana songs (even if they are Meat Puppets covers). One of them also noted this verse took one plus one and got three. That only made it more attractive to me and has encouraged me to have my kids around more often during presentation construction.

The lyrics do represent the kind of freedom API use can deliver. You don’t have to choose between A and B. You can have A, B, and C. That is awesome if you like choice.

Because I was trying to chart my own journey through implementing APIs, I interspersed actual examples. This one uses three API interactions. It’s built in Google Sheets and uses that API to write data it gets from the YouTube API to the spreadsheet and then uses the Twitter API to send it out as a tweet.

Yes. It is logging the view count and changes from week to week of the Gangnam Style video. Yes the numbers are terrifying and bring their own questions.

I do end up with a spreadsheet of data and a strangely popular tweet each week. It’s also example of doing something that only I would want to do and yet having that thing echo into eternity without any additional effort.

The directions and other stuff is linked in on the live slide.

I also implemented a couple API elements into my portfolio page. It’s pulling my 10 most recent blog posts via the WP REST API V2 and my recent Pinboard posts. It loads pretty quickly because the JSON driving the page is cached rather than actively requested. I’ve also got a combination of Flickr API to get my total photos count and more WP JSON stuff on the photographs page.

None of this is rocket science but I think it turns a static portfolio site into something that is more and more alive. It does this in a way that doesn’t require me to do extra work on a regular basis. Teamwork does not make dreamwork but APIs and workflows might.

This example is one that I’ve done various examples of before. It’s a Google Sheets backend acting as a database for a javascript frontend. My construction of these types of tools is growing progressively more complex. Kin mentioned that he hosts live versions of tools like these on GitHub. I should/will do that in the future.

API-wise the sheet itself generates JSON. We feed that into jQuery for display and interaction. Is remotely hosted jQuery an API? I don’t know. That line gets really blurry for me at times. It may matter in some scenario but I haven’t figure out when so far.

It’s like Nirvana wrote songs only focused on APIs.

One well-trodden path to API knowledge and basic computing/programming skills that can be overlooked is spreadsheets. I’m a big fan and did a huge amount there for many years before ever learning actual programming.

Google sheets gives you a number of highly valuable functions that suck info into sheets where you can chop, parse, and puree to your heart’s desire. It’s a great place to start messing with this stuff, learning logic, playing with variables etc. . . . and given the ability to tie in javascript elements via Google Scripts, your opportunities are nearly limitless.

Cheesy, I know but it’s ok to make mistakes. You aren’t juggling knives in a nursery. Play with things. Break things. Fix things. It’ll all be ok.

And finally one more WP JSON list of posts that detail various attempts at using APIs.

Hopefully this starts to hint at the never ending options you have to use APIs to end up doing exactly what you want. APIs can be a fundamental piece of reclaiming your content, even while continuing to use the places/services where there are people you want (you can have all three). They can help you build tools. They can help you gather data. They can do the work you don’t want to do or the work that you want to do if you had more time.

1 maybe I need a function that meshes div ids and reveal slides so I can have embedded notes for blogs posts like this . . . maybe some way to do this better with the built in speaker notes function . . .

API Nirvana – Functional Details

I am way behind on blog posts. I’m also bad about telling the difference between blog posts I’ve written in my head and blog posts I’ve actually written. I am glad that being able to tell the difference between reality and fantasy is not that important.

Sparked back to reality by this Tweet involving many of my favorite people on the Internet . . . I figured I’d write at least part one of that imaginary post. If my ability to tell fiction from fact continues, I’ll actually write up the content of the presentation this week.

I got the opportunity to do a talk with the rather hopeful title of API Nirvana at #opened16 with Kin Lane (the API evangelist). The original proposal had doing something like the description below with a focus on the Buddhist concept of Nirvana.

Kin Lane, API Evangelist, has long been a traveler on the API path. Tom Woodward has newly come to it. Kin will explain API Nirvana, that it’s more a journey than a destination (you are already on it), and Tom will explain the path and patterns of his early progress towards that destination. The use of APIs will range from the practical to the whimsical. The API path is, after all, what you make of it.

But you write these things so far in advance that sometimes things change and it did in this case. I did have a bunch of great Buddhist koans but I ended up hearing some Nirvana (the band) lyrics and ended up wandering fully astray. Kin was good with the rather radical thematic shift so I went with it.

I opted to build the presentation in reveal.js. I’ve been doing more and more in that framework and really like it for presentations that actively use the web. Kin frequently uses it in his presentations. It’s easy to host on Github for collaboration etc.

Functional Stuff

It opens up some interesting possibilities to actually use APIs when you’re presenting about APIs. That’s the kind of stuff that you sure can’t do in Keynote or PPT. It’s also furthering our general message that APIs help you make exactly what you want rather than having to take what’s packaged and presented to you.

