Tag: standards

Credentials and standardisation

Someone pinch me, because I must be dreaming. It’s 2018, right? So why are we still seeing this kind of article about Open Badges and digital credentials?

“We do have a little bit of a Wild West situation right now with alternative credentials,” said Alana Dunagan, a senior research fellow at the nonprofit Clayton Christensen Institute, which researches education innovation. The U.S. higher education system “doesn’t do a good job of separating the wheat from the chaff.”

You’d think by now we’d realise that we have a huge opportunity to do something different here and not just replicate the existing system. Let’s credential stuff that matters rather than some ridiculous notion of ’employability skills’. Open Badges and digital credentials shouldn’t be just another stick to beat educational institutions.

Nor do they need to be ‘standardised’. Another person’s ‘wild west’ is another person’s landscape of huge opportunity. We not living in a world of 1950s career pathways.

“Everybody is scrambling to create microcredentials or badges,” Cheney said. “This has never been a precise marketplace, and we’re just speeding up that imprecision.”

Arizona State University, for example, is rapidly increasing the number of online courses in its continuing and professional education division, which confers both badges and certificates. According to staff, the division offers 200 courses and programs in a slew of categories, including art, history, education, health and law, and plans to provide more than 500 by next year.

My eyes are rolling out of my head at this point. Thankfully, I’ve already written about misguided notions around ‘quality’ and ‘rigour’, as well thinking through in a bit more detail what earning a ‘credential’ actually means.

Source: The Hechinger Report

Protocols for the free web

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time at the intersection of education and technology, it’s that nobody cares about the important stuff, but people will go crazy if you make a small tweak to an emoji icon. 🙄

The reason you can use any web browser you want to access this website is down to standards. These are collections of protocols that define expected behaviours when you use a web browser to read what I’ve written. There are organisations and working groups ensuring that the internet doesn’t devolve into the Wild West.

This post on the We Distribute blog is an interview with Mike Macgirvin who has spent much of his adult life working on the protocols that enable social interaction on the web to happen. It’s an important read, even for less-than-technical people, as it serves to explain some of the very human decisions that shape the technology that mediates our lives.

There’s nothing magic about a protocol. It’s basically just a gentleman’s agreement about how to implement something. There are a number of levels or grades of protocols from simple in-house conventions all the way to internet specifications. The higher quality protocols have some interesting characteristics. Most importantly, these are intended as actual technical blueprints so that if two independent developers in isolated labs follow the specifications accurately, their implementations should interact together perfectly. This is an important concept.

The level of specification needed to produce this higher quality protocol is a double-edged sword. If you specify things too rigidly, projects using this protocol cannot grow or extend beyond the limits and restrictions you have specified. If you do not specify the implementation rules tightly enough, you will end up with competing products or projects that can both claim to implement the specification, yet are unable to interoperate at a basic level.

For-profit companies, and in particular those who are backed by venture capitalists, are very fond of what’s known as vendor lock-in. While there are moves afoot seeking to limit this, including those provided by GDPR, it’s a game of cat-and-mouse.

The free web, on the other hand, is different. It’s a place where, instead of being beholden to people trying to commodify and intermediate your interactions with other human beings, there is the free exchange of data and ideas.

Unfortunately, as Macgirvin points out, its much easier to enclose something than to ‘lock it open’:

In 2010–2012, the free web lost *hundreds of thousands* of early adopters because we had no way to easily migrate from server to server; and lots of early server administrators closed down with little or no warning. This set the free web back at least five years, because you couldn’t trust your account and identity and friendships and content to exist tomorrow. Most of the other free web projects decided that this problem should be solved by import/export tools (which we’re still waiting for in some cases).

I saw an even bigger problem. Twitter at the time was over capacity and often would be shut down for hours or a few days. What if you didn’t really want to permanently move to another server, but you just wanted to post something and stay in touch with friends/family when your server was having a bad day? This was the impetus for nomadic identity. You could take a thumbdrive and load it into any other server; and your identity is intact and you still have all your friends. Then we allowed you to “clone” your identity so you could have these backup accounts available at any time you needed them. Then we started syncing stuff between your clones so that on server ‘A’ you still have the same exact content and friends that you do on server ‘B’. They’re clones. You can post from either. If one shuts down forever, no big deal. If it has a cert issue that takes 24 hours to fix, no big deal. Your online life can continue, uninterrupted — no matter what happens to individual servers.

The trouble, of course, with all of this, is that things aren’t important until they are. So if you’re using Twitter to share photos of what you had for breakfast or status updates about the facial expressions of your cat, you’re not so bothered if the service experiences some downtime. Fast forward a couple of years and emergency services are using it to reassure the citizenry in the face of impending doom.

Those out to make a profit from commodifying social interaction are like those on the political right; they’re more likely to rally behind one another in the name of capital. The left, in this case represented by the free web, is prone to internecine conflict due to their motivation being more ideological than financial.

The way I look at it is that the free web is like family. Everybody has a dysfunctional family. You have black sheep and relatives you really just want to strangle sometimes. Thanksgiving dinner always turns into a shitfight. They’re all fundamentalist Christians and you’re more Zen Buddhist. You can’t carry on a conversation without arguing about who has the more successful career or chastising cousin Harry for his drug use.

