In our effort of forming a community with the participants of E-learning 3.0 (#el30) we wrote blog posts reflecting on our learning experiences. Kevin Hodgson made a visualization of the posts, using the tool thinglink. 

Our esteemed course organizer, Stephen Downes, invited us for a video hangout – for some weird reason I was the only one to actually enter the hangout but some others intervened in text chat. This is the video: 

Stephen Downes questioned whether asking participants to post about their learning experience in this course was a good strategy to establish “community”. Why not just suggest to post a hashtag such as #el30community? By asking to post about our experiences, participants who for whatever reason would not do so, could end up feeling alienated. It reminded me of discussions we had in other communities about lurkers – are they part of the community? The consensus was they were part of it – lurking can be valuable. Still I’m glad I suggested to write a post – it generated new ideas and interactions. 

But how could the blockchain help to establish consensus in a trustless environment? There are theories and experiments involving Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAO), I hope to find out more about that in the coming days and weeks.

We also briefly mentioned the possibility of having a Community of Practice (CoP) on a more permanent basis. There is so much to explore: how to use various distributed technologies, how to use Docker and Jupyter Notebooks, which methodologies and pedagogies are best for various peer-to-peer learning contexts. One participant asked whether a central hub would be useful for such a CoP – in my opinion some hybrid model of a hub and a distributed environment would be interesting.

This is a nice example of using virtualization to enhance learning: Repl.it Multiplayer. The site enables you to “code with friends in the same editor, execute programs in the same interpreter, interact with the same terminal, chat in the IDE, edit files and share the same system resources, and ship applications from the same interface.”

You can also find programming courses on the platform. It illustrates the virtues of virtualization: “You can create a workspace in any number of languages, where you are given a container on a virtual machine where your code can run, sandboxed.”

Why would I use it? I have not the time nor the inclination to become a programmer. However, I’m very interested in cyber culture, and programming is part of that. Read some cyberpunk stories and chances are that you’ll encounter coders. These coders tend to be close to the machine, they are rather into C language than into high level languages such as Python. That alone makes me want to learn some basic C. I could use Multiplayer for that (even though you can also experiment with Python on the platform). 

I love to repurpose Moocs such as C Programming: getting started on the edX platform. Not because I will use it for my day job, but because it brings me a bit closer to cyberpunk literature. The same applies for the course Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies on that same platform: I’m not really interested to learn how to trade crypto stuff, I’m attracted by the fact the course will also explore topics such as the Cypherpunk Movement. 

So what I would like to do is to find people interested into internet culture/ cyber culture/ digital humanities, repurpose existing learning materials to fit into a  cyber culture course of our own. We could use platforms such as Multiplayer to play with code, maybe even try out to build data driven art using virtualization technology ourselves (there is a beautiful handbook Teaching and Learning with Jupyter on Github).

It would be a connectivist Mooc for people interested in useless stuff such as philosophy and art, different from the endless offerings of business and job-oriented courses on the mainstream online platforms. 

Hat tip to Stephen Downes, organizer of the Mooc E-learning 3.0, who discussed Repl.it and the Jupyter-course in his newsletter OLDaily.

How do I feel about the course E-learning 3.0 (#el30)? Why did I participate to begin with? First of all, I liked the idea of participating in a project facilitated by Stephen Downes since I appreciate his newsletter and his pioneering work in developing and facilitating Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). I’m also intrigued by what comes next in communication and collaboration. Yet, I’ve many questions and doubts – which in itself is a positive outcome of the course. 

I made this post as part of a communal effort by #el30-students to express themselves about their learning. In a follow-up post I hope to react on what my co-learners posted. 

Decentralized

“The first phase of the internet  was based on the client-server model, and focused on pages and files. The second phase, popularly called Web 2.0, created a web based on data and interoperability between platforms”, so Stephen explained. A very important topic of the course is the shift in our understanding of content from documents to data; and second, the shift in our understanding of data from centralized to decentralized. It’s about emancipating yourself from the big internet companies who turn your data into a product they own. 

I had great fun starting out this new blog on Reclaim Hosting and doing this in the IndieWeb style, enabling an easy interaction with other blogs. I consider it a first, modest step in emancipating myself from the data collectors and traders. 

As a second step, I experimented with The Beaker Browser and the Interplanetary File System (IPFS). I like doing that, but I’m not yet convinced these projects (and others such as Solid by Tim Berners-Lee, Blockstack or Holochain) will actually get a mainstream following. It’s still very early phase, the proposed solutions require a considerable investment of time and effort by the users. 

