DS106: Enabling Open, Public, Participatory Learning

DS106

Digital Storytelling 106--better known as "ds106"--sprouted in 2010 as a computer science class on digital storytelling at University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Founded by Jim Groom, educational technology consultant Alan Levine, and instructional technologists Martha Burtis & Tom Woodward, ds106 has evolved into a model for all instructors and students who aspire to experience, explore, and extend connected learning.

Case Study compiled by: Howard Rheingold

Key Takeaways

  • Faculty have to confront their discomfort with giving up some control to students, enabling students to help shape the assignments, set the tenor of the class, and even help form assessment criteria.
  • Instructors must blog themselves. Groom finds that his blogging has particular benefits for him in terms of being a networked scholar, technologist, and teacher. Levine adds: "It's more than blogging – as instructors, we do the same work we ask our students to do. This shifts the power dynamic of the teacher-student relationship."
  • The existence of a small but fiercely vocal community of believers in the philosophy and ethos of the open web will contribute to success. Seek out those with similar spirits via Twitter and other online community spaces.
  • Educators wanting to set up their own courses can find out how ds106 can help.

When I became convinced by ds106 that I should enable my Stanford students to learn in public, I asked Groom how to go about setting up the WordPress course hub. In the process of talking about how to set up an open learning environment, we also discussed why to do it this way. We recorded our conversations and came up with three one-hour how-to/why-to videos: "How to Create a Learning Environment with Open Source Tools"

Even before ds106 officially launched, instructors and students collaborated to grow the course into an interest-powered learning community with pop culture as its subject matter. It is peer-supported to the point where students make up their own assignments. The assignments are academically oriented toward web rhetorics and an examination of the nature of all disciplines in an age of digital media. Participants have a shared purpose that is the shared purpose of the web: "sharing things we find interesting or creating things that other people find interesting" (in the words of ds106 co-creator Jim Groom) via a transmedia production-centered orientation that includes blogs, videos, graphics, mashups, radio and television. The ds106 course is also openly networked to include hundreds of people outside the University of Mary Washington and former students of the course – connecting learners across boundaries of time as well as space.

Jim Groom, an instructional technologist, had taught classes in English literature and museum studies. He was also a blogger of some renown in ed-tech circles. In 2008, Groom coined the word edupunk in his blog to describe the rejection of traditional learning management systems for a DIY approach using open tools he and others advocated. A week later, "edupunk" was the subject of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. When asked to teach a digital storytelling course in the Computer Science department, Groom had a distinct idea about the kind of digital storytelling he wanted to teach: "Not as a kind of iMovie with attractive Ken Burns effect images on top of your favorite song that tells a story. That's a generic form of digital storytelling that's been very successful and works for a lot of people. I don't mean to denigrate that kind of storytelling, but what I've seen happening in a variety of social media is more reflective of the nature of the web."

Although he clearly relishes his role as larger-than-life provocateur, Groom understands that his success depends on his collaborations, his sharing, his networks. He worked with Alan Levine to define what it would mean to do well in ds106: "Do your assignment, narrate your work, feed back to others." Groom set up the online home for the first iteration of the course, using WordPress to create an aggregator that would centralize the feeds from student blog and Twitter hashtags. After the first cohort of students embraced co-learning in public with great zeal, Groom, Levine, Woodward, and Burtis started imagining what the course would look like if it was not only for the 25 or 50 students taking it at Mary Washington, but 100, 200, or more people taking the course simultaneously on the open web. Using WordPress, Burtis and Levine built a blog and aggregation hub where hundreds of people from around the world could share their own work alongside the students who are taking it for credit. Tag-filtered views enable participants to choose to see only the stream from registered students or scan the entire stream of participants around the web. Martha Burtis brought her WordPress wizardry to the design process as requirements began to grow more complex (such as the "assignment bank," described below). Tim Owens migrated the theme for ds106 to its current look and feel, and made the first generation of "The Daily Create." Alan Levine added custom code and features to all sites and built the "Assignment Remix" site. In Levine's words, "ds106 is one of those airplanes that was built in the air."

