Category Archives: Reflections

LMS Metaphors

Blackboard/LMS is like a -

It seems there are whole papers written on metaphors for Blackboard.

I saw Jon’s LMS-as-training-wheels metaphor and Britt’s response- both as a result of Jim’s talk. I’ve been thinking about it a bit and I think it ends up giving the LMS the wrong kind of credit. It implies a temporary guide, a training ground to get you used to using the Internet to teach. I don’t think that’s the goal at all.

Ronald M.D.

It seems to me that the LMS is a fast-food franchise kitchen. It does exactly what it is meant to do. It is built for people with minimal skills to make cheap food quickly at scale. It isn’t meant to be a training ground so people can move up to gourmet cooking. These skills don’t transfer. You aren’t even meant to graduate to being a line cook at Friday’s.

The LMS reaches the minimum quality people will tolerate in exchange for convenience and low cost.1 The LMS focuses on making the very things I find most problematic easy. Blackboard tells you what it thinks is most important for teachers with their own lead copy.

Efficient Teaching Tasks
Blackboard Learn enhances basic teaching tasks like grading and creating assessments. And with an intuitive design, this is one LMS that will save you time in and out of the classroom. – love Bb

It’s pretty clear why Bb exists. Every bit of that language reeks of unpleasant things done efficiently at scale.

Now you can take fast food and do big campaigns about serving up some semi-healthy stuff. You even have people with energy and creativity using fast food ingredients to make gourmet food. But when it comes down to it, the ingredients, the hardware, the thinking behind the layout is focused entirely on a scale delivery of certain kind of “food” and that purpose drives most everything that will ever happen in a fast food kitchen.2

It’s also pretty clear that our society is perfectly ok with fast food. We eat liquid meat paste after all. Putting multiple hundreds of students in a class, the wild popularity of video/quiz MOOCs, certainly indicate we have a very low bar for education. Most people have not had much but fast food education and any move away is likely to create dissatisfaction of various kinds.

Zombie Ordering at McDonald's

Anyone can put content online now. I think YouTube comments prove that conclusively. If not, there’s always Literally Unbelievable or your 2nd grader of choice. So the technical threshold the LMS was supposed to get faculty over isn’t really there but the LMS ceiling remains. There’s no real bump coming into the LMS but be prepared to stoop the entire time you’re in it. It does make scale assessment easy. It does put the focus clearly on grades and an ever tightening feedback loop. It does allow us to scale faculty to greater and greater numbers of students.

The LMS tool shapes what faculty think they can and should do both online and off. It shapes how courses are designed,3 how assessments are designed. It shapes what students and parents expect. It shapes how Universities structure course loads and enrollment. It shapes far too many things in a reciprocal loop of “practical” choices and low bars. That’s a terrible thing to standardize. The LMS is a symptom of larger issues, a cause of larger issues, and a way of understanding these issues. That scares me. The “solution” that contributes to the problem it solves is a hard one to untangle when it’s enmeshed in the understanding of the problem like this. Yet we keep bringing more people into it, becoming more reliant while simultaneously limiting the understandings and aspirations that would enable us to do something different.

1 Choose your own cost metric.

2 I will opt not to explore the horrific things that take place in fast food kitchens.

3 Many sites built outside of Bb in other tools look just . . . like . . . Blackboard courses.


Visualizing Jackson Ward: From Start to Finish


TL;DR -First, go check out the Historic/Now Jackson Ward gallery. See the code for a Google SS backend on Github or get the jquery plugin. Read on for an attempt to detail the search and construction process.

This is an attempt at ridiculous transparency regarding my search path and building process from start to finish. By the end, I’ll provide a working example of a pre/post slider for historical photographs using a Google Spreadsheet to hold the URLs. This post is overkill and will be painful for anyone not suffering from some condition which should be treated medically.

The Search

Friday, March 14, 10:30 (ish) PM

I read Erin White’s1 THAT Camp proposal about capturing modern images to parallel VCU’s Jackson Ward collection.

Eric Johnson’s comment about the Washington Post’s then/now slider got me wondering if I could figure out how that worked and set up something decent prior to Saturday’s sessions.

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

Search #1 – 10:40 PM – javascript slide between photographs

I immediately start finding slide show focused pages. So I realize I’m not searching with the right words after about seven sites and around 60 seconds.

Search #2 – 10:41 PM – washington post then and now

I figure I’ll go see what I can find in the actual page source that Eric references. This is probably where I should have started. After looking around the source, I find a few javascript references which happen to have “wp” in the titles.

Search #3 – 10:42 PM – wp slider

My brain has been trained to associate “wp” with WordPress rather than associating it with, say, the Washington Post. This led me down a false WordPress trail for a while.