I still have to experiment with other technologies we discussed such as Docker and Jupyter Notebook.  However, my interest in virtualization and software containers is not driven by any real need – which might explain why I did not yet try it out. For now I’m perfectly happy with Reclaim Hosting, WordPress and IndieWeb-plugins. 

Will decentralization and virtualization change the way we learn? I’m not sure. A network of blogs such as we have for this course surely helps me to get new perspectives and it’s very motivating. Do we need to have such a network on the IPFS, do we have to use dat-files (The Beaker Project) or do we have to collaborate using Blockstack-apps? As far as the immediate learning experience is concerned, I doubt whether it would feel very different. 

Data and assessment

It could be different in the future, when we collect far more data about our learning. It would feel more comfortable to manage those data ourselves rather than counting on big internet companies or other commercial entities to do this for us. If the hosting of such data would no longer be an issue, developers could compete again on the basis of functionalities of the apps they offer. They would also have to compete on the basis of the degree of trust and privacy they offer. 

However, why should I, being an adult learner (and getting old), collect and analyze “my data”? Suppose I’d study the Japanese language. I could collect data about the number of hours I spend learning Japanese, about exercises I make, and about progress I make in terms of courses I finish. What really interests me is whether I’m able to have a simple conversation in Japanese, whether I can read a newspaper article (for now, I can’t). In order to find that out, I just have to engage into a conversation and to read a newspaper, I don’t need fancy data collection and management. I don’t care about proving my skill to others – if an employer would recruit me for my Japanese skills, it would very soon be obvious how very limited these are, while other skills (say, reading and understanding Spanish) would be more satisfying and useful. 

The same applies for skills such as software programming. For tens of years now people have been recruited because they are coding wizards, eventually self-taught wizards. No blockchain-protected data were necessary to prove their skills. For pilots and in the medical professions, the current testing methods seem to guarantee (most of the time) a steady supply of people who you can trust (most of the time). 

So do we really need blockchain, dat-documents or IPFS or are these technologies solutions in search of a problem? I lack the knowledge and visionary talents of Stephen Downes, but as yet I’m not convinced these decentralization projects will actually conquer the world. But that will not stop me from trying out whatever they do. Also, I look forward to learn more about Solid, the Tim Berners-Lee project, since that builds upon the existing web technologies in order to create an environment providing sophisticated  personal data management and (I think) a read/write web. 

Synchronous and asynchronous

I enjoy the course and the interactions with other participants, but I’m a bit surprised about the lack of synchronous activities. The weekly video interview featuring Stephen and one or two guests don’t seem to lead to synchronous group interaction. The classical problem with such interactions is the difficulty to find a time slot which is convenient for a group of people who live in very different timezones. Another issue is the video conferencing software – does it enable people to virtually meet, to share screens, to work collaboratively on a document (like on a mindmap)? Fifty years after Douglas Engelbart’s Mother of all Demos, these affordances are not self-evident. I think developing such a synchronous collaborative environment would be an important tool for online learning. 

So how be one community? That’s this week’s task for the course E-learning 3.0. Do we even want to be one community? Do we want to celebrate our similarities or our differences? Do we need to celebrate anything at all?
I think the best way to “solve” this task is to find a viable minimal consensus. We self-organize, establishing for that occasion something like a community, but not by doing something which involves a tremendous investment of trust and long-term commitment.
Let’s follow the example of Wikipedia. Pete Forsyth explained how there is no need for Wikipedia community members to trust each other on some deep, all-encompassing personal level. It’s enough to trust a member to do a good job by providing information backed up by references to good sources.
So what could we do to affirm ourselves to be members of a loose #el30 community – which could eventually develop as a community of practice?

Concrete proposal

I suggest we all post about our experiences in this course. It would be a short or long piece about the content, the way it’s being organized, the way the learners did or did not interact with each other or how we reacted in blog posts and on social media.
Such a post seems like a natural thing to do, there are no good or bad posts, yet it would affirm our being together in this thing – #el30.

In our course E-learning 3.0 (#el30) Stephen Downes had an interview with Pete Forsyth, Wikipedia-editor and Editor in Chief of the Signpost, a community newspaper covering Wikipedia and the Wikimedia movement. He also runs a blog about all things Wikipedia and wiki-based knowledge production. This was particularly interesting to me, since I use Wikipedia a lot and I like quoting it. The broader question here was how does Wikipedia avoid the fake news controverses and how do they arrive at consensus.

