Note: It’s rare around this blog that something lingers in draft as long as this post. There is a reason for everything, right? But this one needs to get squeezed out of the Easy Blog Oven for another one to follow.

The very same desire I heard in my first week (1992) as an instructional technologist at the Maricopa Community Colleges, one I came to describe as “the database of dreams” is still sought Grail-like in 2021.

I saw the same questions and challenges maybe I’ve been asking myself all career. This was in the session at OERxDomains21 Melissa Jakubec presented– “If You Build It, Will They Come?”: The Challenges Of Building A Communal OER”.

Her question refers to a project site she created to collect learning activities. It’s quite well designed!

This session will introduce and reflect on a project that led to the creation of an open repository of successful learning activities, including sample stem language and examples to be remixed, reused and reshared. Learning activities are categorized by type (online discussion, group project, blog post, etc.), learning outcome level (according to Bloom’s taxonomy) and discipline to facilitate reuse by faculty, instructional designers and educational technologists. This results in a resource that can be searched according to widely known fields. For example, the resource can be searched for discussion activities appropriate for comprehension, analysis or synthesis.

Despite the attention paid to the design of the platform and the ease with which resources can be searched or shared, engaging the wider community in building the resource has been a challenge. This raises the question of whether or not it is worthwhile to develop these types of open resources when they are not well adopted. Other wider factors, such as lack of recognition or reward for working with OER, may also affect the use of the repository.

The learning activity site is quite SPLOT like in that visitors can contribute to the WordPress published site without needing an account. This is quite fitting as it was Melissa and colleague Kelly Warnock whose request during my TRU fellowship in 2014 spawned the creation of the first TRU Collector SPLOT.

The SPLOT making was maybe just the latest in a long marching ant strand. I’ve created so many of these web-based open collection sites that I can’t even count them all.

Back to that session’s question: “If You Build It, Will They Come?”

I have to say the answer is, not matter how brilliant the design, the metadata fields, the visual metaphor–if that is all you do, then– No.

Sorry.

I laid it out in 2003!

There is almost nothing more cliche than a Field of Dreams metaphor “If you build it, they will come”, but it is all so fitting for those that get glaze-eyed at the potential of building a Learning Object Repository (ugh, I despise the connotations of the “R-word”).

But I can guarantee you, that if you build it, they likely will not come, and if they do the pace will be one that gives you heartburn into the night.

Repository of (Learning Object) Dreams

Yet.

That is no reason to not stop trying.

And I do keep trying.

I likely won’t stop.

In Which the Blog Promise to Look Forward is Broken

I again go back to my past experience, to look forward. I have built so many fields of database dreams I cannot remember them all. Since my first bits of extending mid 1990s HTML web sites to be things that could dynamically build content collections from forms filled out by site visitors, I have been playing this game.

Much of my early web efforts has collecting links, first in manually maintained hand edited lists, than moving to ones that were searchable and could be set up with crude perl scripts to contribute new ones (the “database” was a tab delimited text file)

All of these sites jad submission forms, but I cannot say for sure how many actually came in, or whether it was 99% me.

The Database of Dreams predated my web era at Maricopa. This was (and is) a huge system of 10 independent community colleges with many many pockets and of innovation in both educational technology and pedagogical innovation. And this was in 1992 when I landed there.

My first week on the job was an “Ocotillo Retreat” at Mormon Lake, Arizona. This was the first of many times I heard of a desire to have some means of creating a comprehensive collection of “Who’s Doing What” with technology. Heck I wrote about this (pre blog) in our center’s newsletter. That was how we did this for years, collecting snippets likely form email and publishing them in print (and web). Hey there was a web submission form!

I worked with one committee to design a HyperCard stack as the database! Here was the database of dreams in 1992.

Again, I only have my memory, but the most successful collections were the ones we published in our newsletter as we worked our connections and contacts to flesh them out, likely done through email.

