learning, design, technology

Gleanings from the Fields of #Domains17

On the drive up and back from North Texas to OKC for #Domains17, I observed the wheat harvest in full swing. The custom crews were making their yearly journey starting from the southern plains and rolling northward, following the ripening grain. This photo was taken by my nephew James Pelzel, as a crew moved through his beautiful field about an hour south of the Texas-Oklahoma border. I’m using it with his permission here (shh, I copied it from a Facebook post). 

As I thought about it, these sights suggested a way for me to organize a few thoughts about the conference (or the #notaconference, as Alan Levine so aptly noted). “Gleanings” are a gathering up of fragments after the harvest, and that’s what I want to do after Domains17 … gather up a few ideas after the rich presentations and conversations at the event itself, as well as the many fruitful reflections and materials people have shared in the past week.

I love the way Adam Croom started off with a call to hospitality, to making the space our own but challenging us to make new connections beyond the familiar and the comfortable. Even so, I resonated as well with Amy Collier’s post about belonging and the feeling of being “at someone else’s party.” For different reasons than Amy, I am sure, and again in spite of the generous welcome and friendliness that I experienced. I guess that’s partly my own reservedness and insecurity, but also because my position at my current school is facing an uncertain funding future, so I am on the market for a new position in instructional technology and design. I’ve helped to establish a strong digital pedagogy program going at Austin College these last three years, but AC is one of those small liberal arts colleges facing a budget crisis and making hard choices about staffing. Coming to Domains was at once an uplifting shot in the arm but also a reminder to me that the seeds we have planted toward implementing a Domains-inspired program and vision at AC are very possibly not coming to fruition. So I had to explain all that to people I met (that’s after the usual explanation about Austin College not being in Austin).

Nonetheless, there were many exciting moments for me, and I just want to touch on a few of them here, in no particular order. First, it was a thrill to meet Jon Udell and to listen again to his presentation about a “user-innovation toolkit” build around the Hypothes.is annotation application. I say “again” because I was fortunate enough to participate earlier this spring in the #OpenLearning17 cMOOC put on by Gardner Campbell and friends, which featured a webinar with Gardner, Jon, and Jeremy Dean on the “annotation infrastructure” and liberal learning. I wrote about that in “Notes and Trails,” which includes the video of the webinar. Jon spoke there of the “sea change” that comes about when granular web resources—a phrase, a sentence, a number in a table, a cell in a spreadsheet—can be given their own URLs and thus become identifiable “small pieces” that can be referenced, combined, and rearranged in novel and creative ways. Jon referred to these pieces as “segments of interest” that are taken from larger documents and pages.

In that context, Gardner Campbell, channeling Doug Engelbart, coined the phrase “combinatorial disposition” to refer to the recombining and rearranging of small pieces of material in the search for greater cohesion, connection, and intricacy of pattern. And it occurs to me that this was a theme running through Domains17 in many ways. For example, Tim Klapdor, in “Beyond the LMS,” sketches a vision of combining systems and applications (through APIs) that is undergirded by this sense of combinatorial disposition. His key phrase, “from small pieces loosely joined to small pieces deeply connected” captured for me some of the movement going on at the conference … when we consider applications, ideas, and “segments of interest” in their most basic units, we are more free to arrange and rearrange them and in the process discover patterns and harmonies that enable deeper levels of learning.

In the same vein, Keegan Long-Wheeler, in “Domains Inside the LMS,” led us through a process of combining and remixing tools and applications inside the framework of Canvas. Again, I thought that, behind the specific instructions for how to make this happen, what was operative was a disposition for imagining how different pieces of the web could come together to create an ever more connected learning environment. As was noted, even Jim Groom’s foundations seemed to be shaken by the possibilities of an open LMS …

… but maybe it’s the other way around, and it’s the LMS crowd (well, Canvas at least) that is coming around to a new way of thinking. Perhaps Domains “in the belly of the beast” is another Trojan horse move in which transformation will occur from the inside out rather than by direct confrontation.

The Domains fair, as others have pointed out, was a masterstroke for the opening period on Monday morning. With about a dozen projects to peruse and chat about, it was a good way for introductions and conversations to begin in a low-key atmosphere of greeting and mingling. I enjoyed learning, for example, about the TRU Writer SPLOT and discussing that with Brian Lamb. If I understood Brian correctly, part of the impetus for developing this tool was the declining state of web literacy among many students. This raised for me the question, “Does creating a simplified interface really address that problem, or does it perhaps exacerbate it?” I don’t have a clear answer to that question, but I certainly wouldn’t discount the value of such an application.

