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Me being wrong in public
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About Me

I'm Colin Madland, the Manager of Online Learning and Instructional Technologies at Trinity Western University, and formerly the e-Learning Facilitator and Coordinator for Educational Technologies for Thompson Rivers University. I've previously taught high school physical education and digital media technologies in addition to a whole bunch of other courses.

Colin Madland

Colin Madland

Spring Runoff and DownStream Effects

3 min read

I'm currently on a short retreat/vacation with my wife (or I was when I wrote this) and had the opportunity to get out and about for a walk in the woods. Being the end of March, the spring thaw is in full stride and so the sights and sounds of spring are plentiful. While the green hue of the first grass and leaves is still buried under snow, the sound of runoff is everywhere.

On my way back up the hill to our little cabin, I stopped to record some of those runoff sounds and ended up recording in four different places with four very different sounds. Then I got back and was ready to show off my compositions, and realized that the 'failed to upload' warning that I got meant that the clips were gone.

So, I turned cellular data on for the app and headed back out. This time I was going downhill and I noticed the pattern more clearly than before. Whe I recorded just outside our cabin, the sound of the water is faint and almost lost in the sound of the breeze, but as I got further down the mountain, the sounds became much louder, more varied, and dependent upon the local conditions.

Here are the clips...

It occured to me that this is why David Wiley talks about the importance of downstream effects when resources are openly licensed.

Initially, my little contribution to the commons is easily drowned out by irrelevant and external forces, but as it is joined to other similar contributions, together, they make more of an impact. As more and more contributions are added to the commons, they become a more cohesive stream and a more powerful force in the world.

Every once in a while, on their way down stream, they go over a sharp incline and their combined effects become even more profound. But notice that if it had only been my one little contribution, it would have quickly been soaked into the ground or evaporated. It is really when other people begin to contribute their own ideas to mine, that the magic begins to happen.

Each obstacle or different local condition creates a different sound. The waterfall is a higher pitch and a more frenzied sound than where the water runs deeper through a narrow passage. And the sound is more muted but still loud and clearly recognizable when the little stream runs under a snowbank.

Open resources are much the same. The open license allows for localization, meaning that individual faculty are free to adjust the resource as they see fit, creating a slightly different, and better-for-them resource than existed before.

Colin Madland

Inviting participation

5 min read

Word has gotten around that I'm proposing changes.

That could be the end and enough to strike fear in the heart of any introverted educational technologist. But last night, I was invited to speak to the faculty of the program which is up for review and revision. Some of them are worried, and I certainly don't blame them for that. But I do think that the concerns being voiced, while valid, are not fatal to what I hope to do.

Changing a teaching and learning paradigm is not something that happens overnight, unless that is something that is built in to a teacher's practice. Keeping up is a lot easier than catching up.

I recognize that I'm proposing a model of online teaching and learning that is quite different from a traditional 'online' model that grew out of either a f2f or a correspondence model. But I do think that the difficulty in changing will be overshadowed by the benefits gained by rethinking how we invite students to engage with the program.


Nothing could be more absurd than an experiment in which computers are placed in a classroom where nothing else is changed. - Seymour Papert

But, if we are going to be different; if we are going to become leaders in the field; if we are going to have broad impact, we need to do things differently.

The two primary concerns voiced today were around privacy and digital literacy.

I used an example of a student's response to a discussion question in Moodle. The response was detailed, well-articulated, properly cited, connected to an authentic problem, and exactly what should be expected of a graduate student in an online course. I asked if it would have been appropriate for that response to have been shared on the public web. The answer to that was a rather emphatic 'No!'.

The reason for that response was that the student was an international student writing about a former employer 'back home' and if the post was public on the web, the student could have been in significant trouble with the government, including being disallowed from returning home.

It's hard to argue with the severity of those possible consequences. So I didn't. I acknowledged them as real and relevant. However, should such a clear case example of the consequences of students working on the open web stop us from allowing it? I don't think so.

One thing that became clear in the ensuing conversation was that we must not require students to do their work in the open, and I agree whole-heartedly. But we don't need to require students to do that in order to see the benefits of working in the open. It was pointed out that this was a 'fringe' example, and not the norm with our students.

