Small Steps Go a Long Way: Designing Learnings Tools with WordPress

Small Steps Go a Long Way: Designing Learnings Tools with WordPress

We talked about boots, Twitter, and making adjustments to WordPress to enable completely anonymous posting. It was a powerful session and much more interesting than this summary. I suggest you read more.

Speakers:

Presentation:

Boots

The Penguin takes center stage (again)
The Penguin takes center stage (again)

“You have 30 seconds to draw a picture of the boots you might want to wear in the snow.”

I got this. It’s a weird way to start a presentation, and what the heck does this have to do with Domains, but no worries. I GOT this.

“Now describe the boots in your pictures.”

I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We get 200-300 inches of snow every year. My boots are fur-lined, they have nice firm grips on the bottom, they lace up tightly, and the laces are long enough that you can wrap them around your ankles a couple times for a nice snug fit. They’ll keep the snow out, keep you warm, and keep you safe, as you walk outside in the snow.

My Boot Drawing
My Boot Drawing

Now what the heck does this have to do with Domains?

Tanya Dorey-Elias held up a typical winter boot, a Sorel, somewhat similar to my drawing. Then she held up a different type of boot, a beautiful hand beaded moosehide, fur lined boot called a kamik. She explained that this is the type of boot they wear in the “far north,” where she had lived, made by the Inuvialuit women.

I looked up the Inuvialuit, and for context on what “far north” means, here’s an approximate map marker of where she might be talking about. Average year-round temperature of 17°F.

She explained how special these boots are, how time-consuming the process is to make them, how well they perform their function, and how their unique characteristics make them more suitable to the frigid northern winters than their heavy, disposable, mass-produced, cheap counterparts.

Discussion about boots
Discussion about boots

She explained a lot more about kamiks, which you can read more about in her blog entry here: http://heretothere.trubox.ca/whats-in-a-boot/, as well as how this concept connects to Domains. A lot has to do with mindset and appreciation for things that take time, as well as the community and sense of belonging that grows out of the process.

Speaking of Mindset

Alan Levine then took the discussion to SPLOTS—specifically his TRU Writer SPLOT—which I mentioned in #4 of my “Gallery Fair” post— and how he uses SPLOTS and Twitter in his classes. We talked a little about his expectations for having his students engage online in a public forum, and how his thoughts on that have changed over time.

I think the questions listed in the session outline framed the ensuing discussion nicely:

“How can we use existing Ed Tech tools to support the needs of folks outside the ‘learning community’? Can you build spaces where the boundaries blur?  What role does the wider use of these tools play outside of formal education? Do we have a responsibility (or the right) to think bigger? If Twitter is ‘bad’ then are private spaces (e.g. Slack) really the answer? Or can we create pathways that allow people to start from a safer entry point into Twitter?”

I was especially interested to hear his views on this, because I have run into a few instances at MIIS where people were expected to have certain online profiles, and those expectations ran counter to what they wanted. I was curious to know how Alan navigated those situations and what type of work-arounds there are so students can still learn and engage, but also so they can maintain their desired level of privacy online.

He described several different options. Students could create an anonymous account, or submit their contributions for him to post via his account. But he also acknowledged a tension there and mentioned that he’s been re-thinking the public requirement, wondering if there is a perfect solution.

Really Anonymous Posting

Tanya stole the show after that. She shared a website with us that took us beyond theoretical and directly into the real world. Why would someone want to be anonymous but still public online?

Her site, When I Needed Help (http://whenineededhelp.com/), collects survivors’ stories in the most thoughtful, caring way I’ve ever seen. There’s a lot you can’t see on the front end, but the submission is completely anonymous. Unlike many websites that track visitors, track IP addresses, require email addresses or names, this site doesn’t do any of that. You can add identifying details if you want, but they are not assumed and not needed. The point is to be able to share your story anonymously.

“Creating this site is an effort to gather… stories in a safe(r) way so that others might feel less alone and to be aware of the risks of asking for help.”

The site is made with the TRU Writer SPLOT mentioned above, but the template has been heavily modified to purposely disable or delete all identifying information before it reaches anyone. The wording on the input form has been softened, and little tweaks have been made to help someone who is having difficulty sharing their story.

Tanya didn’t talk much about her personal story during this session, but she shares more private details on her blog, in an entry she wrote after the conference, “How easily I forget… My blog story” here: http://heretothere.trubox.ca/how-easily-i-forget-my-blog-story/. It’s a powerful story, and helps one understand why she has taken so much care for the “When I Needed Help” site.

Sexual Abuse

This part of the presentation resonated with many attendees, and Tanya got a lot of questions about the functioning of the site, and her own role in it, as well as what she has learned—emotionally, technically, professionally—in the process.

The reason it resonated with me is because in 2015 I wrote a blog post on my personal blog regarding the sexual abuse of young girls by members of my church in my hometown. My post unleashed a flood of comments, and I spent the next several weeks sharing stories I collected from my blog readers about their own experiences. I didn’t have a good way to keep the submissions anonymous when they sent them to me, but I did my best to protect the writer’s identity when I shared their story on my blog.

Tanya’s site does what I wished mine could do—allow people to submit their stories without me having to know who they are. I’m sure many of my blog readers would have preferred that.

It was fascinating to see what was possible inside of WordPress with a mixture of thoughtfulness and hard work. And it was gratifying to see the result and imagine how helpful a site like this could be to so many people.

Reflection

I don’t know if Tanya or Alan expected such a response to this presentation, or such a focus at the end on non-technical details about Tanya’s site.

According to their presentation outline, the second broad theme they wanted to cover encompassed the following:

“How would tool development change if we focused more from the start on the needs of currently marginalized folks, e.g. beyond who we expect to show up? How might we need to rethink functionality, aesthetics, and security needs? How does anonymity impact safety and the ability to reclaim one’s identity?

“We will aim to make a case that by making these considerations up front, the experience can be better for all.”

I think they made the case.

Everyone in the audience walked away with a renewed appreciation for considering our users/students/participants in our online worlds when designing tools for their use. Additionally, I think a lot of us were inspired to try harder to come up with solutions to the things that bother us. We don’t have to give up our agency online. We can reclaim our identities in our own way, without subscribing to group think.

Tanya expresses it very well in her blog entry:

“I return to today’s conversations about technology that doesn’t do exactly what we want it to (and right now). A world where we express frustration about the privacy and control that is being taken away from us in exchange for tools that suffice (but are not good).  I think about the lies that we buy into. I wonder when / why technology became a product rather than a process. And why we continue to let that happen. I cringe at the hand-wringing and crave action.”

To bring it back to boots:

“I think about how much would be lost if Inuvialuit women put down their sewing needles and chose only to buy the clunky boots they sell in the stores, if they chose to believe that time spent sewing has no ‘real’ value…”

I’d argue that everyone in the room could see the value and can agree that “Small steps go a long way…”


Notes:

*This session had a different format from those I’ve seen before. The idea was that we would follow a general outline, but audience members could modify the agenda to direct the conversation toward their areas of interest. I couldn’t access the agenda during the presentation, and we didn’t refer to it much once the conversation got rolling, but it was an interesting idea to hold onto for the future.