I like to turn on the ability to link to the slides. It’s handy as it stops you from starting over from the beginning on a page refresh. You do that when you initialize reveal with line 4 below.

                    controls: true,
                    progress: true,
                    history: true, //that's the one for page links etc.

                    theme: Reveal.getQueryHash().theme || 'default', // available themes are in /css/theme
                    transition: Reveal.getQueryHash().transition || 'linear', // default/cube/page/concave/linear(2d)

                    // Optional libraries used to extend on reveal.js
                    dependencies: []

After browsing around, I found a lot of different lines from Nirvana songs that made me happy. It was almost too easy.


Knowing I was going to have a number of slides set up like this, I thought it’d be nice to automate the sourcing of the song, add some some cover art, and link to a bit of the audio. I could do that by hand but it seemed a good reason to use some API juice. I hit on the Spotify API right off the bat. I just went with it as the night was getting late and it had a way to access the information I wanted without needing authentication.

The endpoint that had the data I wanted was https://api.spotify.com/v1/tracks/***SONGID****. So I wrote the function below and would call it with spotIt(‘7qje4KXxXzDZsyo9TsSEwa’,’mustache’); giving me the album art, the song name, the album and linking to the Spotify sample—- all spit out into a div with the id of “mustache.”

function spotIt(spotId,divId){               
                              console.log("ready"); //just to check in 
                              success: function(data) {
                                console.log(data); //dumps the data to the console
                                    $('#'+divId).append('<p><a href="'+ data.preview_url +'"><img src="'+ data.album.images[2].url + '" class="align-left">' + data.artists[0].name  +' </br><i>' + data.name +'</i></p></a>');
                                } //success
                              }); //ajax                          

So that was kind of neat.

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-9-54-08-pmThe final slide also used the WordPress Rest API to pull in posts I’d tagged #opened16. You can see that in the URL https://bionicteaching.com/wp-json/wp/v2/posts/?filter[tag]=opened16&per_page=10.

                              console.log("ready"); //just to check in 
                              success: function(data) {
                                console.log(data); //dumps the data 
                                $.each(data, function(index, item){
                                    if (item.better_featured_image != null){ var photo ='<div class="pinimg"><img src="'+ item.better_featured_image.media_details.sizes.thumbnail.source_url +'" width="40px" height="40px"></div>' } else {var photo ='<div class="pinimg"><img src="https://tomwoodward.us/imgs/default.png" width="40px" height="40px"></div>';};              
                                    $('#blogposts').append('<a href="' + item.link + '"><div class="pinboard">' + photo + '<div class="pindetails"> ' +item.title.rendered + ' <br/> published on ' + item.date.substring(0,10) +' </div> </div></a>');              
                                  if (index == 10) return false; //only display 10 items
                                  }); //each
                                } //success
                              }); //ajax

Another functional thing of note is cheesy but it amused me. I make no apologies. It changes the word ‘perfect’ to ‘prefect’ back and forth at random intervals. I wanted it to feel a bit more glitchy. I fear it’s too subtle . . . but there’s always next time.

 The results are always <div id="perfect">prefect</div>
 function makePerfect (){                    
                    document.getElementById('perfect').innerHTML = 'PERFECT';

                function makeImperfect () {
                    document.getElementById('perfect').innerHTML = 'PREFECT';

                function timeout() {
                setTimeout(function () {
                       setTimeout(makePerfect, 1000);
                       setTimeout(makeImperfect, randomIntFromInterval(2200, 9000));
                    // Then recall the parent function to
                    // create a recursive loop.
                }, randomIntFromInterval(2200, 8000));


                function randomIntFromInterval(min,max)
                    return Math.floor(Math.random()*(max-min+1)+min);

And finally the simplest thing I like about reveal.js for presenting about the web is the ability to iframe webpages right into the presentation so they’re still interactive. It’s a simple thing but really handy and I think fundamentally different from a screenshot.

Thinking About Digital Literacy

I was asked to speak at the VCU School of Education’s Teaching Literacy in a Digital World Conference this past Saturday. I’ve haven’t spent much time thinking about “digital literacy” in the past few years. It’s been somewhat mashed together with other terms that overlap like- digital fluency, computational thinking, etc. – and like those terms there’s not much agreement on what it is. I glanced at a few definitions prior to making this but didn’t really stick with one. When Dr. Leila Christenbury started the conference she referenced the “find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet” definition of digital literacy so I added that while I waited and it makes as good a framework as anything else.

A chunk of the presentation is on GitHub here or you can fork it here. I opted to do the presentation with reveal.js and on GitHub mainly because I need to be expanding my own competencies (digital and otherwise).

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I struck the “differently” portion because I wanted to orient things more towards the idea of doing things and didn’t want people getting caught up in the nuances of whether it was really “different.”