What we can do, instead of requiring certain modes of interaction, is to invite participation that is more open, in situations where doing so is appropriate. And that leads directly to the other concern, digital literacy.

Our students are studying and practicing leadership as they work towards an MA in Leadership. At times, the content of the classes can be intensely personal or confidential, and if students are required to participate in the open, they could be at significant risk of breaching confidentiality. However, what I suggested is that that shouldn't lead us to avoid the web at all costs, but that we need to be intentional about giving our students the digital skills, awareness, and discernment to be able to interact in a connected world.

Predictably, Audrey Wattters says it better than I

Giving students their own digital domain is a radical act. It gives them the ability to work on the Web and with the Web, to have their scholarship be meaningful and accessible by others. It allows them to demonstrate their learning to others beyond the classroom walls. To own one's domain gives students an understanding of how Web technologies work. It puts them in a much better position to control their work, their data, their identity online.

Knowing how the web works seems to me to be foundational to being able to interact with discernment and wisdom on the web. And to quote Papert again

The scandal of education is that every time you teach something, you deprive a [student] of the pleasure and benefit of discovery.

You could also say that every time we make a decision that affects students, we remove an opportunity for students to learn. If we say that all students' work must be protected by a login because some students' work might put them at risk deprives the majority of students of the 'pleasure and benefit of discovery'. It deprives them of the pleasure and benefit of exercising agency over 'their work, their data, their identity online'. It also deprives the vulnerable students of honing their skills in protecting themselves online, which may be even more important than protecting those who are not vulnerable.

In advocating for open practices, it is critical that we are inviting participation, not mandating specific requirements and practices. By inviting participation, we are respecting each individual's right to either participate in the open or not. We invite them to participate on their terms, not ours. It means that we design our platforms and learning environments to include as many as possible, and not exclude.

It means we need to do things differently.


Colin Madland

A case against Turnitin

6 min read

There are numerous ways to get higher ed faculty riled up, and talking about plagiarism or intellectual property are two of them. And for good reason. Plagiarism is a significant problem in higher ed (although there are many faculty who can't be bothered). It is important for students to present their own work as a demonstration of their own learning in the course. That's a no-brainer.

And although 'intellectual property' is somewhat oxymoronic, it is an idea that animates many conversations, especially when one scholar uses the work of another scholar without appropriate credit. That sounds a lot like plagiarism, doesn't it?

The trouble, as I see it, is that a popular solution to the problem of plagiarism (Turnitin, or other 'plagiarism detection' software) is a direct threat to the idea of intellectual property. Here is why.

When a faculty member requires a student to submit their assignments through Turnitin, they are compelling their students give their intellectual property (and personal information) to a third party for the sole financial benefit of the third party.

Turnitin's business model and financial success is based entirely on the unpaid work of students who are compelled in one way or another to give their work to the company.

Imagine if researchers or authors were required by their employers to give their work to an external, for-profit business for the sole financial benefit of the business? But isn't that what we do with publishers, you ask? Well, no. When an author gives their work to a publisher, they do so with an expectation of compensation, whether that be direct financial compensation or indirect compensation via tenure and promotion or other career boosts.

Turnitin does nothing of the sort. Students are required to turn over their data and their work for zero compensation, monetary or otherwise. That seems unjust to me. If we are going to insist on retaining the rights to our own work to be used as we intend, shouldn't we do the same for our students?

I know that many faculty like to use Turnitin. I heard one justification today that now has me writing this post. The rationale?

It makes students fearful.

Yup. Here it is again: 'It makes students fearful'. This was given as a good reason to use turnitin.

How can a student possibly do their best work if they are afraid that what they say might be flagged by an unintelligent algorithm as plagiarism?

If instilling fear is actually a good way to motivate students, why don't we do more of it?

Imagine an analogous scenario where we used fear to motivate students to dress 'appropriately'. Everyone on the staff and faculty know that 'appropriate dress' means that you don't copy anyone else's wardrobe. We publish policies like

  • Students who violate the dress code will be expelled.
  • Students are responsible for knowing the rules of the dress code.
  • The dress code will be monitored by a for-profit company contracted by the university to place video cameras throughout the campus and analyze the video using an algorithm.
  • This company reserves the right to share video of our students with other companies for their own profit.


