I’m at a bit of a standstill right now. Events over the last few weeks have sort of interrupted my life, and I feel like I’m failing at a lot of things right now (apologies now to all the people whom I’m failing). I’m having a hard time figuring out how to stop failing and move on. Tonight, while pondering what to do to get myself moving again, I realized that the best thing I could do would be this: to write.
I’ve been working under a bit of a shadow on and off for the last few months, cast primarily from the failing health of two people who are incredibly important to me. My grandmother (for whom I’m named) has been fighting health issues for a number of years, ever since she was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. This spring and summer, her health declined, and my family (particularly my mom and her siblings) were searching for answers to get her the help she needed. Luckily, doctors were finally able to locate and treat the problem, and we were fortunate that her recovery was speedier than it has been in the past. And, the best news, is that 4 years after being diagnosed and treated, she is still cancer-free!
Unfortunately, while my grandmother’s health was failing and then she was being treated, my grandfather began to deteriorate. While fighting a battle on one front, another one emerged.
Eight days ago, after a rather sudden and intense illness that landed him in the hospital for almost a month, my grandfather, Ricardo Daniel Barrera, passed away. He was just shy of his 89th birthday, which would have been on Thanksgiving this year.
My grandfather, who for my whole life I have called Cardo, was diagnosed with diabetes 56 years ago. He had lived with that disease for as long as I’ve been alive, and for a lot longer before that. But he really did more than live with it; through his own determination and resiliance and the strength and love of my grandmother, he managed to thrive. Up until a few months ago, my grandfather was the healthiest 88 year-old diabetic that you could ever imagine meeting.
Cardo lived an amazing, full life. After immigrating to this country from Ecudador in his twenties, he rose from a clerk in a Manhattan company to become a vice president. He and my grandmother traveled extensively, circling the globe five or six times.
He eloped with my grandmother when he was 22 and she was 16 (!), despite the protestations of her protestant Dutch parents about their daughter marrying a Catholic from South America. They had nothing when they got married, but over 60+ years of marriage they built an amazing life for themselves and for their family.
They had five children, of which my mother is the oldest. My youngest uncle was only a few years older than my brother, and the three of us grew up together. Upon passing, my grandfather leaves behind 14 grandchildren (ranging from 42 to 6) and 7 great-grandchildren. In another two months, two more will be added to the role call. My mother’s family is very close, and so for the last month, my uncles, aunts, and cousins have been arriving in Virginia to be with each other as we struggled to figure out what was going to happen to my grandfather.
On the night before Cardo died, I was lucky enough to sit with him in the company of one of my cousins. He was in and out of consciousness, and, he was having difficulty making himself understood. At one point, we asked him if he wanted us to put some music on, and he didn’t respond. About 20 minutes later, he opened his eyes, sat up a bit and said, “Music!”
That was the last thing he said to me and my cousin, and it was very fitting. My grandfather loved music, and he passed that on to all of his children, grand-children, and great grand-children.
When I was a child, my grandparents took my brother and I on trips on the east coast — to Pennsylvania and Florida. When I was thirteen, they took us on our first trip to Europe, a six-week journey that spanned Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, Egypt, and France. When I was sixteen, they took me and another cousin to Hawaii for two weeks. It was the first (and only) time I’ve been back to the place where I was born and which I left when I was three years old. They went on trips like this with almost all of their grandchildren.
Absolutely nothing mattered more to my grandfather than family. Nothing. If he had his way, our entire extended family would have lived together in an extended community. (We would have driven each other crazy.)
I have a memory from when I was a child: I’m maybe 5 or 6 and I’m at my grandparents’ house on Long Island and someone has died. I’m not sure who, either my great grandfather or my father’s father.
I’m sitting in the living room, and someone has given me a stuffed rabbit, which I am hugging. Elsewhere in the house, I know that there are adults who are grieving and crying. I’m very scared by this. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say or feel. All I feel is alone. And at the time, I remember realizing that this thing called death was unavoidable. That at other moments in my life, it would mark days of grief and sadness. Sitting there, I tried to figure out how to solve this problem. What was I going to do when other people died? How could I make sure it didn’t feel this bad? How would I know how to act and what to feel?
And what I remember thinking is, “It’s okay. This isn’t how it will always be. I’m young, and in the future when people die, I will be much, much older. I will be an adult, and I will know how to get through this then because I will be an adult.”
