Syndication Machines (plus syndication of syndication)


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by psd

It’s sweetly ironic that despite the almost consistent reprisal of “RSS being dead” maybe that’s in terms of outward perception.

Down at the bowels of the systems of internet flow, and I see plenty of it in highly functional action via my own small corner of it. Since really far back in ? 2002 ? when I first came across this notion of Really Simple Syndication (which to me says much more than “RDF Site Summary”, it remains to me, that most magical glue of the web after the hyperlink.

And as Martin Hawksey eloquently summarizes it one can say the aggregation/syndication layer is what may, at not only a technical, but a design/philosophical level, distinguish the (ahem here come scare quotes) “tsunami” of interest (I called it hysteria) of the Ginormously Massive 100K Online (and we can punch the Open part soon) Courses (edUCKA = edX + Udacity + Coursera + Khan + eventually Perason) as coined with great glee by Cathy Finn-Derecki with the ones being forgotten largely in the Atlantic, the New York Times- the cMOOCs of yore (c being for Connectivism, and more irony and chagrin for the orignators, that the first one where the name was applied CCK08 is offline), EC&I831, CCK08, PLENK,ds106.

And while I plan to talk about the syndication architecture of mainly ds106, where I have had the most experience, I am seeing now a more clearer distinction (besides the fact the funding for xMOOCs exceed cMOOCs by about.. $100 million) between these in first what is a technical distinction but also as mention above a design one.

x and c

At a grossly simplified level, it’s about where the locus of learner activity happens.

In the xMOOCiverse, learners have to go to a central place, several of them behind what they see as an open door (free registration) but really is not open going back out. Learners go TO Coursera, Code Academy, etc, login, get their content, lectures, practice activity, engage in discussion forums, but its all inside the Big House. None of the content, activities is syndicated back outward, there are no live feeds of activities, no APIs to tap into a data flow. I’m not even sure if you get a sense as to what your learning peers are doing in there.

This is what scales- mass production from a central distributer.

Now in a cMOOC space, it is ‘distributed, chaotic, emergent’ because learners produce their work, publish their own thoughts or projects in their own space- be it self hosted blogs, free hosted blogs, social media sites- it is distributed through the network. And it is the magic, power, and (to me elegant) simplicity of syndication technology that the cMOOCc subscribes to, aggregates, re-organizes, and re-publishes.


cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Orin Zebest

This can scale, though I think we have shown that ds106 does so in a fractal sense, but maybe not quite insanely to the 100k level. But you want to know what kind of model this system is? It’s the soul of the internet.

As Martin summarizes

The ‘distributed, chaotic, emergent’ comes from a recent presentation by George Siemens for EDUCAUSE talking about cMOOCs. It’s apparent from the survey of MOOC technology that course teams are taking a loosely joined set of tools that they are comfortable with to facilitate a shared experience with the learner. As commented by Downes when writing about gRSShopper “the users are assumed to be outside the system for the most part, inhabiting their own spaces, and not mine”. It’s also apparent that people are taking discipline based approaches using tools aligned to study areas as previously described with PHONAR/PICBOD

Even with the bespoke nature of MOOCs there are still opportunities to start collectively raiding the parts bin. Given the widespread use of Twitter in MOOCs are there tools/techniques required to aggregate and disseminate the course discussions? Given the wide use of WordPress within education are there opportunities for MOOC specific themes or plugins? With the ability to freely record and stream video from a Google Hangout do we need a wrapper to allow comment collection and annotation?

Now I could (and might) toss in some sketched diagrams with circles and lines, but to try and go simply- As learners produce their ownmaterial in their own chosen spaces, the updates to what they do can be transmitted automatically (ahem, bow to whatever direction Dave Winer is at and praise RSS). The aggregation of this content is achieved in the tools we have used (WordPress platforms and Feedwordpress plugin) or the gRSShopper system designed by Stephen Downes. What these do is more than just bring it all in, but through inspection of tags, media types, and likely a lot of intriguing database gymnastics, can more or less republish, reproduce it in many forms.