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Interest-Powered

Students knew from the beginning that they were expected to create and control their own domain and set up their own WordPress blog: "I wanted students to interrogate the web and how we communicate on it," says Groom. "I wanted them to control their own domain, install their own applications – in this case, WordPress – and take control of their digital identity. Informed by Gardner Campbell's idea of a 'Personal Cyberinfrastructure,' I wanted students to understand through their own practices that they could create and control their own node on this unbelievable network called the web and also to think about their activities for this class as a kind of storytelling process whereby they narrate who they are and really start to examine what it means to maintain a digital presence." Alan Levine adds: "Most students have not really considered owning their own domain, but in more recent years, we see students coming in with already established identities. Nancy said, 'I am called Bellekid everywhere, can I get that as my domain?' Another student remarked that she had been making 'silly Youtube videos' since she was a teen and was looking to break and create a more 'mature' online presence."

The lingua franca of web-like storytelling, ds106-style, is also the currency of much college student discourse – pop culture – so the course was specifically powered by each student's personal interests and expertise. Students were invited to think and talk about what truly interests them through their day-to-day online lives, to see how every Facebook status update, every Tweet, Flickr image, and video on YouTube is part of a distributed story about who they are. Telling the story of who you are, across multiple media and multiple sites, using your own interests – whether it is anime, music, cinema, Pokemon, or My Little Pony – is the objective of ds106 assignments. "So many students are already experts in their own particular field – 'Oh yeah? I love The Wire, too.' – that they empower themselves to speak in their own voice and, at the same time, connect with others over things they are passionate about," says Groom. Woodward says: "I thought it beautiful that anyone could take something that inspired them and instantly work it into the class, not just for them but for anyone participating. That reframed pop culture for me: not just consuming it but creating it as well."

Groom started with a list of ten assignments, but scrapped the idea when Woodward proposed that while those might be interesting assignments to Groom, the students could probably come up with assignments based on the principles of the web that would be far more interesting to them. So Burtis added to the course hub an "assignment bank," so that students could add their preferred assignments to the list of existing assignments. Modeling their learning for others, Groom wrote a blog post and notes about the initial course design brainstorming. "The fact that the class started prior to starting, through a collaborative design process, is worth highlighting," says Woodward.

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Peer-Supported

The creation of the assignment bank in response to student preferences amplified the co-evolutionary nature of ds106. Part of the nature of the course and of life online in general, is the power of the community to modify the architecture of their learning environment. Students who redesign their course on the fly, Groom insists, is very much a model for the way people are learning together on the web. The class continued to morph as the needs of the community emerged. In addition to the assignment bank, the "Daily Create" emerged as a challenge in some specified medium that could be completed in less than 20 minutes, along with inspire – a way to submit work from others in the ds106 community that inspired further creativity, the remix machine to randomly remix assignments from the assignment bank, and ds106 radio and video channels. True to the transmedia nature of the course, ds106 has a dedicated conversation thread on Reddit.com (a suggestion of Spring 2013 student Nancy Belle), #ds106 is a popular Twitter hashtag, and the class has a Google+ Community (created in August 2013 by request of open participants).

Peer support extended to the network of participants beyond the bounds of Mary Washington and any single year's student cohort. The ds106 creators have set up similar platforms for teachers of courses that leverage the same architecture, including my courses at Stanford, The Temple University Japan, York College, Kansas State University, University of Michigan, and more. "There is actually no single ds106 course (unlike most MOOCs), but multiple overlapping ones," points out Alan Levine. Some graduates from previous versions of ds106 participate along with currently enrolled students – if you are deeply engaged with an online learning community focused on your most passionate interests, why not revisit it after the quarter or semester is over? Why shouldn't the alumni most interested in the practices encouraged by the course remain active in the community? Other peer support came not just from previous years, but from around the world: In response to an appeal in the ds106 blog, Grant Potter at the University of Northern British Columbia responded to Jim Groom's Twitter wish for a real-time medium other than commercially available platforms--over a weekend, he created a radio station. Martha Burtis, co-teaching the class, integrated the radio show into the class WordPress hub and students began creating shows as part of their assignments. They created bumpers and commercials, so "on the fly, they began to build out a radio culture that defined us," says Groom. In addition to broadcasting their class meetings, ds106 participants began to broadcast all kinds of music and pop culture.