The MLX

I will claim the one and only thing I created I will sort of call a “repository” as maybe the most successful of these database of dreams was the Maricopa Learning eXchange or the MLX. I am still proud of it from both the richness of the metaphor but also the things we were able to build into it, including some of the most innovative stuff I did with some technology called RSS I learned about from some Canadian named Downes.

And it’s one I regret the most not doing enough to archive it. When I left Maricopa in 2006, I took all my web files, and exported many of my project databases, but the MLX database was one I forgot to grab.

But to get to this, I have to peel back a few more layers of context. This goes back to work Maricopa leaders started n maybe 1994 as the Maricopa Learning Paradigm, leading to a paper published in 1997 aimed at what seems like a basic question- how is learning defined (and embodied) in the large system of Maricopa? This became the learning@maricopa.edu project our center facilitated, but it was led by Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs, Alfredo de los Santos.

But here is what Maricopa was focused in the late 1990s, led from the top (this from my brilliant Director at MCLI, Naomi Story in our newsletter published in 1997

Discourse about Learning at Maricopa appears to have taken hold across the district. One of the compelling questions that some have asked is why is Learning such a hot topic. As Maricopa continuously updates, enhances, reforms, and transforms itself to meet not only the demands of a global and local economy, but most importantly, of our students who will frame our future, we must clearly stand for something. What we can stand for is quite simple…Learning. That all students can learn, be independently and individually motivated, and be life long learners can be our daily mental mantra. Do our current educational environments, processes, and systems encourage student investment in Learning as a lifelong enterprise? How do we build the capacity and encourage a self-renewing context that perpetuates Learning as a value? The Maricopa Learning Paradigm attempts to move us to a discourse that coalesces Maricopans around a higher level of commitment of Learning as our core value and raision d’etre for leadership and institutional transformation.

Maricopa Learning Project: What’s it all about? (The MCLI Forum, Spring 1997)

The Maricopa Learning project had many facets, including a series of Open Space Forums to develop this idea of what Learning@Maricopa meant. One concrete recommendation that came out was to build something that would show the range of programs, teaching ideas, materials that showed by example what Maricopa learning looked like.

And this is where the MLX and brown shipping boxes came in. In my work I was rather fatigued by the heaviness of Learning Object Repositories and had seen how sleepy most people get when you try to excite them about metadata.

So my idea was something that represent learning at Maricopa could be as small as a single class exercise to an entire large fellowship program. I got the spark of the idea when some boxes of supplies got delivered to the office. That’s it, like examples of learning, shipping boxes could be small ones that fit in your hands to large ones that needed a forklift to move.

And all shipping boxes had a label that described them (aka metadata). And the collection of them all would live in a giant warehouse.

That was how the Maricopa Learning eXchange got started…

Front of the MLX (explore in the Internet Archive)

Anyone could submit a “package” at the loading dock, aka a web form, and what was created to represent a sample of learning was the Packing Slip:

Everything on the slip was a database field (mySQL), so we could create search filters on the colleges who were represented, the disciplines, and more. And yes, you will notice that these bear some very early Creative Commons licenses.

But wait, there was more.

Contributors could include aby number of web links as well as uploaded documents (or supplements). What is shareback? As this was in the early 2000s and blogging was being birthed, I implemented my own version of Trackback links, so if this packing slip was mentioned in a blog, it could automatically get added here as a “shareback”. There was view counts, and even I added a means to represent all of the Packing Slip info into Dublin Core Metadata Format.

How well did the MLX do? Amongst the later snapshots in the Internet Archive, it looks like there were 1825 packages in 2013. Maybe not massive, but that’s pretty good.

The ways this was done is detailed in maybe the most fun I had in a conference poster at the 2003 Merlot Conference titled “Building the Maricopa Learning eXchange (Using a Bit of Competition and Bribery)”. The “building part” included:

Part of the task in building this sort of collection is getting its contents to a level where the content is seen as valuable. It takes time and much effort to convince people in the organization to submit their materials. And they need to be able to find content of interest to see the collection as a destination worth returning to.