I suspect gRSShopper does this as well, but what I have respected for a while is that the ds106 tool of aggregation also gives us a local (e.g archived) copy of the original content- in publishing it back out, we reference te original, but having an archive says we have the stuff if the blog author removes their site (ahem, that is a Bad Thing, every time you break an URL, Tim Berners-Lee cries out in pain) (I wince as well).

One difference in the ds106 approach, and I am waffle on if there ever will be a definitive reasons to go either way, is that comments on content from original sites are made inside a gRSShopper powered site, while at ds106, the comments live at the original sites and we do whatever is possible to syndicate those in as well (the hitch being not all sites provide that functionality). On one hand it brings what might be a fragmented conversation together (gRSShopper sites), but as an individual publisher, I totally prefer comments being at the level of my posts.

But at the end of the day, be it gRSShopper, the WordPress/Feedwordpress set up use for ds106- it is this aggregation/syndication of externally hosted content that makes for the networked effect. It is not quite of the realm of possibility of xMOOCs to develop something similar (heck with $60,000,00o, one can do a lot of things). Will they? I don’t know.

Resyndicating Syndication in ds106

But that’s just the beginning for us at ds106, because we actually resyndicate that archived content out to our other sites to do some Really Cool Stuff.

And it has to do with another pet favorite technology, tags.

When we add a new feed to ds106, we bring in all the tags that come with the original content (internally in FeedWordpress we assign them all to WordPress Categories), but we are able to add our own system tags. This provides us some ways to slice and dice stuff.

So if we know that a group or class is doing ds106 together, we can add a tag for that group, and be able to create subviews of activity by say, Jim’s Spring 2012 section of ds106, my Spring 2012 section of ds106, Michael Branson Smith’s class at York College, Scott Lockman’s Cyberspace and Society class at Temple University in Japan etc. We also started tagging the contributions all the open online participants as well, as oft requested my Lisa M Lane.

And you know what? That alone gives a basic re-syndication link that anyone can use (through the beauty of WordPress, just add /feed to the end of any of the URLs above, e.g. http://ds106.us/tag/yorksp12/feed/)

That’s just the beginning, and here is the brilliance of Martha Burtis for the way she crafted the ds106 Assignments Collection. On its own, this resource where people can add new assignments is fantastic. But what Martha added is a clever idea that builds a new layer on the syndication structure by a means to where we can attach the actual examples that people have done. FWIW as of this moment, the collection includes 397 assignments and links to 3804 examples created for them.

It took me a few weeks of tinkering in the code to really see what was magic.

Each assignment has two tags to identify it, let’s say the Say it Like Peanut Butter Visual assignment one of our more popular ones and one of the first, where people are tasked with creating an animated GIF from a movie sequence. If ds106 subscribes to your blog, all you have to do is add two tags to your post for us to connect to it. There is a general tag of VisualAssignments for the general category of kind of assignment, and a unique one that links it to this particular one say VisualAssignments2 (Yes wordpress fans, those integers at the end of the tags are post IDs, technically custom post-type ids, and you can see how old an ID this assignment was).

When began looking at easy to optimize the code, I first wondered, why two tags? One could easily parse the category from the specific one without too much PHP sweat.

But that is not the real purpose of the general tag.

You see, the Assignments site gets its content by subscribing itself to the main ds106 site for each of the assignment types (Visual, Design, Audio, Video, etc), and looking specifically for feeds like http://ds106.us/category/VisualAssignments/feed/ – so what we are doing is re-syndicating via Feedwordpress what we are syndicating via ds106. This means that ds106 is the primary entry for the syndication input, but we are able to add other site capabilities by being able to parse the syndicated content on its inbound tags.