But when you get right down to it — none of this matters. They’re family. We’re all in this together. That’s how it is with the free web, even if some projects like to think that they are the only ones that matter. Everybody matters. Each of our projects brings a unique value proposition to the table, and provides a different set of solutions and decentralised services. You can’t ignore any of them or leave any of them behind. We’re one family and we’re all busy creating something incredible. If you look at only one member of this family, you might be disappointed in the range of services that are being offered. You’re probably missing out completely on what the rest of the family is doing. Together we’re all creating a new and improved social web. There are some awesome projects tackling completely different aspects of decentralisation and offering completely different services. If we could all work together we could probably conquer the world — though that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. The first step is just to all sit down at Thanksgiving dinner without killing each other.

We get to choose the technologies we use in our lives. And those decisions matter. Decentralisation is important, particularly in regards to the social web, because no government or organisation should be given the power to mediate our interactions.

Source: We Distribute

Slack’s bait-and-switch?

I remember the early days of Twitter. It was great, as there were many different clients, both native apps and web-based ones. There was lots of innovation in the ecosystem and, in fact, the ‘pull-to-refresh’ feature that’s now baked into every social app on a touchscreen device was first created for a third-party Twitter client.

Twitter then, of course, once it had reached critical mass and mainstream adoption, killed off that third party ecosystem to ‘own the experience’. It looks like Slack, the messaging app for teams, is doing something similar by turning off support for IRC and XMPP gateways:

As Slack has evolved over the years, we’ve built features and capabilities — like Shared Channels, Threads, and emoji reactions (to name a few) — that the IRC and XMPP gateways aren’t able to handle. Our priority is to provide a secure and high-quality experience across all platforms, and so the time has come to close the gateways.

A number of people weren’t happy about this, notably those who rely on the superior accessibility features available through IRC and XMPP. A software developer and consultant by the name of JC Brand takes Slack to task:

We all know the real reason Slack has closed off their gateways. Their business model dictates that they should.

Slack’s business model is to record everything said in a workspace and then to sell you access to their record of your conversations.

They’re a typical walled garden, information silo or Siren Server

So they have to close everything off, to make sure that people can’t extract their conversations out of the silo.

We saw it with Google, who built Gtalk on XMPP and even federated with other XMPP servers, only to later stop federation and XMPP support in favour of trying to herd the digital cattle into the Google+ enclosure.

Facebook, who also built their chat app on XMPP at first allowed 3rd party XMPP clients to connect and then later dropped interoperability.

Twitter, although not using or supporting XMPP, had a vibrant 3rd party client ecosystem which they killed off once they felt big enough.

Slack, like so many others before them, pretend to care about interoperability, opening up just so slightly, so that they can lure in people with the promise of “openness”, before eventually closing the gate once they’ve achieved sufficient size and lock-in.

I’m definitely on the side of open source people/projects here, but it’s worth noting that the author uses the post to promote the solution he’s been developing. And why not?

There’s a comment below the post which makes, I think, a good point:

I’m betting this decision wasn’t made by the same folks who were at Slack (or Facebook, Google, etc) and thought adding support for the open protocols was a good thing. I bet the decision is a product of time over any attempt to trick anyone. Over time people change roles, leave, and slowly new leadership emerges. Outside pressures (market growth, investors) require a change in priority and the org shifts away from supporting things that had low adoption and ongoing maintenance cost.

So I don’t think it’s as malicious as the author implies (Bait and Switch) as that requires some nefarious planning and foresight. I think it’s more likely to be business/product evolution, which still sucks for adopters and the free net, but not as maleficent. Just, unfortunately, the nature of early tech businesses maturing into Just Another Business.

Indeed.

Source: Opkode

Does the world need interactive emails?

I’m on the fence on this as, on the one hand, email is an absolute bedrock of the internet, a common federated standard that we can rely upon independent of technological factionalism. On the other hand, so long as it’s built into a standard others can adopt, it could be pretty cool.

The author of this article really doesn’t like Google’s idea of extending AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) to the inbox:

See, email belongs to a special class. Nobody really likes it, but it’s the way nobody really likes sidewalks, or electrical outlets, or forks. It not that there’s something wrong with them. It’s that they’re mature, useful items that do exactly what they need to do. They’ve transcended the world of likes and dislikes.

Fair enough, but as a total convert to Google’s ‘Inbox’ app both on the web and on mobile, I don’t think we can stop innovation in this area:

Emails are static because messages are meant to be static. The entire concept of communication via the internet is based around the telegraphic model of exchanging one-way packets with static payloads, the way the entire concept of a fork is based around piercing a piece of food and allowing friction to hold it in place during transit.

Are messages ‘meant to be static’? I’m not so sure. Books were ‘meant to’ be paper-based until ebooks came along, and now there’s all kinds of things we can do with ebooks that we can’t do with their dead-tree equivalents.

Why do this? Are we running out of tabs? Were people complaining that clicking “yes” on an RSVP email took them to the invitation site? Were they asking to have a video chat window open inside the email with the link? No. No one cares. No one is being inconvenienced by this aspect of email (inbox overload is a different problem), and no one will gain anything by changing it.

Although it’s an entertaining read, if ‘why do this?’ is the only argument the author, Devin Coldewey, has got against an attempted innovation in this space, then my answer would be why not? Although Coldewey points to the shutdown of Google Reader as an example of Google ‘forcing’ everyone to move to algorithmic news feeds, I’m not sure things are, and were, as simple as that.

It sounds a little simplistic to say so, but people either like and value something and therefore use it, or they don’t. We who like and uphold standards need to remember that, instead of thinking about what people and organisations should and shouldn’t do.

Source: TechCrunch