Last Saturday morning, after getting the call from my mother that Cardo had just passed away, I got in the car and drove from my parents’ to my grandparents’. And on the way, I thought about that memory. I’m much older then I was when I sat on that couch, but I wasn’t sure that the years had given me any more wisdom or strength.
Then I got there, and I found my family, and that’s when I realized that what the years had given me was what Cardo had given me — all these people who love me unconditionally and who, through that love, would help me to know how to grieve. And they did.
And now my grandfather is gone, I’m not sure where the last month went, and, as I said, I’m having trouble figuring out how to dig down and just keep doing what needs to be done. All I really want to do is curl up with a book and read under the covers for, oh, a few months. I feel drained and sad and a bit at loose ends.
And I’m reminded of another memory. This also took place at my grandparents’ house on Long Island. The whole family was there, probably for Christmas. And I was upstairs, in my uncle’s old bedroom, reading. Cardo came to find me. I remember all that I wanted to do was read, and I thought that certainly he would get that. There couldn’t possibly anything wrong with wanting to read. But instead when he found me he said, “Mija, there is a time to read, and there is a time to be with people. Right now is the time to be with people.” And then he took me downstairs to be with my people.
The inimitable Boone B Gorges wrote a great post yesterday about the WPedu community, and how we need to do a better job of inserting ourselves in the larger WP community — and sharing the work we’re doing. I’m trying to take his words to heart. As I mentioned in my comment on the post, I’m a reluctant sharer of my WP work–mostly because I tend to think it has little value to anyone but me. But there are other reasons, that are probably (sadly) tied up in the whole “imposter syndrome” that infiltrates most of academia. Even a lowly staffer/mid-tier administrator (like me) at a University can fall prey to this disease. I aim to overcome it.
To that end, I’m going to try and blog more in this space about the work I’ve been doing with WordPress over the last 6-12 months, particularly working on aggregation methods for learning communities. I got into Web design/development years ago because I loved how it allowed me to architect experiences. I got into higher education at the same time because I really do believe that education is one of our society’s highest callings. Blending my passion for education with my passion to craft experiences is basically what drives me. Over the last seven years or so WordPress has become the platform upon which I can enact these passions. To be able to make code do things that affects people’s behaviors and feelings seems almost magical to me. And, as I’ve said before, I believe strongly that the fundamental nature of the code we work with speaks to the values we’re trying to embrace in the practices that our code enables. I love WordPress because it affords me possibilities. It affords me possibilities because it is open.
All of this is on my mind as I prepare to fly tomorrow morning to San Juan, Puerto Rico and conduct a couple of workshops with students at the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón on hacking WordPress. Given that this is the challenge that’s been looming ahead of me for the past few weeks, Boone’s post couldn’t have come at a better time. I kind of needed a kick in the pants to just get over myself and start imagining that I might have something valuable to offer these students. I’ve spent most of the past 2 months (since another inimitable, Antonio Vantagiatto, extened this invitation) wondering how the heck I was qualified to conduct these workshops.
I think I more or less know how I’m going to approach the program. I want to start by stepping back and talking a bit about the philosophical foundations that underpin the work that I do in WordPress — this includes my own biography as a English degree undergrad who moved into the world of ed tech and finally found herself working more and more as a programmer hacker. People are always amazed when they find out I studied English as an undergrad. I never quite understand why. Don’t they know that code is poetry? Seriously, I’m going to talk a bit about the relationship between code and poetry — a relationship that I’ve always found fascinating. I’m also going to talk about code as a tool for building experience. Finally, I’m going to talk about the way our values and politics (small “p”) inhabit the code we work with.
From there, I’d like to talk about my own organic growth in the world of WordPress. I think that the experience I’ve gone through learning how to work with this system (and attempting to bend it to my will) has taught me more about learning than any other experience in my life. When I started working with WP in 2004, I was just a blogger. The files that comprised my blog installation were thoroughly opaque to me. As I’ve developed deeper skills with WP, I’ve learned to essentially speak a new language — the language of the application. I understand how themes are built, how templates are arranged in a hierarchy. I understand how functions provide a fundamental syntax around which I can craft a space. I understand how plugins extend the language in both predictable and unexpected ways. When you hear a foreign language for the first time, it’s almost impossible to imagine that you will ever be able to decipher it. That’s how I feel about my first experiences of WordPress. While I know I’m still not fluent, I’ve learned enough now to believe that I can figure out what the things I don’t know mean.