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This was an attempt to connect with the audience. I believed they were mainly k12 teachers or faculty in the School of Ed (who tend to focus on k12). I tend to try to give myself credibility in a couple of ways. The first is that I have taught and I have taught in a really difficult situation. My first experience teaching was with 6th graders in an alternative setting. I’ve also taught in many different subjects and worked with students across grade levels. I’ve also worked with students outside of the school setting. I think that matters. I’m lacking lots of ways but I’ve got some street cred and some breadth. I’m fighting being put in the “he’s-just-a-higher-ed-talking-head” box.

I also bring my own kids into the conversation because I have four kids and they range in age from 12 to 5. They aren’t necessarily indicative of the population as a whole but they personalize the story in a variety of ways and humanize me a bit.

Finally, I stress that I’m not a nerd that’s focused on technology my whole life. I’m a history major. I have mixed feelings about technology. There are many times I consider forsaking every modern trapping and moving to the woods. Don’t put me in the “another-tech-worshipping-nerd” category.

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All that being said, I chose to make this presentation in reveal.js by writing HTML (like you see above) because it seemed like fun.

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So as we talk about digital literacy, I’ll use these four elements to try to ground myself because I can wander astray pretty easily and this topic gets messy fast without some anchor points. But before we launch into details I want to set the stage a bit because “digital” anything tends to become a loaded topic.

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There are some people who are going to say literacy is literacy and things aren’t changing.

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There are other people (sometimes the same people) who will tell you that technology is destroying the world. Selfies tend to be a primary piece of evidence. My argument tends to be that technology has made things people have always done more evident. Selfies, from paintings to photographs, have long been a presence . . . and what is more indulgent . . . taking a quick picture or spending days painting a quadruple self-portrait? And I’m not even arguing about the right/wrongness of it. I just maintain we usually blame technology for bringing evidence of the things we have always done and we also have a tendency to make the impact of that technology universal in a way that it is not. A good friend of mine just moved to Italy. The way we use phones in the USA is not the way they’re used in Italy. Many of things we dislike about technology are simply expressions of the culture we’ve created.

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But technology and digital do complicate things. It’s difficult to tell which of the images above is “real.” That is my father-in-law. He happens to be a football coach. He’s coached for both those teams but was lacking a bio image. I, with very little Photoshop experience, was able not to switch out the shirts but to actually change the expressed colors of the image. Add a little cut and paste for logos and presto- a new reality that is very difficult to distinguish. Now certainly people have always had the ability to manipulate photos but the bar to doing it well is now considerably lower and accessible to far more people. That’s both awesome and scary.

This is a 3D scan of a passenger pigeon skull. It’s both interactive in a digital way and it can be printed out as well. That line between what is real and what is digital is steadily growing blurrier. That’s kind of crazy but wasn’t really made concrete to me until I received the following email from my son.

thingiverse printing request
My kids do write emails. It is a different world and while they aren’t some sort of cyborg-digital-native, kids growing up in this environment have some different ideas. I got the email above from my oldest son. He’s twelve. Notice a few things. First, he sent it to all four of my email addresses. I’ll consider that a marker for importance. Secondly, the email has a link in it. Minor in many ways but one of the main things that makes digital really unique. Third, if you look at the email signature, you’ll see it indicates this email was sent with an iPhone 8S. He does not have an iPhone and there is no 8S on the market. It is a strange and uniquely digital joke. One that I really appreciate.

The link in the email led me to this 3D file. It’s GoPro mount for Nerf gun. He wanted to be able to film a first-person perspective of his neighborhood battles. That has a number of crazy layers including that he’s post-processing the video and adding all sorts of special effects. I’m not saying he’s a normal child and he has been raised around an odd father but this was totally on his own and it’s something I don’t know that I’d have ever considered. The idea of 3D printing something is still so foreign to me that I don’t know if I’d have thought of looking for the file. I think that expectations around how the world works is entwined in this idea of literacy. It is skills and dispositions but it is also expectations.


After all that, let’s get back to our framework. Finding stuff. Can we find digital stuff? Sure. Can we find good stuff? Can we find it fast? Can we find it when Google/Bing can’t? Do we know where to go to find certain things faster/better than Google? I’d argue that the answer here is mostly no.

Most people can type in stuff in Google but I rarely see evidence of taking advantage of Google’s internal options to find things faster/better. Google itself gave up on advanced search and removed it from the front page. So Google may have gotten better but I don’t think people have. The deep dependence on the tech to make up for the lack of thought worries me.

Then there are even simpler things. We teach kids to scan for keywords. Do we do the digital equivalent? Do we teach them to do a simple ctrl+F/cmd+F when they need to find words in a large body of text? Maybe but, if so, it doesn’t seem to stick. Search for “love” in Maria Montessori’s work. Think of the complexities around “finding” when you look through text more deeply.

