Category Archives: Less Noise

The Next Content Management System

When it’s officially unveiled, Casalena wants this version [of SquareSpace] to be so perfect and untouchable that even the undisputed CMS leader, WordPress, will be threatened.

via WordPress Dominates Blogs, But Squarespace is Gunning For It With Version 6 | PandoDaily.

From the little I have used squarespace (and I haven’t even used version 6) it has managed to impress me. Tons of flexibility for developers, along with a push button solution for people that just need a site. I really think that the content management system market needs to move to the next level. Most people running their own WordPress install need to get into serious monkey business to get caching and security right. For example, How many WordPress installs on dreamhost are using ssl for the dashboard? How many sites can withstand even a moderate spike in traffic? How many make use of some kind of elastic computing platform? Most people just need a place to put their stuff, they don’t need a crash course in technical systems or to hire someone to create a bespoke solution. We pay hosting providers to manage the physical infrastructure, the network, operating systems, web server software and config. Why not pay someone to maintain the CMS software as well?

it is about connecting people

Some what-if futuristic scenarios from 1982:

The most interesting thing for me today about these images is that although we foresaw that people would be accessing information wirelessly (notice the little antenna on the device in the “tide pool” image, we completely missed the most important aspect of the network — that it was going to connect people to other people.

The Internet is that it is all about connecting people. If what you are doing is primarily using the web to connect people to pure, disembodied information then you are doing it wrong. Seems so obvious, but still I think there are industries and organizations struggling with this concept.

If your online education is about “resources” or “content”, then you are doing it wrong.

If your web presence is about a glossy on-line pamphlet, then you are doing it wrong.

You are using the new medium like it is the old medium.

A few paths to easy app creation

In looking at low-barrier ways to take advantages of the affordances of mobile apps, I have played a little bit with shoutem. Shoutem lets you build an app with a simple web interface. It is kind of like a CMS for apps, if that analogy even makes any sense. At first I thought it would just make cheesy apps that are simply a wrapper for a web site but there are actually some decent features here. There are 16 building blocks that you can arrange and configure to create various types of apps. It is not just about displaying information in the hands of your users. You can configure some of the widgets to allow submissions from users. So for instance you could allow users of your apps to add locations to the same map, or share photos. Shoutem also allows you to send push notifications to your users and can provide analytics on how your users are interacting with your app.

I could see shoutem as super low-cost way to start experimenting with apps for classes that take advantage of the unique characteristics of mobile: location, photos, presence. While you are limited to the featured of the shoutem toolbox, the barrier to entry is so low I could envision custom apps for specific classes being rather feasible.

I came across another product in this category today. Cabana offers what seems like a much more advanced interface for creating apps compared to shoutem. The demo video shows the creator actually dragging UI elements around and hooking up views to various datasources around the internet (e.g. instsgram, twitter). Still a relatively low barrier to entry when compared with getting to know the iOS sdk, but not so simple as shoutem. Cabana produces html 5 apps, not native apps. Although I can’t figure out how they accessed the iphone’s camera in an html 5 app in their demo video. Cabana made some news today when they launched a product that will automatically turn a facebook fan page into an app.

I am a CMS Junkie

I am a CMS Junkie. I don’t know how this happened.

There are three CMS’s that I am spending a lot of time thinking about lately.

WordPress, Self-Hosted Open source software

The big feature is the community. There are so many plugins and themes. Tons of support resources to find on your favorite search engine. If you want to get started developing, tons of resources for that as well. WordPress has a really mature feature set and user interface. As I was writing this, look what popped up in my twitter stream:

Chances are that if you want to do it, then there is a plugin for it.

The downside to running wordpress is that you will find yourself delving into some set up and maintenance tasks. Running stuff on your own means you need to worry about patching the system, backing up, security, etc. But if you want to run your own site and have total control and build whatever you imagine, then wordpress is a good place to start.


Instead of giving money to web hosting company where you run and manage your own CMS software, you can give your money to a CMS hosting company like squarespace and get a completely managed CMS environment. No worrying about security, software patches, setting up databases, configuration files, etc. No worry about ownership or strange monetization schemes like you would with a provider that is offering their product for free. And even though you are using this specific hosted CMS there are tons more opportunities to customize than I have been able to dive into. I am guessing someone willing to invest in really learning this system could do almost anything with it. I really think this is the future of CMS hosting – getting web site maintainers and designers higher up the stack. Don’t worry about sys admin or software developer tasks. Let that be abstracted out to a provider. Just as amazon and other cloud computing providers have removed physical infrastructure from the equation for web service providers, Squarespace is removing CMS installation and maintenance from the equation for web masters.


