The expanding ‘middle space’ between technological innovation and innovation in using technology.
Part of my learning journey over the past year has been learning Drupal and WordPress.org. A couple of years ago one of my web developer colleagues showed me a cartoon of the Drupal learning curve. The Drupal learning 'curve' is actually a cliff-face which is shown to claim many victims. Images of crosses and a runaway train have the potential to destroy even skilled and experienced developers. I understand that Drupal 7 is somewhat more user-friendly than its predecessor versions, but nevertheless there have been some false starts and issues continue to arise from time to time.
That said I consider myself something of a 'Route 1' learner. I learn what I want to know in order to achieve a specific outcome. I am actually proud of the fact I managed to build YazikOpen in my own time using Drupal. It wasn't that I set out to use Drupal from the beginning but attempts to use Joomla and WordPress (which I use for this blog) were unsuccessful. Most importantly an add-on biblio module is available in Drupal. It is this module which forms the backbone of my site.
I am not a web developer, at least not a professional one. Developing a website is not without its problems, but there is enormous potential for non-specialists to innovate in web development.
This innovation does not relate to the software itself, but the way it is used. Innovation is much about the content itself of course, but Drupal offers a half-way house between developing new software and applications on one hand and making innovative use of new technologies on the other.
Put simply Drupal is made up of two types of modules: core modules, the majority of which need to be activated to build any sort of website and optional modules which are being developed all the time. If there is anything you would like a website to do, the chances are that a module is available. This gives the opportunity for people like me who know little about programming build websites in ways that would have been very difficult for even the most talented web developers a few years ago. You might say that you can use the same pile of bricks in different ways to build a garden wall, a house or a cathedral. Behind the scenes it is unlikely that any two Drupal-built websites are the same.
Of course we will always need web developers, web designers and software developers of course and innovations in these areas will not stop. Just because we amateurs can do something does not always mean we should. Just because I can get something work does not mean I have found the best way to make it work. It is ideal to have a website which looks good and is easy to navigate, though on some occasions this is more important than others. There is also the small matter of online security.
However I see a number of opportunities for see for those interested in this expanding ‘middle space’.
- When I started to build YazikOpen I knew more or less what I wanted to achieve. Through learning online and buying a book or two I have more or less got where I what to go.
- As an individual I have a high level of control over the technology as well as the content. If things are not working or I find a way to make it work better I can change things at the first point of convenience. I don’t need to wait until another person’s time becomes available and I don’t have to explain to other what I want to do.
- I am currently putting together a website introducing humanities students to statistics. One of the technical challenges I have overcome is rendering LaTaX online* for the equations. I am able to make sure both the maths and appearance are working out.
- Drupal, and many other packages are open source and free to the use. Premium services are available, but I don’t have to spend any money just to try something out.
- Following on from above, if I want to buy a premium professional theme I can.
- There is a strong online community of support for those new to Drupal, as well as more experienced developers.
- New modules are being developed all the time. Although I don’t have the skills to build my own modules (at least not yet), finding another person asking the same question is only a google search away. And usually there is a module which can achieve it.
* I have written a section on this for the statistics website which I will make available on here as well.
Over my summer break I pondered upon how much learning I have done online. I’m not talking about learning relevant to my job (but I have learnt a lot online which has helped me in my job), but about learning not directly related to my job. The fixed wheel bicycle conversion I posted about a couple of days ago was possible through what I had learnt online. I bought most of the parts online. I read fixed wheel websites and forums to find out what I needed to do. Whenever I had questions or difficulties I found that other people had had these same experiences and had posted about them. I doubt that I could have achieved this in the pre-internet era. Moreover it was Sheldon Brown’s website that first got me interested in the idea of riding fixed in the first place.
I also look online when it comes to home DIY projects. I wanted to know how long I should wait before applying paint to the new plaster in my hallway. My plasterer said a few days. Online the answers varied from a few hours to about six months. And then there was the question of preparing the wall prior to painting. My plasterer said to use a cheap white emulsion with about 10% water. Online some said you could use 50% water. Others said to use PVA. The emulsion people angrily responded that this is the last thing you should do. It’s unsurprising that there are differing opinions out there, but the passion with which opinions of how to prepare a newly plastered wall are held astonishes me. For the record I went to my plaster’s advice and it seems to have turned out ok. This case is different to the fixed wheel conversion in that in the pre-internet era I would have just done as the plasterer said the first place. Online learning offers the access to doubt as much as it offers the possibility of answers.
I know far more about computers than I ever planned to. But thanks to the internet I’ve been able to fix computer problems. I’ve even opened up the case to upgrade the memory. Similarly, when I couldn’t get the iplayer to work on my freesat dish, I spent much time looking online. Sometimes I don’t always find a solution to my problems, but to know that there were people out there with the same problems is some comfort.
- Makes me want to do things I didn’t even know about.
- Makes me want to check what I have learnt ‘face-to-face’.
- Offers a second or third opinion.
- Answers my questions successfully.
- Offers good advice.
- Offers bad advice.
- Helps me to doubt expert opinion.
- Gets me to buy stuff I need
- Gets me to buy stuff I might need
- Gets me to buy stuff I don’t need.
I enjoyed Karen Smith's article in Teaching in Higher Education exploring innovation in higher education. Smith addresses innovation in a university-wide context as well as the individual context. She draws on Kanter's metaphor of innovation being like flowers. Of course some of those flowers turn out to be weeds.
Karen Smith, “Cultivating innovative learning and teaching cultures: a question of garden design,” Teaching in Higher Education 16, no. 4 (2011): 427-348
I've never written a top 5 list before, but here is a "top 5": list from me.
Emeritus Professor at Leeds Metropolitan University and Educational Development Consultant Phil Race has shared lots of his materials on his website. The compendium of his writings on assessment is ideal for experienced teachers as well as lecturers starting out. He also shares his thoughts on the National Student Survey and his page “If I were in charge…” motivates reflection on the way universities operate.
Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development
Lots of great resources here on almost everything you can think of from assessment to plagiarism, internationalism to course design. I’ve found its page on writing learning objectives with its extensive list of appropriate verbs valuable on numerous occasions.
E-learning blog “Don’t waste your time”
I found the website of David Hopkins, Learning Technologist at Bournemouth University when trying to find out what a QR code was (I’ve yet to feel that the purchase of smart phone is justified, but all the students seem to have them). The poster downloads on topics like using blackboard are helpful as so are the tips on making effective use of blogs and Twitter (lots for me to learn here.)
Ok, I might be a bit biased here as some of my colleagues at the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies led the project to build this teaching resource repository. The HumBox describes itself as “…a new way of storing, managing and publishing your Humanities teaching resources on the web.” The beauty of Humbox is its remarkable simplicity of use. Once you have set up an account you can upload and download resources in virtually any format, as easily as is technologically possible. I really started appreciating HumBox when trying (often unsuccessfully) to use some other repositories (no names will be mentioned here).
A mixed bag as you might expect, but some great material and good production standards. As I write I am listening to a round table discussion on “Why French Matters”. A highlight for me is Dan Judge’s statistics lectures which succeed in making a difficult subject (for me) so engaging.