Look at those tired, weeklong workshop worn down expressions on University of Guadalajara faculty in that photo above.

This was the energy we saw a lot of earlier this month, for the entire time for the second year of the UDG Agora project, a collaboration between the Justice Institute of British Columbia and the Universidad de Guadalajara.

The UDG Agora is among the best and most rewarding projects I have been part of. You probably won’t read about it in any ed-tech journals, not in an innovation “thought pieces”, not in any TED Talks. Chances are you have never even heard of UdG, a 15 campus (plus a virtual university, and a high school system) network spread across the state of Jalisco, educating something on the order of 180,000 students.

Oh, and while North America churns over the cost crises of higher education, Mexican students attend UdG for yearly fees that are on the order of… a Biology textbook. Who even knows this?

Well, we might suggest Stephen Downes does, because, as Brian and I suggested in our talk on openness, Steven is always watching:


(we know you are reading this now, Stephen).

What is the Agora?

The UDG Agora project was made possible by a significant investment by the government and the University, as a Diploma for faculty in Student-Centered and Mobile Learning. The goal was to have participating faculty to re-design parts of their courses using these approaches.

For more, you can see our presentation from the Open Education 2015 Conference or the one we did for the Conectáctica conference in December, 2015.

Our CIEP colleagues from UDG are working on a research analysis of the 2015 cohort. You can also explore the Comparte collection of final reports.

Oh, People.

I cannot even start to talk about the project, the technology, the things we saw, without talking about the people. A good project, location, support are all key ingredients, but I cannot say enough about my colleagues Tannis Morgan and Barb Kidd (JIBC), Brian Lamb (TRU), and Nancy White (her own universe):

Every night, often over tacos, we would reshape and work through each other’s parts of the project, refine, throw things out, pull things in. No egos at play here. It just sounds cliché to say it, but the dynamic of this team makes anything possible.

I would also be remiss in missing out on including coaches from last year (the smaller project meant fewer coaches), Terri Bateman (BC), Ken Baer (Tec de Monterey), and Jorge Enrique (UDG).

Then add on top the UdG CIEP team led by Sandra Cobain. We thought we worked long hours, but they make us look meek. And the folks at the CUAAD campus where everything just worked, technology, logistics.

There’s much I’d hope to capture from this most recent experience there, and I feel as though it will come out as a chaotic blob of yabba babba.

A lot I would characterize as “it’s not about the thing”.

For example, last year all ~300 participants, and 50 of 80 this year, were given iPads for use in the project. But this never was an iPad project, there is no expectation for iPads to be part of their course redesigns (unrealistic platform expectations for students). The iPad is somewhat of a MacGuffin, an instigator to experiment with media and communication platforms, but not the end goal.

Changes for The Second Iteration

There’s a lot to be said for getting to do a second round of a project, and the different dynamic of a smaller over all group size helped us too this year. Last year, the project included ~320 professors in:

  • 2x one week (5 day) sessions of face to face “studios”
  • 8 weeks of online community, virtual connectivity, when professors planned their “implementations”, the redesigns of parts of their course.
  • A final gathering to summarize, share results, get diplomas.

The notable thing about this design is that it’s not a one shot, drop in and do workshop and leave design… it is sustained over time.

The same elements are still present:

The big change this year was working with a smaller number of participants, and redoing the face to face schedule to be 4 days instead of 5 (which likely helps ones who traveled from out of town). It meant longer days for all, from ~9am til 3:30pm (see detailed schedule), but made simple by cutting the drawn out sit down lunch. Yes, we had them that long, and gave them (and us) lunch at the end of the day.

Another difference is an effort to maintain connection with participants between the June face to face session and the start of the online community activity in late August. We encourage them to do some Daily Tries that we populate to run through the summer (and maybe beyond). Also, they will be asked to try doing one studio from the online materials that they did not get to do in June (we have also made available a few of last year’s studios that were not on the agenda this year). And we want them to experiment with communicating in dilo.

All of this, of course, is optional for them to pursue. But they are doing it:

Studios and Challenges in Face to Face Time

The format of our time together in June is a minimum of instructor led stuff (us) framed around a series of hands on studios. Three studios were “foundational” and because of this year’s group size, we were able to do it together in the larger theater.