We even went farther on this track with the 2012 Summer class for ds106, with our Camp theme, we saw it as interesting to run ds106 from its pwn web site, Camp Magic Macguffin. Participants still regustered their profiles and blogs at the main ds106 site, the hub, but with even more tagging we were able to do things like:

I wrote a custom script to generate a dynamic OPML file based on the current subscriptions for the bunkhouse group, as well as an up to the minute listing of all the blogs we had coming into Camp Magic Macguffin site (79 blogs total). Martha created the templates so we could have the custom pages for each group, each with their own widget sidebar.

So if you follow the path pf one participant say it is UMW student Chanda, but she produces all her work at http://chanda0703.org/ That feed is syndicated into the main ds106 site, but with the tags applied, her content goes to the front page of the Magic Macguffin site (via the tag umwsep12), the subset of views for UMW students (via the tag umwsep12), and her bunk group (tag bunk2). And anything she tags for assignments goes into the examples listed just for the assignments she did (I want to work on a way to list all assignments doen by an individual, add that to my list).

Do you see the beauty here? Through one main syndication hub, ds106, we can re-syndicate, slide, dicem filter and even syndicate out again.

What this is again is very ‘distributed, chaotic, emergent’ (again think of the underlying structure of internet packet switching) versus the one size fits all massive design of the xMOOCs.

Okay. This is the nuts and bolts, let’s step back.

Syndicating UMW Blogs / UMW.edu

This is all part of the arc of activity at UMW (of which I am a late grabber on-er) which goes from the Bluehost Experiment to UMW Blogs (and to the UMW web site) and what is going to blow your socks right off your feet, the new A Domain of Ones Own project.

UMW Blogs is a rich petri dish of aggregation as it is a single, but large instance of a WordPress multi site. Anyone with an umw.edu address can login via their campus credentials and create any number of blog sites. Feedwordpress is in the mix, so internally, there are a number of classes where students blog individually, but like ds106, their work is also aggregated to a class blog.

But they also do it in multi-layers as we do in ds106. So for example, I helped Andi Smith set up a Feedwordpress powered sites for her July 2012 course HISP 470 Preservation Abroad- Paris where her students are blogging their experiences studying art. culturem and architecture in Paris. The students had their choice to use UMWblogs or any other service (a number used tumblr, do we get the idea of open or what?), and are doing simple post aggregation at the main site.

What is clever is that since these travel abroad programs are common at uMW and often involve students blogging their experience, is there is “mother blog” of all tis activity, UMW Study Abroad.

This site aggregates posts from various blogs UMW students are using to chronicle their study abroad experience. The posts in this blog link back to the original post on the students’ blogs, and we encourage you to click on the title of a blog post here to visit the students’ blog and comment on their adventures.

Alternatively, below there’s a list of contributors to this blog, click on one of the several links to visit a student’s blog.

One more time, resyndicating syndicated content- students blog their experiences in their own spaces, they are aggregated to a class blog, and then aggregated again to a larger group.

This is now poised to syndicate even farther on the UMW.edu site….

Now here is a case of largely un-heralded brilliance in an institutional use of open source software. Cathy Finn-Derecki and her colleague Curtiss Grymala have built the most amazing wordpress site no one knows about. The entire UMW.edu university web site is run in WordPress. Is that done anywhere else? (I found University of Arkansas Little Rock, probably a few more out there) Institutions usually shell out big bucks for content management system driven institutional sites; Cathy and Curtis have done deftly and beautifully this with open source tools, coding and sharing their own back to the community. Run an enterprise site with “just a blogging” tool (isn’t that just for diaries?). Different organizational offices, departments, each run their own site within the UMW multi-site. (yes, indeed ‘distributed, chaotic, emergent’).

I was musing a few weeks back to Jim that what seemed to be missing from the department pages was a sense of aggregating the blogging being done (or that should be done) by not only students, but faculty and staff. ALl the syndicating power we’ve played with in ds106 could make these sites hubs of their own.

I should have known, Cathy and Curtiss are working on it ;-) And not only that, they are designing structures for individuals to have their own aggregation hubs for blogs, social media. etc.

Now I sit back and wonder what could be done with some tagging of the inbound feeds and doing some more aggregation and internal re-syndicating… Jim is already there!