"The radio station is 'on' all the time," says Levine, "There is a programmed schedule of content to play, but if someone 'grabs the mic' they can cut in with a live broadcast. This really took off with the discovery of apps that allowed live broadcasts from mobile devices and later with an experimental service Grant Potter built to broadcast by dialing in to a toll-free number. People shared live music, on the street conversations, improv, stream of consciousness while going about their errands. Scott Lockman shared in real time his experiences during the 2011 Japan earthquakes, others shared life challenging moments including losses of family members. Rowan Peter of Melbourne, Australia broadcast the ambient sounds of cicadas, and Zack Dowell broadcast while downhill skiing. Another unique feature was the ability of listeners to communicate with live broadcasters via the #ds106 hashtag on Twitter."

Not stopping with radio, Tim Owens built an online TV network for ds106 based on justin.tv that's still in existence, enabling students to share videos and live broadcasts. ds106 expanded into a 24/7 operation, spread across a dozen different media.

In the summer of 2011, an entirely online and video-based version of the course, using the ds106 TV station and blog aggregator, featured an instructor by the name of Doctor Oblivion. The professor became a make-believe character in a course that was renamed "The Summer of Oblivion," an explicit play-acting that students joined in, enabling them to inquire into the ways today's media influence us by playing off old media forms such as radio and television. The conceit of the course as a fictional narrative was carried out in the 2012 sequel, when Alan Levine and Martha Burtis created the imaginary Camp Magic Macguffin, a place where nothing as bizarre as the previous year was supposed to happen. Burtis thinks "this is a territory we should be exploring more – what happens when we layer a narrative on top of our courses, turning them into an entirely different kind of immersive experience? In a digital storytelling class, this makes a lot of sense; we're exploring narrative design as part of course design. But I would argue that this approach is worth exploring in many different courses. Stories are how we make sense of the world, and every discipline uses them in one way or another. We're just making the use of story more explicit and examined as part of the course experience."

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Academically Oriented

As an academic model, ds106 is not just a foray into new territories, but a model for other disciplines that don't all have the great advantage of using students' most passionate interests as their core content. Michael Caulfield has been using the ds106 model for multidisciplinary, multi-institution courses. One of the main purposes of Groom's department at Mary Washington, the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, is to build web-based pedagogy more broadly into the university culture. In Groom's opinion, "there's no reason why a chemist or biologist or a literature professor couldn't come up with real-world exciting assignments and examples from the students' own perspective that integrate principles of their discipline. I think it's hard, but not impossible, and that's part of the common challenge of real teaching." The spirit of ds106 is to say "here, try this new way of pursuing our learning – I challenge you to build on it." Making other subjects as exciting as pop culture is no easy challenge, but Groom doesn't think that should be an insurmountable obstacle. Jumping off the pedagogical cliff and encouraging your students to alter your course is scary and exhilarating, but the creators of ds106 want their example to inspire further innovation. Burtis says, "We frequently hear from faculty that what we do in ds106 is fine for ds106, but it would never work for their courses. Part of what I still think we need to help people do is distill the essential lessons of ds106 – developing habits of creativity, exploring narrative with new media, crowdsourcing assignments, student-designed assignments, engaging with popular culture, etc – and see how to apply them in a variety of disciplines and domains."

Writing and rhetoric courses all across academia focus on the personal voice, the memoir, and expression of identity. In ds106, writing the text of blog posts meets short video clips meets image-music mashups, each contributing to a collection of rhetorical expressions in different media that can be seen as a narrative of the producer's identity. Identity is the foundation of expression online, but its only part of web rhetoric. ds106 students reach beyond their personal expression to engage in feedback, discourse, and collaboration with each other – after all, the web is about social relationships and voluntary collective action that people join because its fun or engaging, meaningful, or cool. Individual narratives on the web are interconnected, not isolated.

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Shared Purpose

The shared purpose of ds106 is what many consider to be an important, perhaps the most important, shared purpose of all who contribute to the web – to share things we find interesting or create things that other people find interesting. The heart of ds106 is to create, share, and comment on interesting media objects. Burtis says: "Part of what we're teaching is the art of commenting and critiquing on the Web. I think it's fair to say that lots of commenting on the Web is useless and even harmful (think about so many comments on YouTube). We require students to comment on each other's works, but we want them to go beyond the bland 'Great job!' Instead, we try to model for them a way to critique in meaningful ways. The Web-enabled world we live in requires us to understand the importance and power of thoughtful public critique."