  • We don't tell students what the dress code actually is.
  • We don't talk about different cultural expectations regarding appropriate attire.
  • We don't tell students that the algorithm is wrong more than 30% of the time. Sometimes it will flag students who are dressed properly (false positive), and sometimes it will not flag a student who is not dressed properly (false negative).
  • We design our campus (somehow) to encourage a very narrow selection of garments.

We would almost certainly consider this system to be grossly unfair to students, who would be constantly under suspicion, whose daily living patterns would be recorded and analyzed, and who wouldn't know from one day to the next if they would be expelled or not.

Would the fear of being caught wearing the wrong thing and being expelled be real? Of course. Would it be helpful? Not even maybe.

It wouldn't be helpful because students would be powerless to do anything to avoid being caught copying someone else's clothing, and those in power have set them up for failure by designing an environment that encourages students to wear similar clothing.

This is very similar to what we do in trying to deal with plagiarism.

  • We tell students that they can be expelled if they violate the rules.
  • We tell students that they are responsible for knowing what plagiarism is.
  • We think it is ok to hire a private for-profit company to surveil all of our students and run their data through an algorithm.
  • We tell the company that they can use our students' work and personal data for their own financial gain.


  • We don't really teach them enough about what plagiarism is or how to avoid it.
  • We don't consider different cultural expectations.
  • We don't tell students that the algorithm in turnitin is wrong at least 30% of the time, indicating both false positives and false negatives
  • And we design our courses and assignments to ensure that plagiarism is more likely to occur.

Clearly, we could do a lot to reduce the amount of plagiarism in our courses if we would simply start doing more of the things on the list of things we aren't doing. We need to have open and honest conversations with our students about what constitutes plagiarism and how they can avoid it. We need to consider in those conversations the fact that different cultures view the teacher/student relationship very differently from how we do and that those different views have radical effects on how some cultures view plagiarism. Finally, we need to design our courses and assessments to reduce the likelihood of plagiarism.

Another way to think about Turnitin is to consider the message that it sends to students. When we require every single student to submit their work through turnitin, we are telling every single honest hardworking student that we do not trust them. This is just as bad as using fear as a motivator. Why would we intentionally set up a confrontational relationship between ourselves and our students when we know that learning is fundamentally a social process. Why do we presume guilt and require the accused to prove their innocence?

One situation that I have heard several times is that Turnitin is most useful for catching students using each other's work for the same class. I don't think that this is an argument that faculty should be using because it seems to betray a lack of engagement with what our students are writing. Either that, or that we are still using the same assignments for our courses that we have used for however many times we have taught the course. Either way, it is one poor excuse among many for giving our students' work and data away.

If you'd like to read a little more about why you should ditch turnitin, click here.

Colin Madland

Gitbook, Github, and course design

3 min read


twil by cmadland

The more I dig into Gitbook and Github as a platform for online course design and delivery, the more I think that it is going to be a great way to reduce the hassle of typical course design projects that rely on MS Word files emailed back and forth and to and fro.

What i discovered this week is that, in order to sync a Gitbook project with Github, it works best to initiate the project with a in Github first, then connect Gitbook.

In another universe, I would have found this out the hard way because I had a project initiated in Gitbook that I connected to an essentially empty repository in Github. I then found out that Github is considered the master and it overwrote my work in Gitbook.

That's usually a bad thing.

This was kinda bad, but not horrible. It would have been a loss of a couple thousand words that could have been rewritten without too much trouble. But still.

Fortunately, and here is one of the advantages of Git...I was able to recover, because I had the history saved in Gitbook.

I realize that there are recovery tricks for MS documents and such, but it was so very easy with Git.

Another thing I've realized, just today, is that the connection between Gitbook and Github is such that Gitbook can essentially be used as a text-based authoring environment for a Github repository. Well, duh, you might say. That's what Github is; a text-based authoring environment.

True, but Github has grown around the needs of people working with programming code, and for the uninitiated (read: everyone I will be working with to design courses), the Github interface is very different from what they are used to, and that is very intimidating.

