A Path towards Global Reach: The Pool

Craig Dietrich with Jon Ippolito

In 2007, University of Maine undergraduate Ryan Schaller blogged answers to an in-class assignment that asked him to agree or disagree with Henry Jenkins’ “Eight Traits of the New Media Landscape.” The traits focus on cultural practices brought by new media rather than the particulars of emerging technologies. The latter, as Jenkins describes, are more commonly used to describe new media, but understandings that consider cultural practices can better traverse platforms and communities. Schaller mostly disagreed with Jenkins’ list, citing problems with the use of the trait “generational,” among others. The next day, Jenkins responded:

I wouldn’t say that a use needs to be generational in order to be “new.” Rather, my goal is to bridge across this participation gap so that we can use new media in order to facilitate better communications between young and old. I hope this clarifies where I am coming from. (Jenkins, “Comment”)

The next time Schaller discusses new media definitions in class or expands his argument into a school project, he’ll have material straight from the head of Comparative Media Studies at MIT.[i] His example is one of many where social media have broken down classroom walls to foster exciting engagement with student work. The anecdote comes by way of his professor at the time, Jon Ippolito, who happens to be one of the developers of the software I’ll be examining in the latter half of this text. I’ve interwoven Ippolito’s perspective in my remarks below, because it contrasts with the message many contemporary teachers have given their students about the proper role of technology in the classroom.

In the past, students created work for the consumption of their teacher. Now, with Social Web tools breaking down traditional boundaries between student work and the outside world, teachers can serve less as endpoints and more as mediators, suggesting routes to a global audience and back again. In-class projects frequently end up on blogs, videos end up on Internet Archive, students distribute links via social media sites, and some teachers are encouraging their students to find new opportunities for feedback on YouTube, Slashdot, or even Wikipedia.

Students using social media may find their projects propagated globally, but it’s difficult to find similarly networked environments to develop work inside the classroom. Whether for a book report or honors thesis, students are routinely expected to develop project concepts and arguments that are informed by more than their own limited frame of reference. Yet many development tools assume that the path to creation involves working individually or with only a small set of class collaborators, not a campus community.

One such tool is Blackboard, a commonly used online learning environment in American academia. Inside the web-based software, students can download readings, upload homework, and post to discussion threads, and teachers create assignment calendars, manage grades, and track participation. Though Blackboard’s features expand participation from the classroom to an online environment, the arena it creates is a far cry from the open spaces students are authoring for. HASTAC co-founder Catherine Davidson writes about Blackboard:

Talk about sending the message that technology is drudgery, that learning should be sanitary and joyless and hierarchical and proprietary, that surveillance is more important than collaboration. . . . Every time I open it, I think to myself “This is software for the panopticon.” (Davidson)

Blackboard’s managerial approach[ii] to educational software goes beyond additional “features” like SafeAssign, a product whose primary goals are to “prevent plagiarism” and “protect the originality of work” (SafeAssign). The very next section on Blackboard.com after “Teaching & Learning” is “Commerce & Security,” where we learn Blackboard can help administrators:

View live or recorded video from virtually anywhere using an unlimited number of cameras. . . . With sophisticated image zooming, frame-by-frame playback and a customizable screen layout, Blackboard video surveillance is an easy-to-use solution that helps optimize campus security management.

In fact, Blackboard’s authoritarian ethic is evident in its own history of threatening open-source software alternatives with questionable patent claims.[iii] As Ippolito puts it:

When we use closed, monopolistic software in class, our subliminal message is that the world is closed and monopolistic. Blackboard belongs in the same trash can as TurnItIn, PeopleSoft, and all the other top-down tools so easily marketed to gullible university administrators.

To find software that encourages open collaboration rather than closed monopolies, teachers can look to the software industry itself, where version control distributes authorship and responsibility. In version control systems, software developers can swap code back-and-forth with other developers. As one developer makes an update, the others see the change, and are free to add to or update the code. Unfortunately, even these systems can fall prey to classroom policies that discourage collaboration. The University of Washington, despite its reputation for historic contributions to open-source computing, published this regrettable bullet point in its “Student Academic Responsibility” document:

Illegal collaboration often occurs on homework in computer programming courses. A common case is when two students outline a program in detail together, and then type it into the computer separately, perhaps making minor modifications or corrections as they type. To a grader’s trained eye, the structure of the programs is identical and the students are guilty of cheating because they haven’t turned in separate, original work.