400+ Domains Will Flower

The next evolution is going to be grounded in even more invidualized publication via the revolutionary A Domain of One’s Own project (it defies acronyms). This is an extension based on experience in ds106, Zack Whalen’s past classes, etc at UMW where students went out and purchased their own domains and web hosting accounts to house their work.

With the support of CIO Justin Webb (coolest name ever for a CIO) and the Division of Information Technolgoy Services, this is going to provided free, and managed, to 400 students in a pilot that has already started, based on the awesome experimentation, organization, planning by our one Tim Owens.

A Domain of One’s Own is a new pilot project from the University of Mary Washington and a collaborative effort between the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies and the office of Information Technology Services. This pilot will give 400 students and faculty their own domain name and web space to install a portfolio of work or map to existing systems. Content from coursework in the pilot will be aggregated here, as well as an exploration of aggregating the work students are creating directly to umw.edu. We believe this pilot project will give students the flexibility to build out their “e-portfolio” using a variety of software and approaches in a space that gives them the power to easily migrate and transport that data when they graduate. We’re excited about  the possibilities and will continue to update everyone on the project right here at umwdomains.com as the pilot unfolds.

In all ways, this is the evolution of the ideas that Jon Udell was talking about in 2006 or so and recently he wrote up in Wired Cloudline, where he links back to an EDUCAUSE session in 2007… as nudged by Jim, I recently traveled back in time to sit in that room.

Why We Love Jon Udell


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by cogdogblog

Among more unsung technical heroes of our age is Jon Udell. Early pioneer in computer and network infrastructure and what came to be what we call social media, he is really one of the most advanced thinkers of the broad picture of especially syndication technologies. He’s had a strong connection to our circles back to 2006, and brought his visions to UMW at the 2006 Faculty Academy.

In internet time, that was the early Ordovician era ;-) (geologist joke…)

There is much to summarize, but relevant to this long winded post I am struck by his vision of what he described as the “Awareness Network”

[This is] what happens when your involved with a group of people who are both publishing their own work and subscribing to one another’s. The flow that happens in that kind of environment is remarkable.

This is bit of Jon I have always subscribed to, his notion of “narrating the work we do.” In 2007, Jon was advocating the uber accumulating of everything a person does as “hosted life bites”- but more importantly his vision of this being not only in the cloud, but a permeable, open cloud:

This digital archive of myself is not attached to a computer or on storage only I can access, but rather is a repository of my life work that exists in a place where it can participate in relationships with other people’s repositories and with other people. I think that this turns things inside out in an interesting and useful way….

It always struck me ever since I started blogging how it was such a natural fit it was for what actually goes on in the academic world. Yet it seemed that few academics were really embracing this mode of communication… but I have heard the following comments a number of times from different people and the comment was in response to ‘Do you narrate the work that you do on a blog and is that an interactive process?.. up to the point where you say, publish to a peer reviewed publication’ … A lot of people said ‘no’– and this phrase came up a number of times, ‘I don’t want to put half baked ideas out there… I want to know that I am right.’

I had a hard time wrapping my head around that because in my world, wearing different professional hats, I’ve used my blog in the same way, as this sort of exploratory probe to put ideas out– that are half baked. Precisely because of inviting the kind of interaction which I have had received in spades has helped me immeasurably to refine my thinking.

An argument I am trying to make with little success right now is that this notion of narrating one’s life work, or another way I like to say it is “narrating your public agenda” is really quite broad. And while most people think it would not apply to them, I actually think it applies to almost everybody in some way.

The notion of narrating one’s own story online– cause we are doing it anyway, or if we are not, it is being done to us is the thing. This is the world to us now. You are what the search engines find when someone puts your name in. Do you want to or not want to participate in that narrative? I argue that everyone should want to.