Here is what a user encounters in Github.

Screenshot of Github

For someone who is just used to working in Word, the language here might as well be Greek. 'Pull requests', 'Branches', 'Commits', 'Forked'. And not only that, but what do they edit and how?

Let me be clear that this is not a criticism of Github for what it is designed for. Simply an observation, that, to the uninitiated, it is confusing.

Compare that with Gitbook.

This is the same level beyond the homepage and the first page a user sees after they select a project.

Obviously, its not the same as Word, so there will be some learning involved; it's actually much simpler and cleaner than Word. It's also simpler and cleaner than Github.

The file structure of the repository is hidden, and it is clear what the user needs to do to edit the file.

And once you get into the editor (two clicks from here in GH, one click in GB). Things are different again.

Github. How many learning designers would like to teach their SMEs to write in markdown?


Gitbook. WYSIWYG for the win! That toolbar is all you need, and none of the bloaty crap that's in Word.

And here's the can have your SMEs compose in GB, which is designed for narrative text, and everything is backed up to GH, where you can serve out to Jekyll.

But...does that scale? (Seriously, does it? I need to know.)

Colin Madland


5 min read

I've been at TWU for almost 5 months now and am excited at what I've been learning and implementing in getting TWU Online off the ground.

Very early on, I managed to secure a subdomain ( and sign up for an institutional account at Reclaim Hosting. From there it was easy to spin up a multi-site WordPress installation. Today there are 14 sites and 67 users, including the most recent site, a course in our BA Leadership program. The instructor didn't need any convincing after seeing the state of Moodle around here.

Looming in 2017 is the task of revising our MA Leadership program to be a progressive program that is native to the web environment. I am not interested in barfing up a bunch of PDFs onto the web, adding some discussion forums and assignment dropboxes and calling it a day. It's going to be a big project, and it needs to be done for September.

So, I'm going to need, among other things and people, a bombdiggity design, development, and deployment workflow. As a school which has downed the MS Office Kool-Aid, and given the truism that if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail, you can guess what the go-to workflow might be.

untitled.docx --> Course ABC.docx --> Course ABC.docx3 --> Course ABC v1 date.doc.docx --> Course HIJ v3 date.pdf.docx

... and so on.

It doesn't take long for your ID to become swamped by just trying to track down and manage all the files being emailed back and forth.

I think I've found a way to avoid not only that problem, but a whole host of document management issues.


If you aren't familiar with git repositories, a little explanation may help clarify. I'm certainly not a power user, but I've tinkered enough to see that this is a significantly powerful model to manage the details and complexities of designing learning environments. Among the most popular git repositories is GitHub, which has grown out of the need to manage the creation of code for programmers. Because it is web based (either their server or your own), you can have multiple people accessing a single central document, rather than sending files back and forth and all around to everyone who needs to see them.

That in itself is a huge glob of grease in the workflow. But that is only the beginning of the magic of git repositories.

Version history is also built into the environment. That means that every time someone saves a version of the document, the previous version is kept as an archive of sorts. So if someone goofs and accidentally deletes a bunch of text, you can easily recover a previous version. In fact, you can recover any previous version.

Not sure what changes were made to the repository since the last time you worked on it? It's also super simple to compare versions. You'll get a side-by-side view with deleted text highlighted in red and new text highlighted in green. There's no need to remember to turn on change tracking in Word. It all happens automagically.

Better still is the fact that you can stick a fork in it. By that I mean that you can create a new branch of a repository and edit the new branch instead of the master, then you can push your changes back to the original by making a request. That way, changes and updates can be vetted and discussed before they are committed to the master.

Forking also allows for multiple versions of the same general content. This might be a boon if you have multiple sections of the same course along with faculty who might want to personalize or localize their particular section.

One drawback to github is that is is visibly designed for people who are immersed in tech fields, and so some of the language and the interface are challenging for newcomers. GitBook seems to have taken that interface and radically simplified the front end so that it looks just like a minimal word processor.

Screenshot of GitBook Editor

So, for the development process, Gitbook provides a secure, collaborative, version-controlled, forkable word processing environment that is accessible to anyone who knows how to use the most basic tools in MS word.