We also have a tendency to teach evaluation through overly simplistic things like “it is a .com or .edu site?” We’ll default condemn Wikipedia rather than looking at talk pages and analyzing sources. Instead we’ll offload validity to a third party and say “trust all things on .gov/.edu or paid for by the library.” This triggers the part of me that wants to go live in the woods. Trust no one. Analyze everything. Always. You must not blindly trust.

My Facebook feed conclusively proves that adults have no idea how to evaluate what is real vs what they wish was real. There’s no doubt the digital world makes that harder because it is easier to make something look professional. It is easier to decontextualize/recontextualize something. But all these things point at weaknesses we’ve had for a long time. We’re just now seeing more and more evidence. The adults who had old school educations aren’t any better at this than “millennials” and it’s not because the content is digital.


We aren’t so good at use either. People often don’t know when (let alone how) to take advantage of the standard pieces of the Office suite. When should I use a spreadsheet1 vs a table in Word? When do I need a presentation vs a document? These are simple(r) choices for the most part around established products (what!?). We’re talking about 25+ years here and we aren’t even getting into the idea of online tools. Don’t get me wrong, it’s complex stuff. Just being able to read some of the new multimedia-dataviz-interactive journalism is difficult. Creating these messages technically and conceptually brings up huge additional challenges to literacy.

But we miss huge basics in this literacy. I guess it’s literacy anyway. RSS readers still have value. Even if RSS dies, the concept that information can flow and come to you rather than vice versa is important and will play out in other technologies. Is that a conceptual digital literacy?

There’s also scale. If we’re better at finding things, we tend to also need better ways to organize and store what we find. What role does taxonomic and folksonomic structures for organizing information play in digital literacy? What role do Diigo or similar tools play in digital literacy? How do we gain more benefit from the same amount of effort? How do we teach these concepts within tools but without becoming dependent on the specific tool? It’s messy stuff.2

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Then we get into the link. The building block of the Internet. When do you link? Why? How does it differ from a footnote, from a citation, from a tool tip? When do you open a link in a new window vs a new tab? More importantly, as always, how do you get people asking themselves questions like these when they use/create links?

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Do you consider parsing a URL a literacy? It might be. Alan does it for fun but also functionally and with purpose. Knowing there is login in URLs opens up options in the same way that understanding page numbers in a book changes how you view those elements. URLs are a major element in how the web is organized so understanding them can be beneficial but the diversity there is intimidating and further complicating by the ability to add tracking and other variables to URLs . . . but don’t we want literate participants on the Internet aware of stuff like that? I think so but also recognize how big and complex this is.

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The problem and potential of digital literacy keeps expanding. We have new ways to collaboratively annotate information and people doing it- for Kanye and for Shakespeare. Our options for visually and interactively representing information continues to expand. It has potential. There is plenty of good there but it’s more complex than it once was. You can see into someone’s process like never before- be it art, writing, or programming. How do I find useful communities? How do I participate in communities in ways that matter for me and the community itself? Additional complexities multiply with the idea of sharing, copyright, EULAs, terms of use, and the pervasiveness of ad-supported-“free” tools.

It’s a bit crazy but beautifully so in many ways. It has so much potential, much of it untapped. We have the chance to focus on digital literacy as an outlook, as something dispositional. We’re not teaching keyboarding. We are not teaching PowerPoint. We are working with age old questions and challenges but with the ability to bring to bear an entirely new set of options. Digital literacy can be, at least partially, a dispositional belief that fluidity is desired, malleability is possible, and that all these considerations can be fun. It is a chance to blur lines towards a modern day Vitruvian literacy. Many challenges? Undoubtedly.

1 not to mention function, autofill dragging, sparklines etc.

2 and you can only mourn Google Reader for so long

My Chunk of the VCU ALT Lab Educause Presentation

I got a chance to present at Educause with Gardner, Jon, and Molly. The session was about 45 minutes so we each had about 7 minutes. The session description is below. I figured I’d throw my slides/comments up here- mainly because I will forget everything if I don’t write it down.

In the past, centers supporting excellence in teaching and learning tended to follow models of faculty development focusing on incremental change in widely accepted practices. VCU’s Academic Learning Transformation Laboratory seeks to change that paradigm. This session will begin with our story thus far. Come help us write our next chapters!

from the program

This is a list of my greatest fears (although I left out hypocrisy which I find myself repeating almost as much as workflow). It’s easy to scare people out of doing things.

It’s easy to end up aiming for mediocrity. That feels like a high bar at times. Don’t call warming up dog food a victory. It’s really almost worse than leaving it cold. At least cold dog food isn’t pretending. I’ve had to do it at times but don’t let it ever become a goal.

Excuses are easy. Figuring out real limits on capacity and aspiration is hard and a constantly moving target. It’s a tightrope to walk but walk it.

