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You Don’t Get ds106 in a Box

Just to be clear… My title is misleading- there are elements of the ds106 site we are going to be making available soon in a format for you to open, paint, fill, decorate, install on your own site. I worry more about the “in a box mindset”

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Travis Nep Smith

I understand why people are expressing an interest for something like “ds106 in a box”

After all it is definitely the best thing since ___________. Cult status notwithstanding.

But for reasons which hopefully gush out below, I’d really like to eradicate that “in a box” expression- it’s the kind of mindset in the early web years that got us AOL instead of the open internet, that has educators locked in LMSes rather than open systems, that has “everyone” posting statuses and liking in Facebook rather than their own space, that has higlhy educated people lathering over mass produced machine graded learning video lecture as a learning experience.

First of all, we are excited that people are growing interested in using what ds106 has evolved for other subjects. Mike Caulfield framework of a multi-class experience around issues of water … water106, and Jason Green is trying to get something going for a music class, based on the ds106 approach

But to be clear the site is not the course. The basic ingredients is a platform where there is some coordinating information, and the use of an RSS feed aggregator to collect, and maybe tag, re-organize content that people publish in their own spaces.

ds106 spring 2010


ds106 Spring 2013

The ds106 site itself is a bit of a monster of accretion, and we’ve pretty much built it in the air as we flew the plane, using our open source WordPress platform, plugins, but a lot of custom code that is a hard wired jumble.

We definitely want to make it available in a form that others can use, and its my goal to have a workable version of the ds106 Assignment Bank as something like a WordPress theme (with maybe 3 required plugins) that could be readily customized for other kinds of collections.

I am working on this August 2013 (a.k.a. now) and it should be unrolling in a viewable version at (bank does not refer to recent money raising efforts). I will be tagging the progress here as (and have include past related posts on building syndication hub sites)

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Chris Mear

A key pillar of ds106 is its core aggregation of content from participant’s own sites using Feed WordPress as the engine of the syndication bus. Doing this is something I have been extending out to other uses, an engineering design class in the Netherlands, ETMOOC, last week’s Harvard Graduate School of Education Future of Learning Institute, and the currently ongoing Art+Reconciliation MOOC.

Others have figured out this architecture, see Martin Hawksey’s brilliant work on the octel course site. And Martin Weller’s open H817 course. And what EDC MOOC did (for a course cemented in Coursera). And pretty much every Original Canadian Flavored MOOC powered by Stephen Downes’ gRSSHopper.

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Tom Magliery

It is not quite giant quick push button (and frankly never should be), it’s doable by someone with an understanding of feeds and syndication. I know Martin Weller wanted the big That Was Easy button for H817. It seems reasonable- Syndication is based on RSS which is standard so it should be easy to have an automated system.

When you dig a bit deeper into feeds, you kind all kinds of variances how they are constructed and delivered. What those are is a post for another day, but I have seen this since for more than a decade of running Feed2JS— it’s kind of tricky to automate the proper feed identification. Or maybe someone smarter than me needs to take a crack at it.

Yet it could be made relatively easier with more models, sample code, mote templated setups, documentation== but to me, it should always take some elbow grease, because little that is that easy to do seems worth doing. And also, again, the course site is not the course experience.

Think of any teacher you fondly remember as being inspiring– I am back in high school Calculus class with Mr Witts. His power as a memorable teacher was not the textbook nor some off the shelf lesson plan, it is what he brought to the course by personality, passion, and challenge– which somehow managed to make high school calculus something I wanted to engage in, for more than the grade.

Good learning experiences do not happen from piles of OERs/ Learning Objects, web widgets, course packs- they are what happens when integrated by teachers.

Yet there’s more. I am hoping Brian Bennett is able to pull out a tight edit of a great conversation Jim Groom and I had with him last week about some of this topic. And the thing is, even if we could hand you a push button crank it out ds106 in a box– it would in no way offer all that has become ds106– because most of the secret sauce is stuff that is not in the box.

The magic of ds106 is not the web site, it is the people who came when Jim asked, and people who came later. It is the stuff between the sites that is the elixer, the social connectivity. Why would people be investing precious time in August doing daily animated GIFs? It is how waves of people come in, like recent ds106 infected souls such as Rochelle Lockridge, Christina Hendricks. We even have a talking doll encouraging creative action. Then there is Mariana Funes who come to ds106 vis Martin Weller’s H817 open course.

When you dream of “ds106 in a box”, what you will get is actually just an empty box, a potential. What has happened in ds106 has not been because of the software, but the people, the community, all of the things which are not in some wordpress template. If you are creating an expectation that ds106 is something you can bottle and mass distribute, well you are doing us and the ides a disservice.

For an industry where the cliché is “thinking outside the box”, I am a bit baffled why people would pine over something magic “in a box”. I will push against this phrase.

The box is empty.