My Foundational Studio on Prepping Your Toolbox was first, because we had to introduce participants to a wide range of tools and web sites we would use that week. This year’s went much better; we had them doing what for may were first twitter actions, then doing a “Daily Try” (our UDG Agora version of the DS106 Daily Create), doing hands on a simple challenge from the bank they would use all week for their studio sessions. And we were able to give them a preview of our online discussion space, dilo.

Besides just the language differences, communication was quite a battle last year, just getting people’s emails for our mailing list (dealing with greylisting of email domains on the campus network). The big hurdle last year was we introduced dilo weeks after we finished the face to face; this year we aimed to have them all signed up and able to login before the end of the week (we got close, maybe 90%).

In the four days, there were also 6 rounds of Learner Selected Studios, meaning each of us taught the same studio likely 3 times.

Each studio included 3-5 Challenges, activities they did during the time together, and then reported back to the Challenge Bank (more on this below).

On their surface, some studios may seem… trivial? Why are we not training in solution driven analytics laden technologies and instead introducing faculty to Memes & GIFs, Short Looping Video, Comics, Free Stuff, Sketching?

Look a catchy tuned video about coffee?

A stick figure animation?

Celebrating Friday?

Crude drawings?

An animated gif of people around food?

These again are not the end goal, in fact, they might be disposable– but they are meant to give participants ideas for potentials of media and communication, to seed them with confidence in creating them.

There’s much more to creating a compact message of emotional appeal with one image and text– consider the ideas that a meme is a powerful thing to waste. Or maybe that short quirky looping videos can help to understand change over time or to analyze the details of a process?

Other PD projects have have focused on delivering training technical skills; what the Agora does is seed people with ideas for them to develop themselves over time, and in company of each other.

The Challenge Bank is at the core of our activity, participants in the studios report and share back via a web form what they were able to produce–

Screen shot of of the response to a challenge form

Screen shot of of the response to a challenge form

In our week together, we recorded almost 600 responses to challenges (again from 80 participants).

Building Internal Expertise. And Confidence

Another huge advantage is we have a large number of participants we can tap into; in fact that was what we did on the first day by running a “user experience fishbowl” activity where four faculty from last year, Adán, Araceli, Moises and Francisco, shared their experience and lessons learned with the new participants.

They each had both personal and professional moving stories to share (an audio recording is available).

We make use of twitter in this project, but it’s not a strict requirement, like the iPad, it’s not an end goal. As a platform twitter is not as widely used in Mexico as other platforms (though a number of our participants are very experienced there).

So it was quite new for a lot of our participants.

And this is a characteristic I’d like to share of the faculty in our sessions- an incredible work ethic when challenged. From my experience in doing technical workshops with people, it seems like quite a few just shut down, roll over when the technology part is confusing or not simple. We saw none of that with our UDG participants. I saw no bored faces, no “pretending to listen but really doing email/chat.”

And they so readily talk and work collaboratively…


No giving up easily.

Rosario was overwhelmed the first day. But she stayed with us, and on day 3 look at her sense of accomplishment with doing her success in recording an audio story:

Twitter? Yes.

But on twitter, I had in mind a research project reviewed by Stephen Downes— the idea was to try and do some data analysis to connect people’s activities across social media platforms. My take away was it ended up being more about the platform than what people were doing in the platforms.

So our use of twitter is not to force a message that twitter is great, but to give them an experience there that they can consider for more about the experience itself, and not necessarily twitter. Using hash tags is something we saw a lot of uptake in 2015. Like this year, most of last year’s participants did not do much with twitter, but on their own, they ended up in their projects creating over 120 class hashtags.

We put into place, and showed them the visualization possibilities of Martin Hawksey’s Twitter Tags worksheets; we can see early in the activity, a lot of disparate nodes, with more centralized connections to our @AgoraUdG account (because that is used to do replies for the Daily Try), and active twitter people like @NancyWhite and myself, but also a participant from last year (@SaraCarolina)


It matters little to us if our participants use twitter for themselves or their course projects. It’s not the end goal. It’s more to have a taste of the experience, the network effects.

In the 3 weeks of the new round, we are over 1200 tweets, and while in the top active accounts are me, Nancy, and Sandra, the rest (and the most active) are our participants.