This notion was also propelled by gardner Campbell’s notion of a personal cyber infrastructure

This narration of the work we do as students and educators has been going on for several years at UMW, and the syndication technologies above really embody Jon’s ideas back in 2007– with the foundation of the UMW Domains platform and the syndication machines we have in place (and only are just starting with), it’s really going to push new boundaries in the coming year. I am hopeful it will mean in increase in the open sharing of Jon’s “narrating our public agenda” and a whole lot of half baked ideas. This is a rich space UMW can go far with, being THE institution of wide open idea sharing, rather than wringing over massive open online courses.

Turn those syndication machines on.

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Syndication Machines (plus syndication of syndication) by CogDogBlog, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

9 Responses to “Syndication Machines (plus syndication of syndication)”

  1. mhawksey says:

    Thanks for the hat tip. It was an extremely painful post to write and only after main edits did aggregation appear. Your post is very useful to continue the thought around the details of aggregation and re-syndication.

    One difference in the ds106 approach … is that comments on content from original sites are made inside a gRSShopper powered site, while at ds106, the comments live at the original sites and we do whatever is possible to syndicate those in as well (the hitch being not all sites provide that functionality). On one hand it brings what might be a fragmented conversation together (gRSShopper sites), but as an individual publisher, I totally prefer comments being at the level of my posts.

    So to summarise gRSShopper pulls content in for further comment, ds106/FeedWordPress pulls comment links to redirect people to the conversation at the source.

    This got me thinking whether it would be useful to pull secondary activity around posts (tweets, saves, shares). In particular I’m thinking if you’re talking about massive scale having a way of discovering posts which are generating strong social reaction might be useful. [Tapping the sharedcount.com api might be a quick way of doing this]

    The other more experimental idea would be given Twitter appears strongly in the cMOOC tech cloud extract a tweet sharing a post url and then rebuild any threaded conversation … not entire sure what you would do with this but again a long thread might be an indicator of something.

    Martin

    • Really painful? Ouch, you must work harder than me ;-)

      Actually both gRSShopper and Feedwordpress pull the content in locally. The difference I was alluding to is that in gRSShopper when you comment on a post, the comments live on the host (the aggregating site).

      In Feedwordpress, you have the option for comments to take place on the host blog or to link back to the original post- we opt for the latter.

      I can see positive points to both approaches, and in general, the aggregation of comments remains elusive.

      I’m curious about the possibilities of linking twitter activity to posts (I need to check out that API). One of the feeds we also subscribe to is the RSS feed for the ds106 hash tag that I have being saved as a WordPress custom post type- there might be ways to tie in the connection to posts (as well we have some Buddypress things lined up to grab tweets, flickr posts, and youtube activity by people with accounts).

      Thanks for the sharecount, that’s got some nifty potential.

  2. [...] post from Alan Levine (@cogdog) on Syndication Machines (plus syndication of syndication) which details how feeds for the cMOOC course ds106 are aggregated and resyndicated got me thinking [...]

  3. [...] can see what the finished assignment will look/sound like (for WP buffs,  Alan Levine touches on how they did this using WordPress tags). And, once a student completes an assignment, they can then rate the [...]

  4. [...] project, which means a large number will be self-hosted blogs. And we’ll depend a lot more on the Syndication of Syndication approach, which is exciting because thanks to Martha Burtis, the sign-up of Domain of One’s Own will [...]

  5. [...] It comes in handy for PHP work on WordPress sites as well. You should know that the main internal organ that makes the magic of the ds106 site do what it does is the Feed WordPress plugin. This is what allows us to add external blogs to be auto republished inside our site, and as well resyndicate it out to our satellite sites. [...]

  6. [...] rather annoying grain of sand in the ds106 machine of syndication is the loss of web sites when students give up their domains, or just obliterate their blogs after [...]

  7. Simon Ensor says:

    Thank you very much for this ecology of learning in a blog post. Can we put the course on pause please? (Joke)

    It all seems distant horizons for me at present, but then so did blogging.

    I shall need to give up the day job.

    The principles and the philosophy I get. The nuts and bolts will take longer…

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