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Erich Ferdinand

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


  1. The phrase may be a cliche, but the need is real. I’m one of the people asking for “ds106 in a box.” What do I mean? I mean that I certainly understand the importance of the pedagogical part of the mix, and I’ve paid my dues as a non-expert who has learned Drupal, RSS, various forum and wiki syntax in order to help my learners take more responsibility for and power over their co-learning. I’ve been using for five years and, inspired by DS106, I want to move to a more open web platform and switch to blogs and tweets syndicated on a WordPress platform. But as you acknowledge, it isn’t so easy, particularly for a WordPress novice (I have enough experience with WP to know that it isn’t as easy as it looks), to set up a course page that does much of what DS106 does. Yes, yes, yes, I understand that what we do with the platform is the point. But how much time can I afford to spend with WordPress arcana? How many other educators who want experiment with a more learner-centric, constructivist pedagogy are even less experienced with tweaking WP? I’d love to see this exciting way of teaching and learning spread to many others, but it isn’t going to happen without some kind of template, kit, set of detailed, illustrated instructions. I’m fine with not using “in a box” if that irritates you, but I also want you to know that what you have created is attractive to other educators (like me) who are daunted by the prospect of setting it up from scratch. Why NOT make your experiences and expertise available to others in the form of some kind of guide, set of plug-ins (and instructions)?

    1. Do you ever have the experience of blogging about one thing and reading comments to find out you implied something else?

      I did not mean to suggest, Howard, that we would not share what we have built with ds106, that is exactly what I am working on now. In its present state it would be hard to impossible for someone to repurpose the code, and on a way I am building it into a prettier box.

      What I worry about is the notion that we promote the idea of technology being so easy that it’s a magical one click operation; I am all for and have made it a part of all my work to give it away.

  2. What a great post! I agree that it is the people and their commitment that are the ‘magic’. Many will try to copy the technology, the design, and the easier you make it the more they will try and many (but not all) will miss the passion for DS106 you all have – a commitment to a practice of ‘making things’ because of its inherent value and helping others learn how to do the same. No, you cannot put that in any box! It is a special gift I feel privileged to have bumped into early in my open education career.

  3. The thing that does need to be accomplished for this method to be more extensible is the ability for feeds and signups to be streamlined, even more than the assignment bank. Fact is, if we couldn’t autodiscover and populate feeds and twitter accounts for ds106, that model would be far too laborious. So, more I think about it, the more I think some of it does need to come in a box. The community never will, but some of the syndication certainly can.

    1. yes, the easier the technology the more likely the wider public can use the ideas behind DS106. It seems to me important to highlight, bold and underline that the community does not come in the box! And his post does a great job at reminding all of us of this. By all means make technology accessible, but the DS106 community would manage to create the magic even if all you had available was archaic email!

  4. Thank you so much, Alan, for blogging about your processes and the rationale behind them. I will be one of those watching closely while you build, and using whatever emerges. Your post on creating the etmooc blog hub was crucial for me in being able to figure out how to syndicate feeds using FeedWordPress in an online course I’m helping to facilitate with the School of Open at P2PU (along with lots of help from Pat Lockley!), and I, too, am very interested in the idea of students submitting their own assignments into a bank for courses. Without people like you telling the rest of us how you’re doing things, it would be much harder. So thank you!

    And you’ve captured the ds106 experience I’ve had exactly. Without the technology our connections would be harder to make, but they’d still be there (e.g., on Twitter). And that’s why I’m still here and will remain here, and staying up late making art. If I were doing it by myself, not playing off others’ work or having them riff off mine, sharing laughs and tips and ideas, well, I probably wouldn’t still be making art.

  5. Hi Alan —

    I apologize for misinterpreting you. I am reminded of Engelbart’s “Humans, using language, artifacts, methodology, and training.” I agree that there is a lot of magical thinking about the artifacts — throw technology at education to solve problems. And I found that the essence of the pedagogy — giving students more power over their learning and more responsibility for shaping it — can be accomplished with whiteboards and post-it notes if necessary (but can be amplified by tools such as the ones you are developing). I’ve talked with Jim Groom about providing some support for the pedagogical side, as well, and I hope my video interview with Jim for dmlcentral — to be published in a month or so — will contribute to that.

  6. I am a newbie to #ds106, but I understand exactly what you are saying. Having experienced #edcmooc in the beginning of the year, the connections made were what made the “happening.” I have the same feeling in this group and hope to be a ds106 lifer. Thank you for the opportunity, and thank you for keeping it real.

  7. Here’s my understanding:

    1) ds106 in a box doesn’t seem like the ideal solution. That way of thinking can encourage us to be subservient consumers rather than creators and owners. And you can’t box a community.

    2) But it’s hard to build a supercomputer with a soldering iron. Setting up platforms is fiddly and annoying. This is not the connected future we want. I think that a lot of potential of open source work in general is held back by usability problems.

    3) Maybe the way forward is to create a set of instructions for creating a minimum viable aggregator.

    “the basic ingredients is a platform where there is some coordinating information, and the use of an RSS feed aggregator to collect, and maybe tag, re-organize content that people publish in their own spaces.”

    So how can we help people go through the process of building such a platform? Can we do this while avoiding an in-a-box way of thinking? I think so. Even with some structured guidance, you still have to build the thing, and you’ll probably still get splinters; but it’s a bit more approachable. It should also start as a jumping-off point for people who want to customise in one direction or the other.

    This, plus a gloss formed by thoughts and experiences from people who’ve gone through the process and maybe done something extra – eg – seems like a good place to aim for.

    Has anyone surveyed and summarised the documentation that currently exists? If so, that’s great; if not, that sounds like a task that could usefully be done to contribute to this aim.

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