And we use twitter accounts in different way- for their work in the Challenge Bank, we ask that they enter their twitter name in their responses (and they can include collaborators twitter names in the tags field) — we use it as a proxy for accounts, without having them make accounts. If they don’t want to use twitter, they can create a makeup name.

What it means for them, is they have a unique URL that shows their contributions, for example:


and then a “leaderboard” for the entire site (the top numbers are naturally for last year’s participants)

Likewise, because the Daily Try responses are submitted via twitter, each participant also has a unique link for their activity


I consider this a way of using twitter for our purposes as much as what twitter does.

The Technology. Nuts, Bolts, Duct Tape.

Note this section is at the end. More than a year since I started on the project, it’s great to look back at what is a small open pieces mostly joined. I understood when the project was planned, the thought then was to used Moodle. With the contract given to JIBC, and with Tannis at the helm, there is not surprise that openness and open tools became one of our pillars.

When Tannis, Barb and I visited UdG in April 2015 for our first planning project, there was no platform on the table. But with Tannis pitching the idea of “studios” and “challenges” that I was suggesting a version of the DS106 Assignment Bank.

In fact, while there, I put together a test instance, and we and our CIPE colleagues did the first challenge in the bank, the Recorded Sound Effect story (which of course is a remix of a classic DS106 assignment). You can see our work at the very bottom of the responses– you can see the creativity of Pedro in the way he produced his response.

And thus, because building the sites was in my corner, what you see are a mixture of a lot of (but not all) WordPress, a wee bit of RSS Syndication, some DS106, some SPLOT, and more.

At first they wanted us to use a university WordPress install, but as I needed frequent access to the server for custom work, and it just works, we made a case in the interest of time, to host the project sites on Reclaim Hosting. And because of that, we could do things like have them monitor the server load during our busy demand times in person, and they provide crucial support to get discourse running (and updated) (and updated) for us.

Some of these were heavily used, others barely.

That’s just the WordPress part- other key ones include:

  • Our dilo community site is run in discourse. That was somewhat of a bear to wrestle. Figuring out a strategy for how to get people in was always a minefield. Email invites only worked… if we have correct emails. Self enrollment was tried. And this year? If people were not in, we had them come up to my machine, and enter their info in the account creation form. In 2015, with 300+ participants we create smaller “groups” of ~40 each using categories viewable to only people in those groups. I cannot say for sure how well that worked.

    For 2015, we simplified it to three areas- Open Agora (full discussion), Announcement (stuff from us), and Dilo tips, tech support.

    I like what discourse offers and there is a huge amount of clever was it uses the discussion content. It does take a certain amount of persistence to get to the point of using the composer well.

  • We set up a Tinyletter account to send email announcements to participants. Getting email addresses is always more complex than it sounds, but its critical that people get our messages. Our own group URL has a self signup form (and a link to see archives). I love the simplicity of tinyletter, it it becomes a noun in our vocabulary– “The hangout schedule will be sent in the next tinyletter.” “Did you get the last tinyletter?”
  • Our team makes use of a shared Google Drive folder for documents, etc as well as a Slack for our communication. We made a lot of use of Slack last year, it worked well for our small geographically distributed team.
  • I flipflopped a lot on the naming our twitter account @AgoraUDG and #udgagora hashtag — if they are the same, then people will confuse them and if they are different people will confuse them. It’s lose lose. We set up a Twitter TAGS worksheet to archive and visualize the activity (2015 summary; 2015 Conversation Explorer; and 2016 summary, 2016 Conversation Explorer)

Let There Be an Agora Cheer

We also close with a group photo, which often begs for a GIF:


and a hearty cheer:

And this is just the beginning of the project! Adios from the bottom of a long long long post. And all of those only hints at the goodness we saw last week.


Top / Featured Image: These participants are not having much fun… my flickr photo https://flickr.com/photos/cogdog/27704087746 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com 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 @cogdog@cosocial.ca


  1. I was so proud and honoured to be invited to take part in this project last year and am definitely in a state of “Ken is watching” here as well. Congratulations JIBC and the UdeG on an excellent project as well as being open to my participation from a “competing” institution in the ZMG; collaboration between institutions is a win-win situation and we should do that more.

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