Many places support the idea that faculty shouldn’t know anything about technology. Faculty can simply play the role of SME1 and drop off their content like so much instructional-technology dry cleaning. That doesn’t work. It usually ends up with both parties unhappy or worse- indifferent. This doesn’t mean all faculty members become experts in technology. It just means both parties ought to leave the interaction changed. Learning ought to occur. It’ll vary depending on the faculty and the interaction but if you’re not creating some sort of lasting change then you’re wasting time.

That’s pretty much my goal. We try to create action and working tools/sites/whatever as fast as possible. Nothing kills excitement and momentum like saying “We’ll get back to you in a couple of weeks.” Most of my meetings are around a cafe table and we have something tangible by the time the conversation ends. It often isn’t perfect but it works and we can build on it.

The other key element here is giving up control. I make this thing with a faculty member and then it’s theirs. I have to accept whatever they do with it. They might change the font to comic sans or do something equally horrific. It’s rough at times but it must be done because it opens the door to ownership and freedom. LMS’s will save you from yourself. FB will save you from choices. I will not.2

As a result, I’m often working beyond my technical competency. If you’ve read this blog at all you’ll know I’m not a programmer. Prior to starting work at VCU I had never written a plugin or done anything more than meddling with some basic php in an already completed WordPress theme.


I do almost everything through a combination of dedicated googling, Stackoverflow, and Github. I occasionally fall back on the kindness of people I know. Alan, Tim, and others have helped me out at various times and I also learn quite a bit from their efforts to document what they do. I do the same because I have no choice but to believe devoutly in Internet Karma.

I’ve talked about this before but we have a lot going on with platforms and . . . scale. We have only one “technical” person to support it and we currently have three open positions. Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of great people helping keep ALT Lab churning but for this side of things I am the one. I probably find that far more frightening than anyone else.I usually feel in particularly intently when I do something in terminal. I think about this a lot when people talk about not having enough people to support things. What we’re doing isn’t optimal but you can do quite a lot with very few people.

That’s our current main WordPress multisite count. It’s big and it comes with some complexities because of that. It’s also growing every day. We’re up 300% form this time last year and I see new sites and users every day. It terrifies me.

This list needs pruning but it’s worth looking at our user numbers, our plugins, our themes, and wondering a bit about how restrictive many environments are. It does make my job harder at times. I have to worry about updates and when things stop working or when things work fine apart but break when you put them together. It’s harder than not doing it but it can be done. I feel it has to be done. There’s no point in having an internal system that can do far less than students could get for free elsewhere.

You may also note that we have 3 multisite installs (on two different servers) and 9 single WordPress installs.

We also run a Discourse install, phpBB, and are routinely doing a variety of tricks with Google Apps/scripting. That’s all meshed in with WordPress in a variety of ways and connected to various APIs and JavaScript libraries. All of this sits in three different server environments that run different OSs and have radically different constraints.

It is a lot of stuff and it’s been a pretty intense ride. I’ve learned many, many things in a relatively short time. I’ve also made a large number of mistakes and done things in ways that would likely make some people cry. I feel a bit like someone trying to learn a few languages at a time as I move between languages, platforms, and servers. It’s not always efficient but it is interesting and seeing things from all sorts of levels is helpful. I still don’t always know what I’m doing but I do have more and more confidence that I can figure it out.

1 It is worth noting that SME (pronounced smee) was originally an insult used by Smurfs.

2 I will advise and show other options based on what I know but if you want to jump . . .

#UVaTeach Reflection


I had an interesting day at UVA a few days ago as part of their Innovation in Pedagogy Summit. I got the chance to talk to UVA’s Teaching Resource Center group and listen to some interesting educators talk about their practice.

I was the closing keynote and I talked, as I have before, about what educational technology might be versus what it is. Essentially this was an extension and deepening of the It Could be Beautiful concept I did at VSTE a few years ago. It helps to see the depth of the perversion and misuse of educational technology before looking at ways it is working. Otherwise people tend to pretend it all sucks or it’s all going great (depending on their own stance). We seem to have created a populace, in the USA at least, that has a great deal of difficulty with things that are not stark examples of black and white. I don’t know if I should blame the media, capitalism, or standardized testing.1

What made this particular iteration a bit stronger was starting off by asking the audience to do something right away that set the scale of what we’re endeavoring to do in education. I asked them to go and read their college/university/departmental mission and vision statements and talk about them at their tables. What resonated? What seemed most important? Because this wasn’t a Twitter crowd2 I ended up circulating among the tables to get an idea what they were talking about and I heard a variety of things. A number of people read the text aloud to their table but in altered voices, almost as if the goals were too much to read normally. I heard comments like “We’re supposed to save the world.” That was followed by nervous laughter.