The importance of the project became even more evident to me the next day, as Tanya Dorey-Elias and Alan Levine, in “Small Steps Go a Long Way: Designing Learning Tools with WordPress,” described how ready access to the means of digital storytelling could make such a difference especially for those most in need of telling their stories.

Another session that gave me lots to think about was “We’re not DOOMed: From Student Tutor to Instructional Technologist,” with Jenna and Jarrett Azar from Muhlenberg and Jess Reingold from UMW. I’m so impressed with the way the Muhlenberg team developed a program of student digital assistants and worked that into their larger Domains project. It’s the kind of thing I had been hoping to do at Austin College! And Jess’s presentation as a new graduate now working as an instructional technologist was wonderful. I appreciated her typology of the four common types of tech learners …

… with a GIF to illustrate each type:

One of the things I increasingly realize in attending events like this is that every presentation, every slide is a lesson, not only in the explicit “content” or subject matter at hand, but in the means chosen to communicate and convey the message. Jess chose an imaginative way to move beyond a mere bullet list and to leave her audience with a set of memorable images to consolidate what she was trying to express. In terms of takeaway for me:

And this is not to dismiss the valuable and incredible work that IT staffs and help desks do for us, but rather to point out how that can be complemented so effectively with the kinds of programs being developed at Muhlenberg and UMW.

The keynote by Martha Burtis, “Neither Locked Out Nor Locked In. Finding a Path Through Domain of One’s Own,” gave us both a refresher on the history of the project and a set of challenges for thinking through where we go from here. Thinking beyond the pragmatic benefits of web literacy, e-portfolio, and data ownership to really “knowing” the web … to “thinking like the web,” to use the phrase of Jon Udell that has inspired me so much. So this knowing is not just a “knowing about” this or that practical feature of Domains or of the web, but is itself a mode of thinking about anything that reflects the very dynamism of the web. Reminds me of the distinction between writing “on the web” and writing “of the web” … two very different things.

Martha challenged us to think metaphorically, symbolically, poetically about the web:

Wow, that’s a tough one for me, as I usually too quickly move to concepts and definitions in my thought. But all the more important, then, to try to get to that more fundamental level of imagination. For starters, to state the obvious, “web” itself is already a metaphor of a certain kind of concrete space that we find in nature. What came to mind next is the image of the “rabbit hole,” which references a kind of experience we’ve all had on the web. Not particularly original, I know … I recall, for example, some posts of CogDog on the subject (e.g., “Hypernoting from Books: Prairie Dogging the Rabbit Holes“). Then I thought of a labyrinthe … again, not that original, but suggestive to me of a maze of pathways and forking trails, some of which lead to dead ends, but others of which lead to discovery.

Finally, Jim Luke’s presentation, “Running Errands for Ideas: Starting a DoOO at a Community College” related one faculty member’s doggedness in turning the vision of Domains and the open web into reality at Lansing Community College. Jim built to a stirring revolutionary call at the end, which I captured in this tweet:

So, for the record, I am aware that it is not necessary to repeat the same hashtag in a tweet. The one tweet of mine that got the most circulation and attention, and it looks like I don’t quite know what I’m doing. Oh well …

There was so much more, but that gives just a sample of the generative and inspiring get-together that was #Domains17. Truly outstanding planning and execution by Lauren Brumfield, Adam Croom, Jim Groom, Tim Owens, and everyone involved. Thanks, and looking forward to #Domains18 :).


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  1. Mo,

    It was an absolute pleasure to have you, and this is an awesome recap of your experience. I am inspired to start working on my own. I was blown away by how generous everyone was with their work, and each slide a lesson is a great way to think about it. I had a similar conference experience as you given I was in almost all the sessions you mention, and it’s kinda cool to have a fairly intimate, shared experience from a conference. I’m not sure there will be a Domains18, but if there is it’s because of posts like this one! Thanks Mo.

    • Mo Pelzel

      Thanks so much, Jim … happy to finally meet you, and grateful to be part of this awesome group of folks. You guys are first-class all the way. I sure hope there’s a Domains 18, because NOBODY does it better!

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