cc licensed flickr photo shared by hans s

“You’ve got two empty halves of coconut and you’re bangin’ ’em together.”

Since I began banging coconuts in instructional technology in 1992, I’ve heard of this quest for the holy grail, the mythical database of who’s doing what with technology.

I held back writing this for maybe a day, but could not let it go– I stay in email contact with a group of my former colleagues at the Maricopa Community Colleges, where they hired some green horned mullet head drop out PhD geology student 18 years ago. This group, CyberSalonAZ is worthy of a separate write up, but what started as a small informal group who gathered monthly to share technology and beer, is in some ways, served to provide the networking and open sharing that was inside the system when I worked there, but seems a bit more evaporated now.

Anyhow, I could not help but smiling in compassion when I read this request:

We had an interesting discussion at our today. Our Dean of Technology has asked us to think up a design or plan to create an instructional technology clearinghouse.

His main questions were “How do faculty know what other faculty are doing with instructional technology? How do they share their experiences with software/hardware? How can we make it easy for departments to collaborate on projects when oftentimes work is being duplicated?”

And thus some bright eyed people set out on the long road that, IMHO, leads to Field of Dream syndrome and or the Cliff at the End of the Road called Repositories.

My smile was that I heard this dream almost my first week on the job, and about 10,000 times over the next 14 years. Maybe I exaggerate. But when I arrived on the scene at Maricopa, they had gathered this information by email and published a paper listing, I worked on a HyperCard version, several web directories, and ultimately on my first and last so called “R***pository” the Maricopa Learning eXchange — which, amazingly is still running.

So I flashed back in my mind to a summary of this in 2000, when we launched the MLX, I remember writing an article in our print/web publication, which was something like “Database of Dreams”. In fact, with not too much Google querying, Got Lucky —

I’ll foreshadow that this might be significant.

But wait. I had some words to a title of an article I knew I posted some unknown years ago, and in about 15 seconds of typing, I found it among about 3 trillion other pieces of information- has this occurrence gotten so mundane to lose the amazing capacity to find stuff? both things we know exist and things we don’t?

So with nostalgia, I read my HTML table encased fixed width article:

In May of 1992, during my first week on the job at Maricopa, I was off to Mormon Lake for an “Ocotillo Retreat.” It was a rapid immersion into the world of technology, teaching, and learning at Maricopa. This was also the first of many times I heard about a desire for a collection or database of the different ways faculty were integrating technology into instruction. In a system as large and diverse as Maricopa, no single person can know all of the different ways technology is being used. Yet, most everyone can see the value of having access to this “database of dreams.”

The rest of it runs through a list of the various iterations I tried there.

Actually my experience, and technical development working on the MLX was perhaps the biggest positive outcome of my Maricopa time- it connected me early to leaders in the field like Stephen Downes, who inspired my experiments into weaving RSS all over the MLX. I connected with Brian Lamb over almost an offhand mutual sneer at “learning obejcts” at an EDUCAUSE conference, followed by a fun run of conferences with Brian and D’Arcy Norman like Connecting Learning Objects with RSS, Trackbacks, and Weblogs.

The efforts we tried to encourage the flow of things into the MLX was summarized at this rather old blog post (2003) Repository of (Learning Object) Dreams.

They were great years, but, frankly, the process of getting people to enter stuff into MLX, despite the cute metaphor, the suppression of “meta data” terminology, and even trying things like bribery and competition — you know I have a link somewhere of a presentation on this, but what.. what .. is it? Oh let’s try this:

(more foreshadowing)

Yes, Maricopa Learning eXchange… Building an Innovation Collection (with a bit of Competition and Bribery) was an effort to explain all the tactics we tried.

It’s not that we were getting some, bit it was a trickle in the ocean of a giant human system.

So I don;t think the answer is designing a database, or as others in our email discussion suggested, opening a wiki or a ning or a tumblr or.. The best I could say to the group in email was:

I have serious doubts that a particular magic tool or system is going to make it happen, the problem is …. well, us.