10:42-11:10 PM

I then spend quite a bit of time trying to piece together the way the Washington Post does things. My pattern really consists of trying to parse out the relevant CSS and javascripts to make a working demo. With a lot of these more complex CMS driven pages, that proves to me more trouble than it’s worth. After 30 minutes of mixed searching and building, I decide this is not fruitful.

Search #4 – 11:10 PM – manual image slider javascript

This search, too, yields mainly slide show type results. I spent a bit more time looking at these in an attempt to see if I couldn’t think of way to use what I saw in a non-standard manner to achieve the same result.

Search #5 – 11:13 PM – javascript tutorial slider compare photos washington post

I was hoping someone would be associating the Washington Post with this technique (like Eric did) and had created a tutorial for it or maybe asked someone to make that kind of tutorial. Slide keeps pulling things I don’t want.

Search #6 – 11:18 PM – jquery tools overlay mask image

Since “slider” keeps pulling things I don’t want, I start trying to think of other words that might make sense. I’m also getting more specific and looking at “jquery” rather than the more generic “javascript”. Masking turns out to be a more all-or-nothing process so dead end there.

Search #7 – 11:20 PM – jquery examples scrub

Scrub was a bit of a reach but it does refer to dragging a playhead along a timeline but doesn’t get me anything close to what I want. The change to “examples” was also meant to open up the search beyond tutorials or tools.

Search #8 – 11:20 PM – jquery toggle between two images

Toggle did get me examples that would let me switch between two images but it was an all or nothing proposition and driven by a click rather than a slider.

Winner – Search #9 – 11:20 PM – compare historical photos jquery

I decide to reconsider my vocabulary and use something more like I think a normal human might say. I keep the jquery term so that I’m not swamped with millions of results. Simple and the winner. It leads me to Stackoverflow and from that the answer.


I’ve never looked at one of my search paths like this before. It’s a pain to try to pull together but I think it’s been fairly informative. I’m looking at making this faster and better. Seems like a Chrome extension of some sort would be a really advantageous way to do this. It’s all in a database so it seems like it’d be relatively easy.


Demo – 11:20 PM Friday

The tutorial works just as advertised. I had a demo up in about 3 minutes. You can view source to see how it’s set up. I didn’t initially recognize the need to number both the function and div id when you have multiple images.

Google Spreadsheet Feeder – Start to Finish about 2 hours

It would have been very easy to run this off a database or text files but I thought that tying it to a Google Spreadsheet would make it easier for the group to add their photos. Since I had Timmy’s template for that, it seemed very doable. This is why you want to keep your old work (or old borrowed work) hand and well commented. These things inevitably come back up and you don’t have to start from scratch.

The script below adds numbers to the script for each image added in the Google Spreadsheet.2

The basic loop cycle builds out the pre/post images. You can see the whole thing on Github. Sharing is caring, even if you don’t quite now what you’re doing.

It’s wrapped with some Bootstrap CSS for minor formatting but could probably use a more concentrated effort at improving the layout.

The main portion that I never got straight was the loop count between the portion that adds the numbers for the javascript and the portion that adds the numbers for the div. They start differently. The javascript portion starts with number two and moves from there but the div portion pulls the data from the first row of the spreadsheet. I don’t know why. In the end, I grew frustrated and brute forced a solution. I hard coded an initial element into the javascript portion and erased the headers on the Google Spreadsheet. That solved the problem but I intend to find out what the deal is there at some point.

1 Look, Jim Groom a modern tilde space account!

2 The following embed is a Github Gist which might be a neat way to do this as I’m not really happy with the ways I can share snippets of code and/or comment on them.

Living the Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds

That’s the semi-official name of the MOOC that Gardner Campbell, Jon Becker, Jason Coats, Jessica Gordon, Bonnie Boaz, and Patty Strong. The official name of the course is UNIV 200 Inquiry and the Craft of Argument. The course hashtag is #thoughtvectors.

I’ll quote a portion of Gardner’s email description of the course. All the links were added by me so any weird stuff there is my fault.

We’re doing an Alec-Couros-esque cMOOC this summer. The course will be offered for credit for enrolled VCU students and will be open to participation by anyone in the world who a) finds out about it and b) wants to participate. The topic? Well, on the books here the course is a sophomore-level course in research writing: UNIV 200 Inquiry and the Craft of Argument. We’re doing a fully online version that has an official designation as a DIGITAL ENGAGEMENT PILOT and what we hope is the intriguing alternate name of “Living the Dream1: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds.” The “dream” is the one (are the ones) outlined by Vannevar Bush (“As We May Think“), J. C. R. Licklider (“Man-Computer Symbiosis“), Doug Engelbart (“Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework“), Ted Nelson (“Computer Lib / Dream Machines“), and Alan Kay/Adele Goldberg (“Personal Dynamic Media“). Our goal is to awaken students to these powerful dreams, to invite their engagement with research in the digital age along the lines suggested by these dreams, and empower them to imagine, design, and build inquiry projects that will serve them well both in the academy and beyond.