Since I’m used to quote Wikipedia, I was a bit shocked when Pete told us that people should not cite Wikipedia as such but rather the sources Wikipedia mentions to back up claims. There is no such thing as “Wikipedia”, there are people contributing articles or parts of articles, hopefully following the Wikipedia policies. It seems there are guidelines about what counts as a good source, which are similar to what journalists do when judging sources and their claims.

Still I do think it sometimes does make sense to quote Wikipedia, since it’s not just a totally decentralized platform where anything goes. There are policies, there is a Wikipedia-culture and standard practices. Especially for definitions, typically at the start of articles, it can make sense to refer simply to “Wikipedia” as often no references are available.

Of course it’s important to check the history of a Wikipedia entry and to have a look at the discussion page. The entry is an element to be judged on itself, and history, discussion and the quality and number of sources are all important elements.

I try to create a test site using the Interplanetary File System (IPFS). Since this involves using the command line, I use this command line cheat sheet.

Stephen Downes published instructional videos for the course E-learning 3.0 (#el30), however the instructions are Windows-only. Fortunately course participant Davey Moloney translated Stephen’s instructions into Mac-language.

After some ridiculous struggling with my file structure, I published my mini-site:

There are various ways to keep a IPFS-site online. Octavian Contis explains on his blog : “IPFS will host your website as long as it is accessed by other peers as it propagates to other nodes when it is accessed.” A simple way to keep your site up, suggested by Octavian,is accessing the hash generated for your content through the gateway of infura.io as follows:
https://gateway.ipfs.io/ipfs/<your hash> and change gateway.ipfs.io to ipfs.infura.io in the link.
This will access the content requested through the infura node and by doing so will permanently create a copy of the files. My mini-site:
https://ipfs.infura.io/ipfs/QmeBmdocCokJ1fMEYpK26uRb6b9vZYGUPUFXjHZgg217Uq/

There are ways to use IPFS and yet have your own domain name, I’ll check that out later.

For other versions of the decentalized web, have a look at my post about The Beaker Browser.

In our course E-learning 3.0 (#el30) we discussed assessment. Course facilitator Stephen Downes:

The traditional educational model is based on tests and assignments, grades, degrees and professional certifications. But with activity data we can begin tracking things like which resources a person read, who they spoke to, and what questions they asked.

We can also gather data outside the school or program, looking at actual results and feedback from the workplace. In the world of centralized platforms, such data collection would be risky and intrusive, but in a distributed data network where people manage their own data, greater opportunities are afforded.

So this explains why a course about e-learning contains modules about the decentralized web en data protection.

The task for this week however has to do with badges (which in a world of automated data capture would become less relevant, unless maybe as part of a gamification approach):

Create a free account on a Badge service (several are listed in the resources for this module). Then:

create a badge
award it to yourself.
use a blog post on your blog as the ‘evidence’ for awarding yourself the badge
place the badge on the blog post.

Stephen wrote a blog post about his own work with badges and about why he gets involved with badges.

I used Badgr, like Stephen did, avoided using Facebook or Google-logins and created and verified a badge which I show here:

Course task for E-learning 3.0 (#el30): use The Beaker Browser – an experimental browser for exploring and building the peer-to-peer Web – or the Interplanetary File System (IPFS) to put up some document. IPFS is a protocol and network designed to create a content-addressable, peer-to-peer method for storing and sharing hypermedia in a distributed file system.

In other words, both technologies enable you to publish documents online without using Google or hosting companies – but there are some serious limitations. Your document or site remains online as long as you or one of the readers/users don’t shut their computers. Which means that for most people, their stuff will go offline pretty soon. There are companies offering hosting for these “distributed” systems, and I used one of them for The Beaker browser project. Of course, one might ask, why going through all the hassle in order to end up again with a third party hosting your stuff?

I lacked time the last few days but fortunately I experimented with these technologies well before the assignment. I even started a blog via The Beaker Browser in order to tell about my first experiences. It’s hosted at hashbase, they “keep your files online, even when your computer is turned off.”

One of the great aspects of the course E-learning 3.0 (#el30) is the interaction between the participants. A network of blogs is discussing various elements of e-learning and the decentralized web. In my previous post I expressed a concern about using the blockchain in the context of managing your identity in a decentralized way. The blockchain is

an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way”. For use as a distributed ledger, a blockchain is typically managed by a peer-to-peer network collectively adhering to a protocol for inter-node communication and validating new blocks. Once recorded, the data in any given block cannot be altered retroactively without alteration of all subsequent blocks, which requires consensus of the network majority. (Wikipedia)

There are at least serious tensions between the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the idea of storing personal data on the blockchain. Just one issue is the right to be forgotten, which implies that people can demand to erase data, which is very problematic in a blockchain-context. There are workarounds, but these have their own disadvantages, as Andries Van Humbeeck explains on Medium.