That the term “illegal collaboration” was coined is bad enough, but worse is the message being sent to students in the face of how code is created in the field. Many industry-led software paradigms, including Object Orientation, are built on the premise that parts of software shouldn’t know how other parts work—or where the code comes from—as long as they get the job done and respect commercial licenses. In response to my suggestion of adopting version control in the classroom, Ippolito pointed out a moral dilemma it raises for teachers:

Because each user gets credit for the changes they have made, version control offers a paradigm for student collaboration that weaves attribution into the collaborative process. Of course, professors impatient to assign individual grades may not want to untangle the “family tree” of credit for an open-source project, even if studies prove that coding together is more effective (Cockburn and Williams). So that leaves professors with a choice: pick a software environment that makes their life easier (via grade management), or one that teaches their students essential skills (via pair programming).

This choice is not limited to computer scientists: with version control able to track contributions to a variety of text and media formats,[iv] educators across disciplines have an opportunity to shed panoptic software like Blackboard for systems that reinforce collaborative working environments.

At the University of Maine’s New Media Department,[v] one finds students working at all stages of project development. Culminating in a senior year capstone project, the curriculum includes classes such as Project Design Lab and Concepts & Process of Time Arts & Design that emphasize different aspects of creative and scholarly process. With multiple creative angles throughout the department, their Still Water lab[vi] produced a tool, The Pool, to meet the needs of both students, to help them more easily expand ideas in a shared environment, and teachers, who could use the tool to indicate student growth. The team noticed that students were placing a great deal of effort into conceptualization and planning before a project draft materialized. The Pool is therefore based largely on version control principles but with a key upgrade: tracking begins at the moment of idea generation, with checkpoints before and after material production.

The Pool's "art pool" home screen displaying projects titles on the grid and an open project window

I have had opportunities to work with The Pool’s principle architects,[vii] Jon Ippolito and John Bell, including a year as a visiting professor in the New Media Department in 2008. When I first arrived at the University of Maine, I became familiar with The Pool through interactions with students, who showed me projects they had developed in their classes that had been entered into the system. One of The Pool’s unique features I noticed right away is the abundance of projects displayed as titles floating around the browser, constituting the software’s primary interface. The floating texts do not represent a single class (though through tags the interface can be refined), or a university (in fact, many contributors are not from students, but rather a network of people who agree with the site’s sharing protocols).

The Pool’s “Diving In” section outlines fair use guidelines and tells users making a project derived from another to: “1) credit the original author and 2) re-register their re-use back in The Pool by adding a relationship to the new project.” However, though the protocols can help protect student work from inappropriate reuse, like the protocols for many public tools they cannot prevent work contributed for a class later misrepresenting a student’s abilities. As Virginia Kuhn describes:

Part of being deeply digital means being discriminating about how, when and for which purpose you make information public. As we’ve seen with sites such as Facebook, students can share information that they are later sorry to have shared when it comes back to haunt them. They may likewise not want less than polished work persisting online, without context, if they for example later apply to graduate school. (Kuhn)

With this concern in mind, The Pool could benefit from a feature that lets users restrict projects to specific institutions. In the meantime, its structure provides students with the ability to opt in or out at different stages of project development, and its granular recordkeeping provides a wrapper for individual contributions.

Each Pool project is entered from its inception as an intent: a short or long description of what the contributor will set out to do. As it turns out, a project can and many times does stop at this stage. Reviewers of the intent might point out a weakness that inspires the student to move in a new direction, or mention that an intent is too similar to other existing projects already produced. But if comfortable proceeding, contributors next add one or more approaches that describe a technical or design framework to actualize the intent. Like intents, approaches are reviewed by other members of The Pool.

The Pool’s stages—intent, approach, release—can be variously incorporated into a semester depending on teaching style. Ippolito’s classes often dedicate their first month to project intents. During this time students record and debate concepts in The Pool, after which the software’s ranking system promotes some intents to the top over others. Next, the top intents are distributed to newly created teams, working together to develop approaches. The top rated approaches are then refined into a couple of releases that are worked on for the remainder of the semester. Ippolito’s use of The Pool encourages collaboration, with group projects defined by students’ collective interests. Alternatively, in my classes, students enter multiple intents to determine individual directions. Intents are refined by Pool feedback into later, individual stages, which are then further refined. Though resulting projects are worked on individually, students receive valuable input from inception that influences their project’s development.