Gardner goes on with many more interesting details but I don’t want to borrow all his words. There are a number of organizational elements that make this an interesting adventure. UNIV 200 is a required course (although there are non-online, non-digital engagement pilot versions exist)2 in University College and one of the Focused Inquiry core curriculum courses. That means a lot of good things and adds a layer of sophistication in terms of figuring out how to make the course map with what already exists. We are lucky enough to have several UNIV 200 instructors joining us to plan the course and to teach it as well. The first meeting of that group was today.

The following is an attempt to condense that conversation into something that will be of use to the group and possibly to others who want to follow a similar path. I see this work as a collaborative effort and didn’t attempt to assign ideas to individuals. If I speak in the first person, it’s usually to avoid others being tarred with an idea that came to me in writing this and that hasn’t been vetted by the group.

UNIV 200

The end goal of this course is students who are skilled at evaluating and creating work with internal coherence. Broadly stated, internal coherence is the ability to logically sequence claims, evidence, and reasoning to construct a persuasive argument3 at both the macro and micro level. These skills should transfer to other courses and life in general.

Unit 1

The first unit is focused on-

  • finding and identifying arguments
  • dissecting and analyzing arguments
  • initial research on a topic of personal choice

Unit 2

The second unit is focused on-

  • refining the core research question
  • finding, evaluating, and organizing information in pursuit of their argument/answer
  • submitting multiple small writing assignments associated with those goals

Historically, a chunk of this seems to have been done with a matrix-like layout of arguments and supporting sources. Occasionally, people have used concept maps as well.

Unit 3

The third unit is focused on writing the paper.

Unit 4

The fourth unit is focused on reconstructing the paper in a multimedia format.

Mapping These Thought Vectors in Concept Space

So things get increasingly interesting as we think about how the visions of those pioneers mesh with the technology of today to influence how people can pursue, navigate, and communicate knowledge in a way that takes advantage of the goals of UNIV 200.

Elements that were brought up-

We talked about an ongoing effort to document a workflow/network/resource pathway that shows where information is coming from and the paths/process that led to it and the way it is stored and used. While it doesn’t have to look any specific way, in my head it looks something like the workflow maps (pictured below) I’ve been trying to do combined with my attempts to document the search string/question improvement/vocabulary acquisition that I’ve attempted to do with some of the my tutorials and that Alan does so well.

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

One of the ideas that came up was around making sure people chose topics that they were really interested in exploring. This is harder than is sounds. Instructors have used a variety of techniques to try to do this including having other student indicate interest and using example lists with fairly aggressive topics. The former was often derailed by students just passively saying all the ideas were great. One way to avoid that would be to restrict the number of yea/up-votes they have with a system like dot voting or something similar.

We’ll also be presenting(?) on/participating in this MOOC at NMC in Portland this summer. That will be an interesting event as the goal is to work with the network and the local audience as a portion of the synchronous course. What sprang to my mind was how to harness the audience (local and internet) as a randomizer. What would having an Internet audience allow us to do that a local audience could not? What could a local audience do that an Internet audience could not? I do enjoy doing these things on the fly with as much improv energy as possible.

I think that’s a pretty decent summary of what went on. It took quite a bit longer to write than I anticipated but it always does.

1 Later changed to “Dreams”.

2 Legal eagles please take note.

3 Argument here is pretty broadly defined.

Provision Me?

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Thomas Hawk
I have never been the Devil’s advocate but occasionally I play him on the Internet. This started as a comment on Jim’s post so reading that might make this make some sort of sense.

There are no halcyon1 days of yore.

I keep thinking the LMS is symptomatic. It helps solve obscure problems like -How can I grade my class of 300+ students? It helps mechanize a process we’ve increasingly commodified, packaged, and scaled.

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by Melissa Gruntkosky

The institution can, and probably should, focus on providing more than the LMS but there’s a big part of me that says it doesn’t matter. If tilde spaces were given now, they’d be mainly barren. The problem is not the centrally provide space. I don’t need the institution and I don’t buy into the dependency model that seems to be part of that assumption. In fact, I need an institution far less than I would have in the mid 90s. If I want a tilde space, I can go get one and I can do far more on it than HTML. Stack Overflow is a magical fountain of answers. If you want to do something, simply go do it. Be a clueless wanderer. We (USA, North America, the world?) have an intellectual obesity epidemic because people sit around waiting to be given/told/instructed . . . The mentality is I can’t do that. I haven’t been trained. The social accepted context that you are static until acted upon by some higher power.