Finally, I’ll be spending time with the students asking them to actually DO something in WordPress. This has been the hardest part of preparing for the workshop. I’m not entirely sure how comfortable they are with the system. For all I know, they can code circles around me in WordPress! In the end, I’m going to approach this on two fronts: I’m assembling a resource for them that points in useful directions based on the kinds of thing they want to do in WordPress. I’m not providing answer; I’m just providing pathways. Then I’ll go in with a list of challenges/activities that we can tackle. Everything from basic tweaking of a theme to writing a plugin. Based on what they’re interested in, we’ll pick a few to work on in groups and see where it gets us.
That’s Friday’s plan. On Saturday I meet with a smaller group of WordPress developers at the University who are working on a grant project. I’m hoping to show them the work I’ve been doing with aggregation of posts and latest content both within Multisite and from external RSS Feeds. Hopefully, we can carve out a plan for them to use some of this in their own work and maybe even start building it.
I can’t remember ever being this excited — or this terrified — about leading a workshop.
Sunday was the deadline for students in this fall’s section of ds106 at UMW to complete their work for the first 7 days of class. This semester, the first two weeks of class have been constructed as a “ds106 Boot Camp.” Alan and I decided that before students really delved into the hard work of digital storytelling, they needed to get some fundamental skills under their belt. In the past, we’ve tried to interweave these skills into the start up of the storytelling assignments, and students were often still struggling with how to embed media, create links, or properly use tags in the sixth or seventh week of class.
Boot Camp is meant to hone those critical ds106 skills before the really hard work starts. So, last week their primary objective was to get their domains registered, their web space configured, and WordPress installed. In addition, they had to dabble with the Daily Create and set up accounts on a bunch of social media sites that we’ll be using this semester. By Sunday at midnight, all of this work had to be completed, and each student needed to write a summary post of everything they’d done.
In the past, the first 2-4 weeks of ds106 was consumed with just getting students’ domains registered and sites up and running — while also dealing with the first storytelling assignments.
I’m happy to say that by Sunday, every student in my section (and I believe all of Alan’s students as well) had registered domains and installed WordPress successfully. In addition, most of them had created their ds106 accounts and linked them to their new blogs so that their posts were pulling seamlessly into the main ds106 site.
I cannot tell you how radical this is. We owe the success to three things, in my mind: 1) I think the Boot Camp approach is proving successful. Students are really focusing on these fundamentals and getting it done. 2) The reworking of sign-ups on the ds106 site has proven to be great. Almost every new account automatically gets a feed and institutional tag assigned to it. Occasionally, we have to troubleshoot a problem account, but those issues are few and far between. 3) The launch of the Domains of One’s Own pilot at UMW which is delivering free domains and Web space to our students means that we can manage them through this process WAY more easily than in the past. And DTLT’s Tim Owens is the man is has made that happen all along the way.
Here’s a screenshot of the Google spreadsheet that I’ve been using to track my students progress through the first week of Boot Camp obstacles. As you can see, only 1 student is really lagging behind. Other than that, there are only a few missing pieces. (Names/domains/twitter handles have been blurred to avoid embarrassing anyone 🙂 )
It’s hard to believe that Camp Magic MacGuffin finished weeks ago, and in another five days (yikes!), a new session of ds106 starts up here at UMW.
Alan and I ended up really tearing our hair out for the first few weeks of CMM trying to get everyone signed up with their blogs in FeedWordPress and tagged appropriately (in the CMM case, tags were used primarily for the bunk houses students were assigned to).
In addition to co-directing Camp Magic MacGuffin this summer, I still have a regular day job. And I want to use this post to outline a project I’m working on to try and regularize/generalize our approach to course blogs on UMW Blogs.
This project grew out of our Online Learning Initiative and conversations with an art history professor who is teaching an online survey course this summer. During our discussions with her, it became clear that she wanted to have her students blog, but she was concerned about the technical overhead of getting them up and running on UMW Blogs during a very intense five weeks. Some students will already have UMW Blogs accounts (and some of those may be comfortable with the system), but others will not have accounts (much less be familiar with WordPress).