The first requirement to create this buy-in is that the submission process must be as simple as possible, which we achieved with a friendly metaphor of entering them at the loading dock of the warehouse. We added a comment feature for all items that are tracked and sent to the package owner, as well as integration of TrackBack technology for connections to weblogs and other sites. 

MLX VIllage
MLX VIllage flickr photo by cogdogblog shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

I went way overboard on this “poster” – I had a model warehouse with shipping trucks and loading machines, this again was my metaphor overload approach. I don’t have my own archive (yet) of this web site, but it’s available in the WayBack machine and the PDF version is pretty lush!

But the real secret sauce of the MLX was that, because our center ran a number of other programs and projects, we were able to make the reporting back on Learning Grants we gave out or the faculty professional growth projects. We managed to tied in so that when someone entered their report for these programs, an entry was made into the MLX.

The competition and bribery came from the idea of offering prizes to the colleges that registered the most new packages submitted in what we called “The Great MLX Package Race”:

Next, we appealed to the notions of “competition” and “bribery” by offering prizes of software to the college that contributed the most items between November 2002 and March 2003. This was rather successful, adding more than 350 new items (with one third arriving 48 hours short of the deadline), and we have made the “Great MLX Package race” an ongoing event, with new prizes awarded every six months. For the race that ends August 31, 2003, we have added software prizes (donated, thanks!) for individual contributions.

Yup, I offered prizes, software. I had no shame.

And the other approach was making the content from the MLX available to by syndicated out to the different college web sites. I was inspired by the 2003 paper by Stephen Downes’s RSS for Educators to build that into the MLX, every nook and cranny. This was maybe my first experience of getting positively Downesed in Feb 2003

Maricopa Learning Exchange Maricopa has long been a leader in online learning (an early winner of NAWeb Awards, for example) and so it is not surprising to see it right at the cutting edge of what may be an important trend sweeping through online learning: the syndication of learning objects using technologies like RSS (I will have a lot more to say about this over the next few weeks, so stay tuned). Maricopa’s Learning Exchange is starting small (333 objects as of this writing) but this should be considered a proof-of-concept at this time. It is worth having a look at their syndication page to get a deeper idea of what they’re up to. By Various Authors, Maricopa College, February, 2003

OLDDaily Feb 26, 2003

Because we tracked the colleges represented in a package, I was able to generate an RSS feed so say, Estrella Mountain Community College had a data stream representing their contributions. This was where my tinkering to create what eventually came to be known as Feed2JS came in as they could use a cut and paste bit of HTML, along with their own CSS, to match their own web sites (I cannot remember, maybe 2 or 3 of the colleges used this?).

As I look back on this, I had more in the MLX mix than I remembered. Yes, A lot of this is still the “building” aspects, but the features I aimed for was to make it of use outside of the project. And tying the input stream to other reporting systems was maybe the most significant means of input. Yet I think the competition and bribery made for the most fun means to pull things in.

I was glad I could find the PDF of that 2003 Merlot Conference poster- it describes the MLX better than I have done here.

Sadly, the MLX was decommissioned a few years after I left.

Amazing Stories of Openness

The original 2009 covers for Amazing Stories of Openness

Another collection effort of great interest to me that had open submissions started as an Open Ed conference presentation in 2009. The whole idea was to collect short videos of colleagues sharing examples of what I had experienced myself- the unexpected outcomes of sharing openly:

While the Open Education movement focuses on institutional issues, a large ocean exists of powerful individual accomplishments simply from tapping into content that is open for sharing and re-use. As colorful as old covers of “True Stories” magazine, this presentation shares moving, personal stories that would not have been previously possible, enabled by open licensed materials and personal networks. Beyond my own tales, others have been culled from the net, and you can share your own.