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Joel Franusic2

The fact is you can. Really. Almost inevitably I haven’t done any of the things I do until I’ve done them. Sure, I stagger and stall (occasionally fall) but I both research and ask for help. “Sure, you can do that.” is one of the most disempowering things a person can say. Other people don’t have superpowers. I am not a unique snowflake. You could do it. You don’t have to wait to be trained. You are not a seal.

The problem, at its core, isn’t lack of institutional support for open web resources, it’s a mentality issue- it’s a lack of interest in doing interesting3 things, or lack of confidence, or lack of imagination, or lack of understanding about what is interesting, or lack of time/energy to do interesting things, or fear of anything/everything, or a hundred other things.

The DoOO project doesn’t interest me in terms of resource provisioning- that’s just reselling a commonly purchasable product. It’s interesting because of the integration into courses at scale and then the intentional building of interrelationships between those courses. It’s interesting because of the ideas and communal aspects, the rethinking of possibilities. I don’t know, but I don’t think the fact that UMW is (re)providing the resources matters at all.

I’d say that the reason the tilde spaces were interesting is because they didn’t have real institutional level attention. It was an odd space, inhabited by odd people, and only viewed by other odd people. Once that attention was given, when those spaces were seen as important, then the wheels of policy, consistency, marketing, and other millstones start to grind away.

Numbers aren’t the answer but I have to imagine there are immensely more people (students and profs) doing far more powerful and interesting things which have a far broader audience and impact online than there ever were in the mid 90s.

1 Kingfishers. I didn’t not know that.

2 That’s a statement of empowerment because neither is anyone else. You can do anything they can do.

3 It’s my blog, I’ll define interesting as I choose.

Catharsis – WP Child Theme Evolution

It is always a wonderful feeling to figure something out, especially after having struggled with it. The following is a continued progression from one idea in 2011 to this idea in February of 2014 and then merged with this tangential idea from February 2014. The new child theme is here.

So at this point, I have a workflow that starts with a bookmarklet that

To business . . .

Bookmarklet Modifications

I made an addition here, wrapping the comment field in a div I named “show”. I did this because Diigo puts the tags in the body of what becomes the post. So it looks like below. It was irritating because the tags weren’t in any particular div and there was no other easy way to address the pieces I wanted to vanish. I didn’t like that and since this site was purely set for this workflow I went the other route (a fairly nuclear one). I set .entry-content p to display: none. That vanishes it. Since I’d added the additional div piece for the Diigo comments, that stuff was safe from being vanished.


Changing the Sorter to Use Snap Previews

The previous child theme was pulling thumbnails from media uploads and was looking for the “attachment” post type.
So I’ll try to delineate the changes to make it use regular posts and use the WordPress Snap thumbnail in lieu of the media attachments.

The old version looked like this.

Below you can see the modifications I made with attempts to comment on where the difference are and what I did. The main key was dropping references to “parent” that were needed in the previous code and finding out that do_shortcode was a thing. Prior to finding out about that via this Stack Overflow post, I kept getting the code that I wanted but it was wrapped in double quotes (which seemed to magically appear) and that prevented it from working.


Vague Reflections and Recent Quotes That Encourage Me

It is sometimes helpful for me to look at the longterm way I make progress. I like to see how widely separated pieces (in time and subject) eventually come together to create something new. It is comforting to see that time and energy comes back. It’s easy to see many things I do as failures in the moment but those pieces often resurface and recombine with other failures to make something later that I do consider a success. I once thought at some point I’d know where I was headed and would focus my energy accordingly. I’ve actually found that doing the opposite is what has made me the happiest. I try to cultivate, rather than curtail, my interests in diverse topics, to have ‘stacks and stacks’ of both ideas and thoughts and plans. I want to be manically interested and constantly puzzled (just short of required medication).

If you instead say a prayer to the atomic sensation of being puzzled and the catharsis that comes from being unpuzzled, you will never get enough of being puzzled and unpuzzled.

Dan Meyer

It’s also interesting to me to see how long the delay between puzzlement and catharsis can be. That’s something our culture doesn’t spend much time encouraging. A lot of things take time to develop for me, usually followed by lots of rapid action.

The toughest thing to understand as a product designer in a startup is that 99 percent of your ideas will never work or see the light of day. If more than 1 percent of your ideas are making it into the finished product, then you aren’t coming up with enough ideas.

Today I start by asking many questions. And by making sure we have stacks and stacks of ideas for every product and design problem.

How Sketching Spreads Design Thinking

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