While I’m a firm believer that WordPress is dead simple and anyone can learn how to author in it, I’m totally sensitive to the requirements of 5-week, online, summer course. The time flies by. It’s difficult to provide technical support right when students need it. It’s easy for students to get lost and then quickly fall behind. While we could put together a bunch of tutorials, screencasts, etc, from experience I know that this approach works for somewhere between 40%-60% of students in a class. Heck, when I go in and do a full hour-long demonstration of how to sign up for a course site and post on it, a good 20%-30% of students still need help when it comes time for them to actually do the work. In a traditional, 15-week, face-to-face course, it’s easier to provide the technical intervention at the right moments to overcome these difficulties. In an online course, not so much. (Particularly a course that has also has a heavy content load like an intro art history survey. Students will be very busy just staying on top of the coursework that needs to be done.)
I began to think that this might be an opportunity to rethink course blogs. Here are a couple of thoughts that are guiding my experiments:
We have two primary kinds of course blogs at UMW (and I think most other schools using WordPress use two similar models). The first is a group blog. In this model, every student (and the professor) has an account on a single blog where they post their work. The challenges in using it involve getting everyone set up on a single blog and working in the same space. Because different user roles result in different backend experiences, this can be a big jarring. What the professor sees is not necessarily what the students see.
The second kind of course blog is an aggregate blog. Aggregate blogs syndicate content from individual students’ blogs. In this model, each student sets up their own site, and then we run Feed WordPress to grab new posts whenever they are available. These are republished (usually as excerpts) on the aggregate blog which links back to the originals for complete versions and commenting. The challenges in this involve getting each student set up with their own site and getting all of the syndication wires to work.
In both models of course we still tinker with the way in which students posts are presented. Usually we have just a stream of the most recent posts in reverse chron order somewhere on the course site (usually the home page). But for an online course where one of the goals is to really promote independence and build community, it would be nice to have other ways of viewing/filtering posts. A reverse chron listing is fine, but it’s easy for things to get lost. It would also be nice to have an elegant way of seeing the work done by a single student, perhaps side-by-side with some other information about them.
Thanks to the purchase of a few premium plugins for UMW Blogs, we have a few new tools in our arsenal to throw at this challenge. First, we haveGravity Forms. GF is an incredibly robust form plugin (that keeps getting better). The feature that I find most intriguing about Gravity Forms is that you can use it to do front-end authoring of posts (btw, I hear this is a feature coming soon in core WP). Basically, this means that someone doesn’t have to use the backend, dashboard interface to create a post. They can fill out a form on the front-end, and that post can automatically be published (or go to draft, if you prefer).
Gravity Forms also has a premium User Registration add-on, which allows you to create user accounts from a form.
We also now own Types (which is free) and Views (which is not). Types allows you to very easily set up custom post types in WordPress. Views allows you to very easily create custom listings/templates of those types (or of vanilla posts/pages). Before, whenever we wanted to create a custom post type or do some kind of special filtering or presentation of posts, we had to hack the theme. With Views, this can all be done in the GUI interface and easily embedded in a page or post.
So, based on all of this I’ve started a project to create two custom hacks for these two kinds of courses. I’m not sure what the final product will look like — I may be able to do a lot of this within themes, but other things may require some custom plugins. We’ll see. In any case, here are my goals:
Streamline the process of joining a course site.
For users that need to join a group blog and don’t have a UMW Blogs account yet, I’m planning on using the Gravity Forms User Registration add-on. This means that by filling out a single form, someone can add themselves to UMW Blogs and become a member of the course site. (I’ve managed to write the functions I need so that the form checks that someone is using a umw.edu email address to guarantee that our user base remains internal to UMW.) At the same time, This form can contain additional fields/information that a faculty member might want to have students set up.
For users that need to join a group blog and already have a UMW Blogs account, I’ve built a form that just gathers any information the professor wants and adds them as an author on the course site.
For users that need to join an aggregate blog, I’ll basically do the same thing, but I’m hoping to have them enter the URL of their own site and then have that immediately become a feed for Feed WordPress.
Streamline the process of authoring on a group blog. I’ve built a front-end form in Gravity Forms that allows a student to author a post very easily. I can embed a WYSIWYG editor (and choose which buttons are available). They can attach featured images. They can also categorize and tag the posts (and the added advantage here is that the faculty member can pre-populate the categories to reflect assignments, so there’s less of a chance of a student forgetting/misspelling the assignment category. These posts will automatically be associated with the student (who will have registered as an author on the course site as described above).
One thing that can’t be done at this time is editing of posts by students on the front-end. They can, however, still access the backend if there was a need for this.
Customize the views of student work.
I’m planning to rebuild the author pages for these course sites so that they reflect the goals of the professor. I’m imagining author pages that would have the student’s avatar, maybe an introductory video that they provide when they sign up, information about social media spaces they use, and a listing of their posts.