I brought us back together using a Buddhist prayer bell audio clip. It had been done in an earlier presentation (with an actual prayer bell3) by Susan Bauer-Wu and Kurtis Schaeffer and it seemed to work really well in both cases.


This was the next slide. It shows the Pew top concerns from the USA. I don’t want to oversimplify things but I both blame the products of higher education for the creation of these issues and hold them responsible for progress towards solving them. It’s an intimidating responsibility especially given progress to date. I opted not to add on the UN’s millennium goals because I found them too depressing.

The point here was to contrast the magnitude of the challenge to our world and higher ed with the rather dismal bar we set for educational technology. Less hate. Slightly less sucky.

We can’t be creating students that are going to solve these problems while at the same time having such contempt for them that we believe they’ll get lost if they leave the LMS. That without total tech support the student has no chance. We have a disgustingly low opinion of the people we’re handing these problems to.

These seem to be the guiding principles around most ed tech constructions. Fear of teachers- let the machines standardize the teaching because we can’t trust the faculty. Fear of students – don’t let them embarrass us in public or let them get lost. Love of money – how can we do this cheaper? There’s a lot more depth to these but you get the idea.

Often educational technology helps further pervert and separate the world of “education” from the actual world when it ought to be doing the opposite.

This ad remains one of the worst examples of bedazzling education that I have seen. This is something an educational leader was willing to have committed to print and disseminated. She still has a job making educational decisions for an entire school as an assistant principal. I think about this often.

I doubled down on the misery with this one which is new. The k12 examples tend to be really stark and easily understood but they’re echoed in many ways in higher ed. I’ve considered asking for additional examples on Twitter (#edtechFails) but fear it would be too depressing.

Despite all this I still have hope. I still have joy. I’m not so sure about the lyrics though. I mostly hum along.

I then try to bring us out of the depths of depression with the magical things that continue to amaze me about the Internet. The examples are below but they fall into a few simple (and I think progressively more complex) categories.

There’s the diversity of media that exists in what I’ll call a raw state- just interesting photographs, primary source material etc. It’s the raw fodder needed to build other things. There are also the more processed creations that are educational but are passionately read/viewed by people of their own free will.

The next level is the place where the lines between content and tool begin to blend- the idea of explorable explanations. These types of resource open up all kinds of opportunities for different kinds of questions and the ability for these tools to move beyond the particular course/major and into other realms.

That’s followed by communities that do interesting things, many of them educational, but all representing interesting expenditures of energy and lots of people dedicated to doing things.

I then tried to show how we were starting to get at pieces of this at VCU.

Given some of the questions I got at the end, I need to work on articulating things better. One question around “I like shiny thing too but what about learning outcomes?” really surprised me because I’d taken out a chunk of more advanced technology and had focused on things that I felt were pretty straight forward. It seemed so obvious to me but clearly that wasn’t shared. On the other end of that question I find it hard to hold much faith in learning outcomes as I see them articulated. The utter failure of k12 in this area ought to be a powerful warning but it seems unheeded. Despite being better positioned for independence and resistance it seems higher ed will likely wander into the same quantitative quagmire with a 10 year delay.

The Links



The Goods



1 It may be that these are all the same things.

2 Matt decided to use a conference hashtag, #UVaTeach, for the first time this year and I expect things will continue to expand on that front in the years to come.

3 Nationality/Religious affiliation uncertain.

It Could Be Beautiful: Aspirational vs Operational EdTech

creative commons licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by ellyjonez1

This is a bit of brainstorming for a presentation I’m doing in a few months. It’s a bit of a remix of some stuff I’ve highlighted before but there are a few new examples in the mix (bolded below). I think they’re well worth looking at more deeply- especially Math Box and Keshif.

I like Math Box because it tightens up the equation/interactive visualization connection in math. It’s one of the reasons I love Fluid Math. Math Box is not for the faint of heart (javascript library) but it starts to lead towards different expectations around how we might see and interact with math concepts.

Keshif incorporates many of the elements that have had me chasing Simile Exhibit and FacetWP. It does it in a really slick visual package that enables some really interesting options. I really believe there’s depth to the different kind of understandings we can come to when data can be quickly sifted and sorted. It is interactive data visualization that can change the kinds of questions we ask.

Have better examples? Am I getting too flaky? Throw some feedback my way in the comments or write in the document.2

A great deal of energy and attention has been focused on using technology to automatically grade quizzes, to “capture” lectures, to make the most massive MOOC . . . to McDonaldize education. There is another path. Technology can humanize. It can augment, extend, and empower. There is real transformative power for students and instructors when they interact and build with these tools. The ability to make useful products, to unite the abstract and concrete, to compress action/feedback cycles, to allow for fluid and interactive presentation of data towards new and deeper understandings – this is where technology starts to matter.