Amazing Stories of Openness, 2009

These are still out there as is a lonely web submission form at http://stories.cogdogblog.com/

I am pretty sure the bulk of these came as I would bug colleagues to record them on Skype or maybe they responded with interest to my blog post begging. I did a number of rounds of these over the years, and if I had a presentation coming up, I would mount a campaign to bug people. I did create \ a Google form to collect, no longer active, but the spreadsheet shows I got 17 responses. A few were from people I did not know directly, but colleagues were the bulk. In true form, Scott Leslie was the first responder.

I found that when presenting I could even put willing audience members on the spot and record them live on my mobile phone. But the “collection” only grew around the times I solicited them for an upcoming presentation via blog posts, twitter, direct asks of colleagues. The built site alone did not draw many/any stories in.

Even as I have had the collection sitting there for years as a first a static HTML site then one in WordPress, I struggle to think of more than maybe 3 that came in, unsolicited just from what was built. Most came from my direct interventions.

The SPLOT Dreamy Stuff of Collections

The SPLOT themes I started on at TRU are ones I have put to use numerous times to solicit collections. In fact, the very concept of creating sites for people to contribute written content, visual, or mixed-media all seem poised to do the same kind of collection building I have been after.

I end up using SPLOTS often myself for projects. I keep seeing potential! Very few of them generated more than a handful of responses unless maybe it was part of a project or even class where they can be assigned (I am leaving those ones off the list below).

Let’s see how many I can rummage up:

  • 30,000,000 ACA Stories (TRU Writer)- Maybe my one political venture, when the Affordable Health Care was under attack, I got an idea to collect stories of people who it had helped (like me). I collected… 13
  • Pandemic Whispers (TRU Writer)- created this year as a way for people to write Post Secret like admissions of their pandemic experience. I got 42.
  • Extraordinary Stories of Open and Online in the Covid-19 Era (TRU collector)- I was hopeful for a community building effort for Open Education Global that all of the pivoting educators did would blossom with stories. Well, 63 is not bad (I may have entered a third of them myself), and I even figured out a way to connect a second submission site that fed the main one so we could have a Spanish language entry point.
  • OpenETC Inspire (TRU Collector) This has just recently been launched for the Open ETC (educational technology co-op for B.C.) as a way for community members to “give back” by sharing another member’s site that they find inspiring. A total of 16 collected so far
  • Stories of OpenETC in Action (SPLOTbox) Another one for the Open ETC aimed at collecting the stories behind someone’s site created at the OpenETC (12 stories collected)

Once Built, What Will Make Them Come?

I am still trying to figure this out. And many things, it depends on the context, the intended audience, what you have available to reach people who might contribute. The site itself, where we spend a lot of effort, seems alpst secondary to the efforts you will take on to make it (hopefully) come alive.

The things that seem to be needed are:

  • Direct asks to contribute seem to do better than broadcasting wide in blog posts and social media. Sure, people will like your tweet and repost, but I’ve not found it works well. More effective is direct messaging, emailing, extending a person invite to someone you think has something to contribute. It honors them. My wife Cori reminded me of this several times in one of my “why is no one adding to my collection!”
  • Tying the submission into some other process helps. That was the leverage I had with the Maricopa Learning eXchange- because I ran other sites that required reports of some sort, I was able to tie them together so submitting a final report on a professional growth sabbatical or for an internal grant our office ran, could be set up to also add to the MLX. But often you do not have this luxury
  • Organizing it around a presentation, workshop. Mke it part of the sharing activity to report back to the larger group (this also works if you are teaching as you have the carrot of making it part of an assignment.
  • Submit stuff in other people’s name. Heck, if they have done something worthy, why not add it in their name? Maybe not quite kosher, but you can also put a note in a description.
  • Be patient. More than you think is reasonable. Just about when you are ready to throw in the towel, a spark fo activity often appears. Stay with it. Be almost annoying with your enthusiasm for it.

After all these years, I do accept that building the thing is actually the smaller part of filling it.

Thoughts? Maybe others have better ideas.


Featured Image:

Dreaming of Angles
Dreaming of Angles flickr photo by cogdogblog shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web 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.

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