One afternoon while a student and I were browsing her Pool entries, we viewed the history of a project and found ourselves at someone else’s intent. She explained that The Pool allows a contributor to layer approaches or even releases onto others’ intents, and anyone was free to do the same to her contributions. When viewing the panel for the entire project, all contributors are referenced with titles such as “conceptual,” perceptual,” or “technical,” referencing an aspect of development an individual contributed. As I discovered, not only could students log projects they created themselves, but they could build on others’ contributions, if they were interested, by adding an approach to someone else’s intent or a release to an existing approach, for example.

Once contributors make it this far, the release stage of The Pool can be confusing. Other tools that manage production often act as a repository, such as Blackboard’s area for uploading homework documents or GitHub, which also stores physical project material. Class blogs perform a similar task, centralizing student contributions into the collective template. Like these tools, The Pool encourages multiple revisions of the same work, but it has no such upload feature; work must exist elsewhere and be referenced via a URL. In my experience, many resort to simply ignoring the release stage—indeed, only 9% of contributions are releases.[viii] It seems that once a URL is created and a project ready for release, contributors turn to other tools for distribution or simply move on to the next project. With this is mind, I wonder if The Pool would benefit from adding more stages between intent and release in the middle ground presently occupied by “approach.” For example, the Pool could add specifics such as “connect” (find collaborators) and “research” (find past and present discourse), and these might support its goal of connecting potential collaborators.

Of course, other examples of educational software allow more than one author for a given work (even if they don’t actively encourage it). When the lines between collaborators blur, however, grading criteria can fall back on principles of single-authorship to define collaborative roles. But as John Bell describes, open project development can elaborate on the roles of each contributor:

The development process of a work is often opaque to the outside world, especially after it is complete. The Pool tracks that history and allows others to see the early, rough stages of a work, and how it has changed between initial conception and final execution. This is useful not only for those who want to learn by example, but also for anybody who wants insight into what is really the core of the final work. (Bell)

Essential to sorting out student efforts, student work distribution is easily apparent in The Pool. Rather than dissecting specific lines of code or relying on the weight of a final product, contributions are more clear in the descriptions of intents, approaches, and releases. Perhaps more importantly, grading matrices can be crafted around students’ movement through a project, by, for example, viewing how subsequent contributions adapted to reviews or additions from the Pool community.

The Pool community is itself a set of overlapping ecosystems. Students in the classes I teach at the University of Southern California can network with students and faculty at other Pool partner schools, such as the University of Maine and University of California, Santa Cruz. No doubt each school has its own ethos, and the conversations in The Pool reflect that. For example, both California and Maine had recent statewide referenda that overturned a progressive same-sex marriage law. In The Pool, students from across the country engaged in discussions surrounding the issue, which were stimulated by and documented as feedback for student projects created in reaction to these geographically separate but politically connected events. This inter-university conversation helped broaden students’ awareness beyond their local sandboxes, which in turn brought a cross-coast perspective to ensuing face-to-face discussions in classrooms in Maine and California.

Another layer that drives The Pool’s pedagogical use is its rating system. Members comment by adding their reviews as text, but are also prompted to rate project components (concept, perception, technical) numerically. Ratings are of course a big part of the classroom, comprised of both the teacher’s grading and students’ teacher/course evaluations, which are completed at the end of term. While traditionally evaluation is reserved for the end of a project or unit, The Pool integrates this type of evaluation from the very beginning of a work’s lifespan. As Ippolito describes the system:

Students and faculty alike contribute and rate each other’s projects. Each contribution sinks or swims on its own merit. In a manner analogous to Slashdot karma, the credibility of Pool users rises or falls based on the reviews their contributions have achieved, and that credibility in turn weights their reviews of other projects more weakly or strongly. So if the Pool community thinks you’re an amazing coder but a crappy designer, your reviews of the technical aspects of other projects will count more than your reviews of their perceptual aspects. The results of all this rating is a graphed interface in which the projects deemed best by the community float to the top. (Ippolito)

My first reaction was to give all students a 10 on their intents. Browsing through the reviews, however, I noticed that others who had started reviewing their colleagues were not shy to rank intents low if they thought aspects were missing or undeveloped. Other intents got higher scores. In some, teachers would get out-voted by the majority opinion.