I love tumblr because it provides a social network and completely friction free posting. I love that instead of having comments, tumblr instead pushes users to post a response on their own blogs. Being part of a network has advantages. A big part of tumblr culture is following other blogs and reblogging content from other blogs. Rather than just static site sitting there, don’t you want to create engagement through adding your content to a network where it will be seen and have an opportunity to travel and be talking about in a community – with no friction. If you are not trying to engage an audience, what is the point? I think I would want this kind of engagement for any website I might want to create.

TechCrunch reported that tumblr has seen dramatic growth over the last year:

The larger shift here that comScore is talking about is this: users are gravitating towards new ways of sharing the things they care about with anyone who shares the same interests as them. They’re still sharing private things like showing baby photos or party pics to real friends on Facebook. They’re just also falling in love with the new simple, public tools that these other companies offer.

Honorable mention: Jekyll / Octopress

There is something about composing your posts with a text editor, and generating a static site from the collection of files that is just wonderful to me. I know it has no business for the mass of people, and the web had become so rich due to ease of posting. But for someone like me, I am so intrigued by cutting out all the complications of databases, scaling, using web-based editors. At the same time, I also like some dynamic components on my site – like comments.

iPad saves Penn State science student from paying big printing fees

via Teaching and Learning with Technology:

“A program that I mostly use for note taking is called called iAnnotate. It requires the lecture slides to be in a .pdf format, and then you download them into DropBox and upload them straight into the program on the iPad,” Rutledge said. “You go on it, click on the file name, just take your notes on there. It automatically saves it, no hassle, and very easy to do.”

The student calls it easy, but this sounds exactly like something Apple would want to tackle and make perfectly seamless.

Student’s classes were requiring so much printing, it costs a single student 15 dollars a week. That would 450 dollars after two semesters. The iPad doesn’t seem too expensive compared to that.

the reanimated corpse of Microsoft Encarta

If the iPad is going to make new inroads in education, let alone transform it, I think it will be by way of specialized apps that take advantage of the many great capabilities of the iPad, not through an augmented-textbook model that reanimates the corpse of Microsoft Encarta.

via Apple for the Teacher – Kieran Healy.

Is an electronic book a contradiction in terms? Is it trying to shoehorn the media of the old, the book, into the electronic age? Seems like that to me. Apple’s iTunes U is more interesting to me – it constructs a learning experience by aggreagting specific resources and tool from across the web. Nothing new there, but it is a more modern approach. Of course the downside is that not all the resources one might want to use are in electronic format. That is where iBooks and iBooks Author come in. It is trying to close the gap. It is also possible to think that if iPads, iBooks, and iBooks author gain a certain level of adoption, a new form will emerge. Think of how the rise of the iPod led to podcasting.

The New iTunes U as LMS

Have you seen the the new iTunes U? It is now an app. Apple released three things at their education-focused event a few days ago: A new version of iBooks with support for interactive electronic textbooks, a tool to author interactive electronic textbooks, and a new version of iTunes U. While the announcements about the books and book authoring are getting tons of attention, I think the new version of iTunes U is just as important, maybe more so.

Here is what a course now looks like in iTunes U (which is now an app for iOS):

A course consists of the following areas:

  • Info: In essence, this is the syllabus. It contains sections like “overview”, “about instructor”, “outline”. It looks like you may be able to add as many sections to this as you want. I have seen things like “requirements”, “required apps”, “assignments”.

  • Posts: This is the course content – video, audio, weblinks, links to apps, chapters of interactive electronic extbooks, assignments with due dates. When an instructor makes a new “post”, students can opt in to get a push notification.

  • Notes: free form notes and notes and annotations taken in ebooks all aggregated in one place.

  • Materials: .I think this is the same resources from the “posts” section, but in a flat list, sorted by type, so you can be sure to download all the videos, apps, books, etc so you have them available when you need them.

