Mozilla Drumbeat: Enter the Lizard

Who knew so much could be packed into so few hours. I’ve spent the last week burrowing out from things that piled up while I was in Barcelona at the Mozilla Drumbeat festival, an event dedicated to creating a learning web. Over this period, some things have marinated a bit, and so this is not really “conference blogging,” but rather a series of posts that have been triggered by what happened at the conference. In this entry, I just want to provide a broad evaluation of the conference itself: what worked, and a few things that could have been improved.

Overall, it was an outstanding conference, and I wanted to mark why both in terms of the content (which should find legs in other places) and the structure (which is finding its way slowly into other conferences).

Why I Conference

I think for most people, the main thing that holds them back from going to conferences is that they are expensive: in terms of registration costs, travel costs, and–probably most importantly–in terms of time and logistics. This is certainly the case for me. Also, like many others, I am introverted–while I like people in theory, actually being around them, especially if they are not people I already know pretty well, is uncomfortable. And on top of all of that, I have a soon-to-be-two-year-old who doesn’t want me to leave, and it’s very difficult because I would rather stay with him as well.

With all that, why go to conferences at all? There are a few reasons, but personally I judge the success of a conference by two main criteria. The first is whether I learn new things or get new ideas from being there. Now, I have yet to have gone to a conference where I didn’t learn at least something (even if it was only “I don’t ever want to go to this conference again”), but there needs to be a particular saturation of ideas in order to make it worthwhile. And secondly, if there is a tangible collaboration or opportunity to work together either at the conference or coming out of the conference, and if these have a good chance of coming to fruition, I consider the conference a success. Most conferences are designed explicitly to meet the first criterion, and implicitly to meet the second.

By those two goalposts alone, Drumbeat was one of the best conferences I’ve been to, and I would go again in a minute. It managed to neatly strike the balance between drawing together likeminded people (including, to echo Rafi Santo’s comment, people who may not have previously known they were likeminded) and put together some diversity of thought and background. There was certainly some feeling of “drinking the Koolaid”–Mozilla represents as much a movement as it does a topical area, and there are some sometimes unspoken, and often shouted, underlying ideals in play. These ideals are ones I share, but it is always difficult to walk the line between coordinated movement and groupthink.

There were also those at this conference who come from the Open Ed world, where “Ed” is still pretty operative. They think seriously about the way materials are shared and how they can be improved, but are often not so radical when it comes to the alteration or avoidance of educational institutions. And I think some of those present from the technical community think about learning in a very particular and practical way. They may recognize that there are more than purely technical skills in play when it comes to designing and building software (and hardware and movements) but some have not thought about what this means outside of a fairly limited range of training opportunities, or at least see learning through the lens of what they have experienced as learning.

In all, there seemed to me to be just the right amount of common ground and uncommon territory. At times, I felt like there was some preaching to the choir, or a bit of redundancy, but this was surprisingly rare, and that allowed people to come more quickly to some of the deeper questions and problems that needed to be addressed.

What Worked and Didn’t

As someone in the midst of planning a conference, I think it’s worth briefly noting what things worked at Drumbeat and what things did not.

First, what did not: I think there were two technical details that the organizers would agree that just went wrong. The first was the lightweight WiFi infrastructure. Yes, I recognize that not having internet is not the end of the world, but for a conference like this, it is really important to be bathed in the glow of high-speed access. I also know personally how hard it is to plan for 400 people who are not just briefly checking their mail, but constantly tweeting, uploading photos, and trying to slip by streams of media in some cases. Most providers look at the number of attendees and make certain assumptions about usage that are just way off. But I am kicking myself for spending the hours after I arrived sleeping off the jetlag rather than heading out to Orange to pick up a PAYG SIM for the iPad.

Acoustics, especially on the first night, but throughout, were terrible. If you weren’t trying to make sense of discussions as they were amplified by cavernous, ancient rooms, you were outside fighting against the scratch-and-roll of the skateboarders or the real tweets of the birds. I feel particularly bad for those for whom English was not their first language, at a largely English-language conference. That said, there are tradeoffs to be made, and it was likely worth the hassle for such a great venue.

I recognize and appreciate the openness to chaos, but it would have been great, especially as the second day trailed on, if there could have been a bit more discipline with the schedule. Given the calls to end the repressive factory nature of schools, calling for bells or chimes is probably misplaced, but I did miss the gentle cowbell we had at the IR conference this year reminding us that the next session was getting started. So, Drumbeat: more cowbell!

Finally, as the conference wore on, it started to feel like we were missing some people here. In particular, the Prof. Hacker crowd would have been a welcome middle ground between some of the more academic people, some of those working in informal learning, and some of the techies. There are people out there who live and breathe this stuff and who weren’t at the conference. I suspect it’s because it didn’t quite make their radar–or because Barcelona was a long haul–and that’s a shame.

There was too much right to list here. This was not, strictly speaking, a BarCamp–they front loaded with more scaffolding than is normally the case–something I think was necessary given the size (number of people) and scope (breadth of participation). As I noted above, I think there were opportunities for even more scaffolding, but I was really glad to be freed from the stand-and-deliver. There were a few plenary sessions, but these were universally excellent and short–two attributes that likely run together. Most of the sessions were organized around structured conversation, something missing from most academic conference, where it swings pretty wildly between presentation (sometimes fine, but often boring and unproductive) and unstructured conversation (often excellent but sometimes without clear goals or outcomes). I think Drumbeat did a nice job of zeroing in on semi-structured conversations with a dedication to making outcomes and building tangible and intangible products.