These are new possibilities that should not be ignored. We can rethink what we see as educational, consider how interaction shapes understanding, and take advantage of new ways to build what we really want. The work and worth of the academy can be more visible and powerful than ever before.

A few of the sites/resources/tools/communities that will be highlighted include-

1 Thanks to Alan for making the Flickr attribution helper which is really slick in all sorts of ways. I finally got around to reinstalling it.

2 Seriously. Write in the document.

Squirrels In My Pants

I did a presentation the other day on how one might use the Promethean software to do some interesting things with video. I don’t think the software is essential to do any of this but it did make it pretty easy and we already have it on all our computers and all our student computers. In any case, I used the video above to demo a few easy things for kids to do using screenshots from virtually any video.

Yes, it did make my kids’ day to use a Fineas and Ferb song about squirrels in someone’s pants. I’m not sure what the teachers thought of it but sometimes you have to amuse yourself.

Simplest- Visual Answers

Take video screenshots to answer questions. Easy but a different level of involvement with the video. Depending on the questions this could be low level stuff or something more sophisticated.

You could do simple things like ID the protagonist. Or you could ask harder questions like- Capture the most dramatic frame in the video.

Summarize or Cartoonize

Using simple screenshots you can add word balloons to summarize the video or just use the frame captures as fodder for comics in general. You can make it more complex by adding restrictions (see below) – things like you have to summarize the video in only four frames and 6 lines of poetry. Stuff like that. It can make things more interesting and done with the right examples it could even be at least amusing.

Scary Mary Plot Reversal

The still picture version of a Scary Mary type plot reversal. Simple stuff, I know.

Time Intervals

This is a rough and dirty way to do something similar to what Dan Meyer did with the basketball shot image (at least for the still portion). Essentially, you just hit the frame capture tool at semi-regular intervals and then lay the images over the top and mess with the transparency some. Not super, but really easy and all done in one program that we have and people use.

My example used Angry Birds. I don’t think it was the best choice. I think the basketball shot Dan uses is more interesting to most students- especially if you are the one taking the shot.


Once again, I’m just trying to find ways for teachers/students to mimic stuff Dan Meyer is doing but with as little tech knowledge as possible. I saw his use of an embedded timer in his falling rocks series. That is one nice aspect of the way the Promethean software works. I can add all sorts of useful objects from a built in library- the timer being one, grid overlays are another (it’ll default underneath objects, you can set it to the topmost level under object properties).

The main goal with all this is just to show that it doesn’t have to be hard. We can use simple software and simple ideas to do some pretty interesting things with students. All of our students have this software yet usage still tends to focus on duplicating things you might as well do in PPT.

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 Justin.tv

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?

Miami-Dade Workshop 6-11-09

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Picking Up Gauntlets is Heavy Work

So Dan threw down a challenge as he tends to do. I did the easy part but also felt I should do some critiquing to maintain some credibility in my own mind.

I’m taking a shot at how I might change Ms. Mercer’s Powerpoint presentation. The main thing that made this difficult is I don’t know what she says during this presentation and that stops me from really considering how I might change things more fundamentally. So the following is given in the hope of providing helpful and positive feedback for Ms. Mercer. Please excuse any mistakes I make while attempting to determine intent.


Here are the two title slides. Ms. Mercer’s slide will always be on top.

I found that slide to be a little heavy and dark for my tastes and wanted to go with something similarly humorous but a little cleaner. I found a warning slide about killer electricity and dropped the background in Keynote using the Alpha Channel tool1


Here I’m just simplifying. If I’m going to be out there talking, I don’t feel I need any more specifics than this. I might drop the slide altogether.

I’d probably use this slide to get the audience talking about why they use presentations. Get some top answers and then move on with what I’d bill as pedagogically and brain based rationales for using presentation software2


I’m sure Ms. Mercer has a story to go with the chair image but I couldn’t figure it out (which might be a good thing). I like the chairs- the colors are interesting. I’m not sure the rationale for having the flickr rating in the image.

I opted for these crazy looking poodles. I might opt to make this an animation slide starting with a small picture of an innocent looking poodle and mentioning that I’m terrified of poodles. I’d ask the room who else might be scared of poodles then switch to these crazy looking animals and say that visual support is often essential to proving one’s point.

I like the image because it’s dramatic and with or without the story it’s fairly humorous to see poodles as scary (at least to me).


The kids are cute but the image is blurry. I’m not sure it gets to the point I’m guessing is being made- which is that PPT is a good way record pair shares and story talks.

I went with something fairly simple. Mic = record. I didn’t really even want to limit it to pair shares and story talks but just emphasize that the software does a good job recording things in various ways. The image is mine and was used partially out of laziness and partially because it was in the image bank in my head as something that would fit. It’s not bad, but there are better ones out there.


Ms. Mercer now had a few slides in a row of ways to use this to capture and display student work.

