What I used to think I knew isn't helping: adventures in higher ed open source


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When we first started talking to Sam about Sakai 3 we used the word “template” a lot. It had worked its way into our conceptual lexicon rather early on, as the answer to how a free-form editing environment could still be helpfully scaffolded, and not force everyone to start each time with a blank canvas. At times it even started to take on a semi-magical aura: someone in the back of a room during a presentation would call out a question about how we were going to do X. “That’s what templates are for,” I’d glibly respond. Well, not glibly. The idea fit. But the truth is that we hadn’t yet really designed for this apparently pivotal thing, and it was putting a lot of faith in something not yet realized.

If I can be forgiven for putting words in Sam’s mouth, I think his attitude when confronted with this was (tactfully expressed), “OK, it’s great that you guys already have a mechanism in mind. You’ve obviously given it a lot of thought. But if you don’t mind, can we please trace that back to what the user problems are that we’re trying to solve? Because that’s what I really need to be designing around, and maybe templates will cover it and maybe they won’t.”

OK, fine.

  1. People need to be able to create new things quickly and easily, despite a great deal of freedom and variability of options. They can’t be paralyzed by possibilities, but then neither should we put them in straitjackets. They need something to build on, even if they end up wanting to knock out a wall or redo the kitchen.
  2. When people find something that works for them – maybe it’s something they did themselves, or maybe they see something a friend or colleague did that they like – they want to be able to capture, coopt, or store it for the future.
  3. There often needs to be some consistent structure or pattern to individual workspaces or activities such that at a bird’s eye view there can still be coherence for discoverability or hooks for new lines of organization.

Of course I’m leaving a lot out of those three points, there are other concrete elements and variations, but to save space I think those are the abstracted problems that need an answer.

Sam came back with “OK, so if we had to pin it down to a single idea or activity, it sounds like we’re talking about ‘reuse.’ Reuse that includes an idea of sharing, in the form of reuse by others. Reuse that necessarily involves structure, to the extent that it’s often the structure itself that you want to reuse.  And one of the fringe benefits of this reuse is consistent patterns that can be worked with at a macro level. So how about going with that word rather than ‘template,’ which might be getting ahead of itself in implementation assumptions?”

At first it left me a little cold, I suppose because I’m so familiar with ‘reuse’ in the context of ‘code reuse,’ and it’s a rather sterile and uninspiring notion in such contexts. But it’s growing on me as an expression of a user problem or goal.


Written by khomotso

November 30, 2009 at 6:02 pm

Posted in Sakai

7 Responses

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  1. “Reuse” is a good UCD concept because it privileges the user’s interests and actions, but “helpfully scaffolded” implies a knowledge asymmetry in that the user creating a site does not always have good understanding of how to create an effective online space (hence the phenomenon acknowledged across many LMS environments that while some sites are well-constructed and dynamic, many are limited and boring).

    So my bet is that “template” remains an important concept and that while enabling reuse as a general goal is helpful, it shouldn’t do so at the expense of effective templating capability. A template = a well-considered design intended to be easily reused by many.

    Stephen Marquard

    November 30, 2009 at 7:40 pm

  2. “reuse” is fine if you’re talking to technologists. If you’re talking with normal users, I think template works better.

    BTW, another use for templates is to let instructional designers or departmental staff create boilerplate that instructors can simply fill in. It’s a way of enabling policy and/or consistency. I think this pertains to what I understand of your #3, above.

    Mark Notess

    November 30, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    • Boilerplate can be mere content, but I have in mind also the possibility of imposed structure, for those who want to go that route. I’m thinking of OpenSyllabus (http://confluence.sakaiproject.org//x/DgBkAQ), for one.

      When you add structure, the consistency can go two directions. It can lend consistency *across* workspaces. It can also give you a kind of browseable catalog *above* workspaces (e.g. a course catalog, or profiles of research groups).


      December 1, 2009 at 12:09 am

      • Right–I agree regarding imposed structure as another function of templates.

        Mark Notess

        December 1, 2009 at 2:55 pm

  3. There’s a fundamental tension inherent in the flexibility envisioned for Sakai 3: On the one hand, we want each course to be able to have a structure best suited for it. On the other hand, we have many students saying something to the effect that “I want to not have to learn a new way of doing things for each course” and “I wish there were a lot of common things my instructors all did the same.” Having some default templates might help a campus/program/department walk this fine line.

    David Goodrum

    November 30, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    • Default templates are a fine start, but my ambition would in fact be that our eventual default templates will emerge from actual practice. Too often the ‘default’ is the thing coded. What if we technologists were taking our defaults from our most successful (or at least most often imitated) users?

      When I talk about users wanting to borrow and coopt the productions of talented friends and colleagues, I include we deployers of these systems. That in my mind is the key user-centeredness of the template: we borrow from our users our own infrastructure.


      December 1, 2009 at 12:02 am

      • Interesting. People can submit their templates to a public template library and then we display some kind of popularity metric, making sure the template authors get appropriate credit for their work.

        BTW, templates are not just per “tool”, right? What I want is a template for a 15-week doctoral seminar or a multi-section large lecture class, something that lets me enter the key parameters up front and then generates the whole course skeleton.

        Mark Notess

        December 1, 2009 at 2:59 pm

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