A classroom environment where students can review their peers, build project foundations with each other, and distribute their work to Internet-based audiences has the potential to turn the tables of authority on the instructor. Blackboard is a panopticon: a top-down system that channels all views into an authoritative watchtower. The Pool, by contrast, is a heteroglossia: a place where multiple voices emerge. It is unclear whether bottom-up systems like The Pool will ever outnumber managerial software on college campuses, but there is evidence that exposure to the former makes students more likely to collaborate with each other in the long-term.[ix] And that should be a good incentive for anyone who believes that educational software should be designed less for management and more for learning.


Notes

[i] Jenkins was co-director of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies when Schaller’s blog post was written in 2007. He is now the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at USC.

[ii] As Ippolito points out, the recent Faculty Survey of Student Engagement found that most professors prefer technologies that help class administration over those that empower student expression and feedback (see <http://www.nmdnet.org/2010/08/28/report-us-teachers-use-tech-to-manage-not-educate-students/>). Nevertheless, educational software companies still want professors to think they are focusing on education, and therefore have invented new acronyms to suggest that their software is more than managerial. Blackboard now refers to itself not as a Learning Management System (LMS) but a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). To judge from critiques such as Davidson’s, however, the distinction would seem to be lost on Blackboard’s core user base.

[iii] See <http://www.boycottblackboard.org>.

[iv] Version control software such as Subversion can store any text file in addition to computer code, and also files such as images or video.  See <http://subversion.wandisco.com/component/content/article/1/32.html>.

[v] See <http://newmedia.umaine.edu>.

[vi] See <http://still-water.net>.

[vii] The Pool is maintained by John Bell and Jon Ippolito with help from Joline Blais, Margaretha Haughwout, Matt James, Jerome Knope, Justin Russell, Mike Scott, Wendy Seltzer, and Owen Smith.

[viii] See <http://pool.newmedia.umaine.edu/pool_stats.php>.

[ix] Margaretha Haughwout found evidence that students who used The Pool for a significant amount of time were more willing to allow others to use their work in new ways (Haughwout).

Works Cited

Bell, John. “Q + A with Jon Ippolito and John Bell on Open Source Art.” Berkam Center for Internet and Society. 28 July 2008. Web. 14 October 2010. <http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/node/4489>.

 

Blackboard Home. Blackboard, Inc. Web. 13 October 2010. <http://blackboard.com>.

Cockburn, Alistair and Williams, Laurie. “The Costs and Benefits of Pair Programming.” Proceedings of the First International Conference on Extreme Programming and Flexible Processes in Software Engineering. Addison-Wesley. 2000.

Davidson, Cathy. “Blackboard, Please Give Us Some Joy.” HASTAC.org. 9 May 2010. Web. 12 October 2010. <http://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/blackboard-please-give-us-some-joy>.

Haughwout , Margaretha. “A Reflecting and/or Refracting Pool: When a Community Becomes Autonomous Online.” First Monday 11.4. April 2006. Web. 12 October 2010. <http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue11_4/haughwout>.

Ippolito, Jon. “In Net We Trust” (Transcription of NMC Online Conference on the Impact of Digital Media). 24 October 2006. Web. 15 October 2010. <http://three.org/ippolito/writing/ippolito_in_net_we_trust@m.html>.

Jenkins , Henry. Comment on Ryan Schaller, “Henry Jenkins’ New Media Definition.” Ryan’s New Media Capstone. 23 September 2007. Web. 10 October 2010. <http://ryanschaller.blogspot.com/2007/09/henry-jenkins-new-media-definition.html>.

Jenkins, Henry. “Eight Traits of the New Media Landscape.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan. 6 November 2006. Web. 10 October 2010 <http://www.henryjenkins.org/2006/11/eight_traits_of_the_new_media.html>.

Kuhn, Virginia. “Follow up: A Path Towards Global Reach.” E-mail to Craig Dietrich. 17 January 2011.

 

“Pool FAQ.” Still Water. Web. 15 January 2010. <http://pool.newmedia.umaine.edu/faq.html>.

 

SafeAssign by BlackBoard. Blackboard, Inc. Web. 13 October 2010. <http://safeassign.com>.

University of Washington. “Student Academic Responsibility.” Web. 12 October 2010. <http://depts.washington.edu/grading/pdf/AcademicResponsibility.pdf>.

Leave a Reply