I opted for the idea of presentation as refrigerator. You know, the place you put up the great work your kids bring home. You could also use it as a digital bulletin board. That type of thing. I might show some pieces of student work. I’m not solidly sold on this concept as I’m interpreting it but, once again, I don’t have the full story.


Here the idea is that to make good presentations you need a solid, recognizable goal. I didn’t like this shot because the goal was kind of hard to make out and I am in VA so a hockey goal would be somewhat confusing3. The blur and the brightness of the background didn’t help things but that may be my wannabe photographer self coming out.

I’m not sure I’d keep the text here or in the previous slide but I left it in to keep things a little more in line with what Ms. Mercer’s original line of thought appeared to be. Once again, this is one of my own shots chosen out of semi-laziness. I just wanted a clear, fairly plain picture of a goal. That’s all.


I was fine with this picture. I don’t love it but I’ve got no issues.

I ended up just putting up the word plan. I initially had blueprints. I then went with a picture of Hannibal from the A-Team4 and then finally I did a hand made drawing with the vector stuff in Keynote to do a bunch of loops ending in a red X. I didn’t like any of them that much so I just went with plain. It’s ok.

This was another decent picture and I liked the goal. I just found the scaffolding harder to make out because of the color and pixelation of the image.

I went with something I felt was a little more dramatic. I like how this image allowed you to clearly see what the scaffolding was supporting. The imagine did not initially fill the page, so I took a quick screen shot of the outter left edge and copy/pasted it until it filled in with the solid gray that it now has.


Here I felt the Bloom’s diagram was too complex for people to get anything out of it. I’d include it on a hand out if I felt it was key to the final understanding. I figure the main point is to talk about higher order thinking skills . . . so I used the mountain shot. I played around with some meditation shots and probably would have used one if it had been decent. I was going to make it look like the kid was hovering a good bit off the ground but the shots all would have taken a fair amount of work to crop out the background and I am doing this for free in spare time after all.


From here on I skipped around a bit and went to slides I felt a little more strongly about redesigning. Doing this, especially this way, takes some serious time and effort. Seriously.

So the first image didn’t really say feedback to me. It looked more like a teacher telling students stuff but that could be because of my own deeply buried educational baggage.

I thought about it for a while and decided a Post-it style note symbolized feedback to me. To get this I used the note feature in Keynote and then just took a screenshot of it and put it in as an image. Simple, easy, quick. Fairly acceptable visual result.


Here’s one where I think what I did actually makes something of a difference. Ms. Mercer is talking about quality vs quantity. She uses the rose as her analogy which I think works for some but not all. My bet is that everyone can relate to cupcakes. So here is one small, beautiful cupcake sitting in lonely isolation. It is clearly a work of art. That’s also probably what I’d say when showing the slide.

It was set small and isolated on purpose. It’s meant to be. If you made it larger you’d be ruining the point. This is one small, exquisitely crafted thing.


The problem Ms. Mercer was having was that some people were saying they liked this yard better than the rose. So I’m working the inner guilt path. Even if someone would rather eat the 15 or so odd horrific looking snack cakes here, they know that the quality of the single cupcake is superior and a better choice. The few who will definitely say they prefer the mass of junk will really only reinforce the point- it’s better to have students work on making superior products than to have them churn out masses of garbage.


I think the marine guy would be usable if you had him on video saying something nice but in a drill sergeant’s voice. The text gets too confusing as it is with the other competing visual elements.

I changed the statement to some extent to reflect the way I see visual design. It is what you’re saying and how you say it. This would give me a brief chance to talk about color and font. I don’t know if I’d have to be this heavy handed. It actually hurt me to make this slide but anything in the name of ending the scourge of bad fonts.


I changed Ms. Mercer’s original photo so the top one is one I put back roughly the way it was. I’d use the fact that it doesn’t initially follow the rule of thirds and just show how you can enlarge and shift it some so that it becomes a stronger photo. Looking at it now, I might even move it farther to the left.

If the people know you I’d keep this for sure. If not, I’d probably go with another photo or mention that it’s your son explicitly and that you took the photo to get that emotional linkage going. Photo wise, it looks like the background is actually in focus and your son is slightly out of focus.

So there’s my $1.50 worth of comments and at least a few alternate ways of looking at the presentation visually. My guesses could be way off but they were done with a pure heart and for the good of the cause. Hope they do something good for you and maybe for someone else out there.

1 This aspect of Keynote alone makes me so happy it’s hard to verbalize. Sad but true.

2 I do some stuff on neuroscience and presentation so that’s probably why I want to go into that channel so readily.

3 That is opposed to my hometown of Hunstville, AL- the hockey capital of the south (really).

4 The “I love it when a plan comes together” guy. I have to keep a close watch on my own odd sense of humor in most of my presentation.