I’m also hoping to build custom views for assignments since we’ll be able to depend on normalized categories as described above for identifying posts that complete particular assignments.
That’s a pretty rough outline of what I have planned. What have I missed? Do you think this could be useful? What features would you love to see in a (semi-)standardized theme for course sites in WordPress?
Tomorrow morning, I have the privilege of presenting (virtually) to a group of faculty at Wooster College as part of their participation in the 2012 Instructional Technology Faculty Fellows program. I’m slated to speak about “Extending the Walls of the Classroom with Technology” (and, perhaps, breaking down the walls).
I’ve been mulling the presentation over for weeks, but with Faculty Academy, bushwacking around Camp Magic MacGuffin, and catching camp plague last week, I’ve only been able to start really pulling my thoughts into something coherent over the last few days. (Shhh. . .don’t tell anyone but I’m a notorious procrastinator when it comes to presentation prep. I think I do my best work under pressure.)
The title of my presentation is “Doorways: Opening, Extending, & Multiplying the Course.” I’m going to start by telling a bunch of stories about the effect openness has had at UMW, especially through serendipitous contact made via student work on UMW Blogs. We’ve got some great examples of students being contacted by the very people they are studying and writing about, so this is always fun to talk about. In my mind, this kind of openness would be considered, more or less, passive. I’m not using passive in any kind of derogatory way. Rather, I’m suggesting that the faculty who teach the courses where these kinds of encounters have occurred haven’t actually sought out responses from anyone. Rather, they just valued the idea that students should work in the open, on Web sites that are indexed and searchable. Once you’re publishing in that space, you’re bound to have a few magical encounters. That’s kind of the beauty of the Web, eh?
From there, though, I want to talk about active openness — when faculty solicit and encourage interaction from outsiders within the classroom experience. For this I’ll be talking a lot about DS106, and Jim’s initial experiment in spring of 2011 to invite the world into the classroom at UMW. There’s lots of serendipity that occurs in these situations, as well, but there’s probably a better chance that someone will make a connection, since we’re actively encourage those connections among and between UMW and open participants.
I think most faculty will be able to wrap their heads around the notion of passive openness — simply open the doors and someone is bound to wander in.
The bigger challenge is to get them thinking about active openness. How do you go about inviting the world into your classroom? Who do you invite? How do you send the invitation? What do you ask them to do when they get there? How do you know if it’s “working?” And, most frightening of all, what do you do if no one shows up at the party? That’s a bummer.
Jim and I have talked in the past about how the success of DS106 rested in no small part on the strength of his network going into the experiment. He had spent years building and cultivating connections through his blog and Twitter. He had built some capital among that network by regularly sharing and contributing his ideas, becoming a member of a virtuous circle of sharing and using. Moreover, the people he was connecting with were the kinds of people who would be interested in participating in an open digital storytelling course.
Not everyone has this kind of network to tap. In fact, most people don’t. And building that network isn’t something that happens overnight, or certainly during a 30-45 minute hands-on session that I’ll lead for Wooster College tomorrow!
I had a few ideas of how I’d get them to at least engage with the idea of building a network, primarily by using Twitter. But a quick check with the organizers indicated that only a few of the participants are already using Twitter, and the rest are *not* interested.
So, an idea I had was to first talk to the participants about themselves and their professional/research interests. Then, I thought I might put out a series of tweets tomorrow morning asking people to help me find others on Twitter who share those interests. I’m wondering if after 60-75 minutes (when I’ll be done with my formal presentation), my network can expand enough to yield some results.
The risk, of course, is that it won’t work, and I’ll have not proved the value of Twitter. That would be sort of. . .unfortunate. I could do it without telling the participants I’m doing it. But would that be too underhanded?
Other “hands-on” activities I’m considering:
Simply showing them how to search Twitter and Twitter archives for mentions of topics of interest to them. Perhaps this is enough to get them considering that a social network like Twitter might have some value to them?
Get them to brainstorm in small groups about what doors they could open in their own classes. . .what assignments lend themselves to either passive or active openness?
Get them searching other social networking spaces/tools for people who share their research interests or teach similar courses to them.
I’m looking for any and all feedback or additional ideas! And, most of all, would you be willing to help me spread the Twitter wildfire tomorrow morning to see if we can quickly build the beginning of a professional network for a group of faculty at Wooster?