Thanks to the #el30-network, an interesting discussion about the tension between blockchain and the right to be forgotten started in the comments on my previous post. One participant, Dorian, had this to say:

Roland’s concern is indeed a theme that The Circle discusses at length.

[For those who haven’t read it: in the novel, “The Circle” is a massive software corporation which builds its power and political influence on its totalitarian ownership over people’s personal data — but also enforces absolute “transparency” as people’s “source of trust”, by making privacy criminal, and publicity (or publicness) compulsory.]

Most existing blockchain solutions are certainly not appropriate to carry people’s private data, since they are basically gigantic public ledgers shared and copied integrally among the computers of all users…

However, some new solutions are popping up that attempt to preserve the main benefits of decentralised information (and thus, power) sharing, while giving individuals much more control over *what* they share with the rest of the world, and being less wasteful in terms of energy and information redundancy.

One of the most inspiring projects I know of is called Holochain (https://holochain.org/). Contrary to Bitcoin or Ethereum for example, it doesn’t rely on one huge ledger, but on a fractal concatenation of micro-ledgers connected into one common network. It looks extremely promising, not just for financial or IT purposes, but as a tool for fairer economic and socio-political systems… and, yes, as a better way to inscribe one’s identity into the world wide web!
(not to mention that it’s being built by good people, who are not interested in becoming billionnaires)
To learn more, I’d recommend the following articles, and their links:
https://open.coop/2018/06/14/holochain-perfect-framework-decentralised-cooperation-scale/
https://medium.com/h-o-l-o/we-caught-your-eye-articles-written-about-us-169d00998551

The articles and sites mentioned by Dorian are very interesting. The Holochain-story is slowly getting into the mainstream media.Some words of caution though: Holochain is a big idea and a very deep project. It’s also complicated to understand and only known about by a niche audience. There are other projects aiming at the decentralizing the web, like Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid. Looking for a definition avoiding terms such as ‘hash tables’ and ‘git’ I came back empty-handed.

Marketing

Some basic notions make people shiver, like the idea of sharing the spare capacity of your computers. Sharing a room for Airbnb became a success, but sharing your computer in times of fear for hackings seems a serious marketing challenge (I don’t think the “sandbox”-notion is something the average computer-user fully understands). Some ideas are great but never gain traction, as I experienced in virtual worlds and virtual reality. The actual development of Holochain seems to have started in 2016, yet, two years later the Holochain-site seems unable to explain what it is so that non-geeks would understand it. The homepage of holochain.org starts with a video where a developer starts mentioning Ruby on Rails. A journalist like me working for an interested but general audience finds not a single usable text snippet explaining what it’s all about.

Holo-host saves marketing

However, the holochain-community is being saved as far as marketing is concerned by a related project, the holo host. It’s literally a box (in various versions) which is pre-configured to act as part of a hosting-network in order to make it possible to host holochain-apps in a decentralized way. The video is less technical and actually does a good job explaining what it’s about:

A graphic explainer (click to enlarge):

Graphical scheme of the holo host box.

Finally some textual explanation:

Holochain is a new technology for distributed computing. Holo makes it possible for this technology to be used by mainstream internet users and spread faster.

Holochain is a platform infrastructure technology for distributed peer-to-peer applications, and Holo is the first application to be built on top of it. The purpose of Holo is to act as a bridge between the budding community of distributed Holochain apps, and the current centralized web. By creating an ecosystem and currency that enable distributed hosting services provided by peers, Holo brings access to distributed applications to the familiar web browser. The long-term goal is for Holo to run itself out of business by expanding the community built on and around Holochain apps until the majority of people switch over to using Holochain directly. But adoption of a new technology as fundamental as Holochain won’t happen overnight, so Holo is here ease that transition.

Actually you don’t need to buy the box to participate: “While the HoloPort is optimized for hosting the network and is the easiest way to be a part of the community and earn Holo fuel, you will be able to run the Holo software on a variety of devices. We’re selling HoloPorts in order to jump-start the Holo ecosystem with many stable, dedicated hosting devices, but we encourage users to join our community through any means at their disposal. Initially the Holo software will only be available for download and installation on computers running Linux; later macOS and Windows will be supported.”

I think I’ll buy a holo box, even though I fear convincing “the internet” to embrace such a revolutionary project, against the interests of established giant cloud providers, will be very challenging indeed.