This post isn’t intended as a criticism of anyone, rather an observation on a trend I’ve noticed from several others also.
I’m running my block of the Masters course H817 as a MOOC. It’ll start this March, and one of the things I wanted is a DS106 style blog aggregator. That is, I want the contributors to register their blog, and for posts they tag appropriately to repost automatically in the course blog.
Now, the sensible way to do this seems to be to install WordPress and use the FeedWordPress plug-in. For reasons I won’t go in to, I haven’t been able to get this done at the Open University, despite trying since last July. I’ve spoken to people at others unis and it isn’t isolated to the OU, it seems to be this low-level, experimental type of IT support is increasingly difficult to find.
Do you know who I think the culprit is? The VLE. As universities installed VLEs they became experts at developing enterprise level solutions. This is serious business and I have a lot of respect for people who do it. The level of support, planning and maintenance required for such systems is considerable. So we developed a whole host of processes to make sure it worked well. But along the way we lost the ability to support small scale IT requests that don’t require an enterprise level solution. In short, we know how to spend £500,000 but not how to spend £500.
With time pushing on, I got some local support in IET (thanks Will), and investigated the best options. It became clear that hosting externally would be the easiest option. I asked on Twitter who the best hosting solutions were and got a great set of responses. Alan Cann suggested siteground and sent me a friend’s introduction offer, so I signed up with them. In 10 minutes I’d followed their WordPress installation, installed WP, found the FeedWordPress plug-in and installed that too. The blog is here: h817open.net
My next problem was to get registration to work. I looked at what DS106 have done, and in response to a request on Twitter, Alan Levine pointed me to this solution from Martha Burtis. That was a bit beyond my coding skills. So I created a simple Google Form and embedded it in my blog. I then asked Martin Hawksey if he knew how to take a Google form output and turn it into an OPML file as FeedWordPress allows you to create a list of syndicated sites from an OPML file. He pointed me to this service, which does just that.
He and Tony also suggested some solutions which will help with autodiscovery (ie finding the feed for the blog if someone just enters their main URL). Martin lists some options here. I haven’t quite cracked this yet, so it needs people to enter their feed url, which isn’t ideal, so I’ll keep working on this.
So, I think I have a working solution. If you have time, could you try it for me by registering your blog here and then posting something which has the tag #h817open. Only posts with this tag should appear. You can just do a test post, but perhaps more interestingly you could respond to the idea of whether “openness has won” or not with a post “Openness has (hasn’t) won because…”
This took me about an afternoon. The problem is that it’s quite a flaky solution, the OPML service could disappear, I don’t really know if it will work for all blogs, and there’s no support. So it could go down and I’ve got no backup. More worryingly I am at the edge of my expertise here, so I can’t really do much more. So a university supported proper grown-up solution would be preferable. On the other hand, one of the things I frequently say is that the best thing we can teach our students is how to be good members of a network. And this is a clear demonstration of why I believe that. I think this tension between the innovative possibilities of new technology and the understandably cautious nature of institutional IT services will mean that we’ll all need to do more of this DIY tech set-up and experimentation. And the only way to do that is to have a good network who can help.
One last plea – I joked with Alan that I needed DS106 out of a box. I think I’m serious though – it would be great to have a step by step, idiots guide to installing and setting up a DS106-like environment. The rest of us don’t have Alan and Jim’s tech skills, so getting to the starting line is difficult. I know they’ll say you should invent your own way, but they done so much great work that I don’t think they realise just how much expertise they have. A simple installation that let the rest of us get started, would mean we could all go off in different directions then. So any of the DS106 crowd up for it? And I do mean a simple guide, it has to be Weller-proof.