Facilitating this requires a bit of self-reflection, a bit of a reminder of why we are putting up with small bumps along the way, and quite a bit of “follow me.” And so it is important to note just how important the dedicated organizers were to making it work as well as it did. The sessions were exciting because those leading them were excited about what they were doing–and knew what they wanted out of it. And it only functioned smoothly because of a really dedicated group of volunteers.

Fantastic conference food and drink, as you would expect in Barcelona. And it’s hard to beat the setting, both in terms the structures we met in and being able to walk in the city. And if anyone does a conference in El Raval again, I think they should designate a tiger team of bag snatchers with a prize for the most competent, or invite local pickpockets to run a session on what we can learn about theft as social engineering.

No Respect for Authority

It seemed to me that there was a great charge of revolution in the room at a number of moments, with the traditional school and university structures firmly in the crosshairs. Two of the plenary speakers were proud dropouts of traditional educational institutions, and there was a general feeling that we can do it better ourselves. As Cathy Davidson noted in one of the early talks, we needed to find the “joy in insurgency.”

And you will find no one more responsive to that general feeling than I am. But I think it is worth tempering. After all, I am a high school dropout with a Ph.D.–a condition that probably reflects my intermediate position on the issue fairly well. Are schools and universities broken? Of course they are, always have been, and always will be. IE is broken too. The solution, however, was not to throw the browser out with the bathwater, it was to make a better browser. (Oh, and BTW, Firefox is broken; there is nothing fundamentally wrong with brokenness, as long as you are also always in the process of fixing, and the ability to fix is not impeded.)

I think that a hard stance against the university is strategically the wrong way to go. As Mitchell Baker noted in her brief introduction, one of the successes of openness is that it kills with kindness. I thnk that in the case of free and open software, that means adoption by commercial software producers, and for open learning, it means universities and schools that embrace open learning as obvious rather than a radical concept. This is not total war; the objective for me is a quiet but unstoppable change that leads to the crumbling of structures that do not adapt, not their explosion.

There is too much good in universities to throw them out, and although there is a certain strategic value in both rhetoric and actions that challenge its existence, at least in current form, as leverage in making substantial changes, I still think there is so much that the university model represents that is good that the most valuable approach in one that is probably more familiar to those in Barcelona, opening up the institutions that are traditional, authoritative, and highly structured, so that we may walk off with their resources, ideas, people, and capital. Since only the last of these is really alienable, we are not robbing, but liberating.

Just Do It

One of the reasons I like this group more than most is the willingness to, to borrow from the esteemed Tim Gunn, make it work. As academics, we are extraordinarily good at talking, and not always as good at actually doing. This is a problem worth building our way put of, and the people at Drumbeat are essentially learning bricoleurs, willing to disassemble, take the parts that work, and repurpose them. This is necessarily a process of experimentation, and of research through practice. I’m going to drop this 30-minute presentation right in the middle of the blog post because it embodies this spirit better than I can.

This presentation, by Aza Raskin, includes a nice overview of what participatory design means (not just what it is) and was quickly put on my “must watch” list for our starting students. (If the mention of jQuery freaks you out, feel free to abandon half-way through!) I think most of the people in the room were thinking about prototyping socio-technical systems in the form of web software, but it is equally true of design in other contexts. The push to prototype your way through a project–both as a way of creating and as a way of getting people “co-excited” about an idea–is important.

I think the one-day prototype needs to find its way into our learning environments far more often.

Turn up the base

A lot of the direction here was toward learning for us by us, and that is fine. But it is worth noting that those at the conference did not represent all learners. I think one of the more inspiring plenary talks was by Anna Debenham. (Assuming I get the chance to edit it down, I’ll post that talk shortly.) There were a few other young people at the conference, but it would have been great to see more. Of course, youth are not the only target, and they may not even be as much of a special case as they are often considered. Some have suggested we need to stop treating adult education like education for kids–I think we also need to stop treating learning environments for kids like education for kids.

The other problem is that we may be designing for users that do not yet exist. Of course, this is always the case to a certain extent–users are a moving target–but particularly when it comes to learning, our ultimate aim is to change the users, even when they are ourselves. So, it’s important to get an early view from potential users, but is also difficult. When we are successful, our systems help to co-create new kinds of users.

Given that difficulty, it is especially important to do two things. First, we need to create resources that assume very little about the end user, and make it as simple as possible for them to customize the tools and materials that we create. The second is that they need to know about those tools as soon as they have a bit of resilience and polish–advertising matters. Firefox was important as a piece of software, but putting it into people’s hands was another project, at least equally as important.

Moving Forward

We covered a lot of ground in this meeting, and although I have not been involved in its planning it is clear that a lot of people spent a lot of time on both the projects presented and on organizing the conference itself. It takes a great deal of scaffolding to provide a conference that is this open to tinkering. There were, throughout the conference, calls to make sure that this was not a one-off or end-point, but rather a starting point. Despite efforts to encapsulate one unifying starting point, what I saw was a broad spectrum of starting points. As I continue thinking about the conference, I’m going to be focusing on one aspect that really got me excited about moving forward: badges. I am sure that others found their own pet projects, and I hope that in many cases these were different than the projects they had going in.

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2 Trackbacks

  1. By Yesterday’s Links | Josh Braun's Blog on 11/19/2010 at 10:21 am

    […] Mozilla Drumbeat: Enter the Lizard // Alex Halavais, Quinnipiac professor and author of Search Engine Society, offers up some interesting thoughts sparked by the recent Mozilla Drumbeat festival. […]

  2. […] Jeff Rice on why he’s through with the essay:  it’s “become more of a ritual that a pedagogy.”  Alex Reid proposes rapid prototyping as a way out of the dilemma.  Alex Halavais, also examining rapid prototyping, proposes that academics need to learn how to Just Do It. […]

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