And of course sharing isn't done in a vacuum – feedback is not just about evaluating each other, but a way to establish, strengthen, and weave the relationships around shared interests that community is made of. The course includes many individual narratives, and it also adds up to the broader narrative of all the voices speaking together. Much of this capability comes from the instructors' explicit surrender of ownership and control. In ordinary courses, students and assignments come and go, but the instructors remain – and the instructors naturally have a stronger sense of ownership than the students, whose participation is time-limited. The narratives of ds106 don't disappear into a file drawer at the end of the term, but remain as part of the growing collective narrative, not only as historical record and as a guide for future students, but as the content for future remixing and repurposing. And some of those who experienced the course last year and the year before return to the online community to mentor, participate, and share in the fun.

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Production-Centered

The original purpose of ds106 was to give computer science students an introduction to publishing and producing content on the web as part of their identity – storytelling that reflects on who they are. Taken as a whole, each individual's contributions were intended to add up to a story of their experience narrating their work. In the first semester that the class was tried, students were challenged to deal with questions of photography, audio, video, mashup, and remix. They did it on their blogs, on Twitter, on Flickr, and YouTube. Then radio and TV shows came along. The old television show "Outer Limits" became part of the ds106 mythic narrative because of the prelude to the program that began "We control the vertical. We control the horizontal." The philosophy of the class has always about individuals and communities taking control of their media. Alan Levine, who built the remix machine, is helping to extend the ds106 philosophy to more of the web by making the assignments repository into a WordPress theme that anyone can install and use. The remix machine allows students to click a button and match an assignment previously submitted by a student with a new assignment for remix. For example, the remix machine could come up with a video essay about a film that a previous student loved. The remix assignment for a contemporary student might be to remix the existing student video in the style of Dr. Seuss, or turn the video into an audio. All the elements – the Assignment Bank, the Daily Create, the Remix Machine, Inspire, the radio and TV stations, are used to stimulate and support a sense of community as well as to express individual identity and creativity.

Martha Burtis says, "The Daily Create underpins a core value of ds106 – exercising your creative muscle on a daily basis. Part of what we try to do in ds106 is help people unlearn the lesson that creativity is a precious and precocious act. Instead, we should all demand moments of creativity from ourselves every day. And we shouldn't expect perfect or excellence out of each of those endeavors. Creativity is a habit we can develop."

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Openly Networked

In the spring of 2011, as student-stimulated modifications of the original course began to ramp up, the ds106 community decided that not only should the course be open, but the participants should invite others. (At that time, the massive publicity about MOOCs had not yet started) Very quickly, the 25 students taking the course at Mary Washington were joined by hundreds of web citizens who understood what ds106 was doing and wanted to join. Martha Burtis notes that "ds106 wouldn't have happened without the power of Jim's (cultivated) social network – particularly on Twitter – and then the resonance of that network on other powerful networks. You can't just build something like this and wait for people to come. Jim built social capital by sharing with, commenting on, and linking to the other networks for many years. When he decided he wanted to make ds106 an open, participatory experience, that network he had cultivated responded in kind."

Again, the instructors responded by giving up on an attempt at packaging the course in a single coherent medium. The diverse, networked nature of the web was reflected in the nature of the course, which abandoned the goal of a unified, coherent framework, and turned students loose with hashtags and podcasts, videos and radio spots – whatever the community could embrace as another facet of digital storytelling. The kernel of ds106, to design and grow a course that embodies some of the properties of the web, was continually challenged and expanded by Alan Levine's and Martha Burtis' integration of new tools as soon as participants came up with them.

Not that the instructors disappeared. As Groom puts it, "I think one of the things that got lost in some of the public conversations about MOOCs is the importance of having people there who could encourage individual students and connect them with others, who could facilitate the growth of a community that helps people focus. Instead of automated graders, there were instructors who were participating and learning along with the students. The students educated the instructors about the significance of Harry Potter, Twilight, My Little Pony and other pop culture phenomena that other academics might have considered trivial, but which ds106 students highlighted and interrogated as clues to the nature of web culture." In ds106 and in the courses I've convened online, the glue that holds together the students, the texts, and the discussions is the enthusiastic sharing of individual learning – instead of absorbing and sequestering the knowledge one gains from participation, each participant becomes a kind of instructor to others, including the instructors.

Additional resources from others who are adopting the "learn in public" philosophy:


Photo credits: Jim Groom, Frank Fitzpatrick, Mariana Funes, Andrew Forgrave, Sally Wilson, and Alan Levine

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