This is really a barebones LMS. I don’t know what to make of that. Yes, It doesn’t have all the features of full-fledged LMS. There is no grade book, quizzes, discussion fora. But this is Apple’s first take. They are well known for releasing a minimalistic product that hits the most important features, then building upon that in further iterations. A 2009 survey of faculty and teaching assistants at Penn State found that “the items that were extremely important to the majority of individuals were: course mail (74.9%), syllabus (57.3%), drop boxes (56.2%) and grade books (54.7%).” iTunes U hits the first two features. I won’t be surprised if the next iteration of iTunes U has a way for students to turn in assignments. In fact the old iTunes U had a way to create a dropbox for students to add media to a course podcast. Don’t know if there is any way to do that in this new iTunes U.

Think of the first iPhone. It had no apps, multitasking, copy-and-paste. Not only was there no app store, but no one was even thinking that the iPhone needed an app store. Apps, yes, but the app store was not a popularized concept. Now the app store defines the iPhone and iPad experiences. Imagine where iTunes U could go in the coming years.

And even if Apple doesn’t move into feature X – iTunes U is all about aggregating stuff from the web, apps, and books. Social features perhaps could be provided by a third party app or web site. I wonder about this doubly so since apple has such a poor track record with social features.

I am very curious to see how iTunes U evolves in the coming several years. Think what will you will of Apple or proprietary solutions, but when a company this big and with such a track record of transforming industries starts pushing into the education space, you can’t ignore it.

Steve Jobs

I stayed glued to twitter last night watching all the memories, thoughts, and tributes to Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs was not just a technologist. This is why so many of us stopped to contemplate and feel when we learned of his passing. Last night we learned of the death of an artist whose work has touched us.

This is also why apple is unique, and why some just don’t get apple. Everyone can’t love the same song or book or painting, and everyone can’t love the work of Steve Jobs. Many of us do have a bond with his work, though. The fact that this is even possible with something like a computing device speaks volumes of his achievement.

attempting to close the loop on digital identities and portfolios

It has been one week since Jim Groom paid us a visit at Penn State, and something has been gnawing at me ever since. I am afraid we might be close to missing the boat with empowering students to think creatively with the web.

Even though we have an institutional blogging platform here at PSU, one with 7000 active users right now, I feel like we may be misusing the platform by expecting students to start building their digital identities with proof of their life long learning.

Let’s go back to 2007. We are getting ready to spin up blogs@psu. We imagine this to be the tool that will let students actually use the web space the University has provisioned for them for the past decade. We have had a portfolio initiative at Penn State. The initiative is not technology based, per se. It is more about examining and evangelizing the power of portfolios. Just like most things on the earlier web, these portfolios were multimedia brochures – souped up resumes for students entering the job market. For the time, there were some stellar examples.

With the advent of Blogs at Penn State, we looked to expand the definition of portfolio to a tool for social learning, reflection, and personal digital archive. Some programs, like the College of Education’s Professional Development School, really latched on to the idea of portfolio as a tool for reflection and meta-reflection. It was successful because of all the thought that went into integrating the portfolio into the curriculum and learning process. (Shout out to Dr. Carla Zembal-Saul!) But overall, I think we had limited success with the blogs as portfolio approach University-wide.

One reason blogs@psu is not so successful as an individual portfolio tool is related to the fact that it is so successful as a tool for creating artifacts in a collaborative manner. Chris Long ran with adding all his students to his blog, and letting them co-author a living document. But what about students feeling ownership of their own work? It looks like that didn’t matter so much. Creating a shared space online, one that fostered community and dialogue, was more important to learning in the context of a particular class than this abstract idea of individual ownership.

But how could ownership really be a factor, anyway? Students didn’t own their stuff. Yes, it was more open and students had more control than they do in the traditional LMS, but it was still in a university system. What they build with it and their access to the content was still governed by the institution. While educational technologists get jittery about putting stuff in commercial services like blogger, worrying “What happens if blogger goes away?”, in the institutional system the student’s content is GUARANTEED to go away once they graduate. Why should students invest any effort in building their digital identity with our tools? I get asked when pitching the grandiose vision of crafting digital identity via blogs@psu, “What happens when I graduate?” Yes, technically the content can be extracted. The movable type blogging system we use has the ability to export posts as a text file, and many other systems can ingest this file, but that is really just a small part of getting your stuff out. There are all the files – not just images, but documents, videos, images. There is the fact that the URL will change, breaking not only inbound links from the outside but also internal, intra-blog links. There is the fact that other blogging systems will have different affordances along with different templates that reframe the content, putting it in a perspective that may be different than what the student originally intended. It is a messy process. Not impossible, but messy.