Oops, sorry to rain on the parade.

which in hindsight seems not that useful, and a bit bitter.

Having this quest is a valid desire, it is a thing worth having… but all we seem to do is try to get better coconuts.

So here is my idea, which I know is not likely to fly, and can be shot down well by someone more eloquent and smarter than me.

We don’t need to build a database, a wiki, or anything.

We have the mythical database.

We use it every day. I used it twice in this post (actually more in my research to write here).

The web is the database, it is not a dream, and we don’t need coconuts when we have the real deal or even one of the other variants.

So we do not need to come up with a single place for educators to put things- let them use anything they can use, blog, wiki, posterous, google site, heck even FrontPage, but create educational content, share it for re-use– but get content out there in the free and open space, and let it be indexed. Don’t lock it inside walls, don;t take it down after the class ends.

The beauty is, all people have to do is create stuff- they don’t have to fill out forms, register it, type in keywords…. let the web itself manage that.

And we dont have to organize anything, hold meetings, draft protocols… we can focus on the stuff, not the boxes to hold the stuff.

Yeah, I am a dreamer, not even nearly as practical as George and I can barely follow the lengthy essays or detailed technology reviews that Stephen pours out like warm maple syrup..

Sure search is messy, and people will need to skill up but does it really take a PhD in nuclear mechanics to learn how to frame searches that force keywords, focus results to come from a domain, put phrases in quotes for more exact matches? And sure, search gives you a lot that’s not relevant. The world we are moving towards is more loosely to dis-organized, and its time to stop thinking of neat filing cabinets with brightly colored labeled tabs.

But I expect that in many corners of the world, people shall continue to commission groups to build another Database of Dreams. Keep working those coconuts:

Where’d you get the coconuts?
– We found them.
– Found them? In Mercia? The coconut’s tropical!
– What do you mean?
– Well, this is a temperate zone
– The swallow may fly south with the sun or the house martin or the plover may seek warmer climes in winter, yet these are not strangers to our land?
– Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?
– Not at all. They could be carried.
– What? A swallow carrying a coconut?
– It could grip it by the husk!
– It’s not a question of where he grips it! It’s a simple question of weight ratios! A five ounce bird could not carry a one pound coconut.

Keep the dream alive, but I’ll pass on the quest if it comes my way. I’ll be out here tossing more stuff into the free and open net.

The post "Quest for the Holy Database of Dreams" was originally slapped on the butt by a cigar smoking doctor yelling "It's a post!" at CogDogBlog ( on January 16, 2010.


  • Right on cog! We all keep saying it, and the more each of us do, the better we each get with the message. As time goes on, people are meeting us there. Love the choice in image. Says it all.

  • Chris L

    See, *this* is why I can no longer tell when you are taunting me.

    You might be surprised that I agree with you. But…

    You shouldn’t be surprised since I’ve been saying this about “content” for a while (it presupposes that each of us come to our own resolutions about the “open debate” but the existence of that discussion doesn’t in any way preclude just putting stuff out there, as I also advocate)!

    There’s a lot of room for improvement and innovation in the “anythings” that people can use. I can see the use of repository-like models and discrete community formation in specific circumstances, but in the end, when I talk about the products of open teaching and learning being the invisible hand, the currency, of a healthy environment, I’m not talking about repositories or even ideology, just putting stuff out there in whatever way works.

  • Alan levine

    See Chris, we have no difficulty agreeing withou taunts.

    The Repository Problem, IMHO, is it asks the creator of content to do more tasks (eg filling out forms) that is far from essential to them. Repositories are mostly of interest to the people that build them.

    As an educator, I should focus on creating and sharing (yes Scott, that’s yor post) their primary materials– and let the content itself be in a form to be discoverable– wel described so crawlers can crawl it, open, licensed to share, etc

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