Technical problems aside, there is still this idea of ownership. If I were a student today, I would definitely not put my blog on my institution’s server. My blog has posts going back to 2003. Ideally it is a document that transcends any aspect of my life – changes of school, employer, career. If we are serious about using portfolio as a tool to help students start conceptualizing their place on the internet, acting with intention, and building a habit of life long learning and reflection, then the portfolio must transcend the institution. Consider Jim Groom’s notion of a domain of one’s own:

Moreover, the above URL is premised upon an individual’s enrollment in a university or college, and when they leave that school this space will often disappear. A digital identity should be an online address one can have no matter where they are, a space where you can track that person as they move not only from being a freshman to a sophomore, but from an undergraduate to a graduate and beyond. An online home where they consciously integrate their professional profile through a streaming set of resources and spaces they inhabit online

As the manager for Blogs@PSU, I see support requests come through from students asking how they can install plugins they found online, or how they can tweak the system a certain way. They have the instructions on what they need to do, they just don’t have the access to actually do it. Of course the resources on how to this or that can be found online – but they don’t apply within the garden of the institution. We have our own special idiosyncratic installation. This is a central system and as such a certain integrity must be maintained. Everyone cannot be given such deep access to the system. They are not trusted IT administrators. While an institutional blogging system is more comfy and modern box to put your stuff in, it is still a box. This reality must be addressed. What could happen if we were to help students gain more freedom to experiment in crafting their online selves?

Gardner Campbell’s A Personal Cyberinfrastructure:

Staff could manage everything centrally, with great economies of scale and a lot more uptime. Students would have the convenience of one-stop, single-sign-on activities, from registering for classes to participating in online discussion to seeing grades mere seconds after they were posted. This answer seemed to be the way forward into a world of easy-to-use affordances that would empower faculty, staff, and students without their having to learn the dreaded alphabet soup of HTML, FTP, and CSS. As far as faculty were concerned, the only letters they needed to know were L-M-S. Best of all, faculty could bring students into these environments without fear that they would be embarrassed by their lack of skill or challenged by students’ unfamiliar innovations.

Pointing students to data buckets and conduits we’ve already made for them won’t do. Templates and training wheels may be necessary for a while, but by the time students get to college, those aids all too regularly turn into hindrances. For students who have relied on these aids, the freedom to explore and create is the last thing on their minds, so deeply has it been discouraged.

So where does this leave us? Could we experiment with guiding students to create their own online presence that they could truly own? They could get their own domain, and under such a domain host various web software and perhaps the truly adventurous can experiment with how different tools can interact to create new modes of communication, customized to fulfill their own needs.

Earlier this year I wrote some initial reaction’s to Gardner’s piece. The post has 16 comments going over this issue, especially the question of whether the benefits of hosting one’s own stuff outweighs the costs of mental attention to figure it all out. I will say that there was one student testimonial that I posted before which speaks volumes:

I have always considered my self proficient in the internet. Of course, I could use Facebook, write a blog, search Google, watch Youtube, etc. But, now I am realizing that I am not proficient at all. My education has prepared me very little to experiment with the internet in a way that would allow me creativity. My professors have only pushed BlackBoard and blogs, but they have never really asked us to create entirely new websites and ideas. Even my journalism classes have not sought to prepare me for the experimentation and launch of new journalism models. Instead, we seem to be stuck in a place where online creativity is halted by current structures. (via

You can look to Groom’s ds106 classes to see what happens when students are required to purchase their own domain and web hosting, and install their own blogging software. Even if they were thrown into the deep end, they relied on each other for support and figured it out.

I am not saying there would be no need for an institutional blogging system. I think it could still have value for course-based blogs, sites about organizations on campus, and a space to aggregate all this content – not just the content being hosted within the IT walls of the University, but being created out in the world by the members of the University community.

Sure, there are questions about curricula, pedagogy, identity, responsibility, ownership. I am not going to say that there aren’t. I am saying we need to figure out what all the questions are, and begin to answer them.

The internet can be a powerful force for personal growth and cultural change. I think it is incumbent on higher education to foster a sense of understanding and creativity with the web. The students today are going to have an opportunity to re-create their fields using the web, if they are prepared.