In my experience with a development process that relies on emailing documents back and forth, this is a huge advantage.

The next step, and another post, is the ability to set up a web environment that reads directly from your GitBook repository, so that updates happen once, in the repository, and they are propagated out to all the spots where the content is being displayed on the web.

I certainly don't have it all figured out yet, but things are looking promising!

Colin Madland

Despair and Hope

4 min read

Like many others, I'm processing the debacle of Nov 8 while wondering what went wrong. This post is my attempt to make sense of it all and try to move forward productively.

First of all, I know that I am going to get some of this wrong. My view isn't complete, or entirely accurate, but we all need to process this and I hope that by processing this in public, I will help someone else and we can iterate towards hope and peace.

Also, as a Canadian man of northern European descent, I am not currently in the line of fire. I don't feel the target that many of my friends do...yet. But there are a great many people who ARE being targeted right now, and that demands a response. Not because it MIGHT happen to me, but because it IS happening to them.

It seems, from here at least, that the responses from those who voted for Hillary tend to fall in between two poles: despair and hope. Obviously, a great many are experiencing despair. These are the folks we see marching through American cities and campuses protesting, they are likely equal parts angry and terrified, or maybe all of one or the other depending on the day. Or maybe they are too terrified to leave their home. It is likely that these people do carry a target as a member of one of the many groups that Donald has attacked, marginalized, and far. The number of those groups will most certainly grow as Donald's cons come to light (like the fact that he seems poised to fill his own swamp with the types of 'establishment' players he led his followers to believe he would root out).

We need these people to be angry.

I won't condone violence or the destruction of property, but we need these people to be visibly and obnoxiously angry. Their anger is visceral and raw and it needs to be expended or it will become toxic...and then, too many will forget.

We can't forget.

This looks too much like the beginnings of a dictatorship. We can't forget.

I was in Poland last March and had the opportunity to tour Auschwitz and Bierkenau.

We. Cannot. Forget.

Hitler gained power because ordinary people decided that racism, hatred, fear of 'the other', and other forms of bigotry weren't so bad because ordinary people benefitted from the entrenchment of these evils. It was easier to turn their back on their Jewish, black, gypsy, gay, disabled neighbour than it was to confront the hate of others. And then, it was easier to kill their Jewish, black, gypsy, gay, disabled neighbour than to confront their own hate.

And yet, there is another response, one rooted in hope, and we all need hope.

8 years ago, 'Hope' was the rallying cry as Obama was first elected, and there was great hope that Hillary would overcome in 2016, but she didn't. It is unlikely that anyone wanted Hillary to win more than Hillary (well, maybe Bill). But her response to this devastating loss was one of hope. 'He deserves the opportunity to lead', she said, and I don't disagree, in principle. He won the electoral college, and any Vulcan might be able to say, without feeling, he won and derserves to lead. He is still an ass, but he was elected to lead.

That both Hillary and Barack have been gracious in this is testament to their commitment to the Republic and the peacful transition of power. They can't despair.

It would seem that there are a large number of people who had lost hope leading up to Nov 8, and many of those voted for Donald. Now, there are many more who have lost hope in the looming darkness because ordinary people  are empowering and encouraging and gleefully participating in this orgy of hate, exclusion, and bigotry. There is no positive end if we give in to despair.

Those who can still see hope must light the way for those currently in despair.

We need the anger of the desparate. We need you to not let us forget. We need you to hold up a mirror to evil in order to protect the innocent and marginalized. We need you to be loud and obnoxious and inconvenient to remind the powerful that we are watching.

We need the reassurance of the hopeful. We need you to be as shrewd as vipers and as innocent as doves. We need you to build bridges so that we may all find common ground.

We cannot forget and we cannot lose hope.


Colin Madland

Colin Madland

Colin Madland

Brain Surgery in the African Bush

3 min read

Driving in to work this morning I listened to today's podcast edition of The Current from the CBC, and was impressed with the scalability of empowering students to take ownership and responsibility for their learning.

The episode, available here, and outlined here, covers the story of an American brain surgeon, Dr. Dilan Ellegala, who, like many medical professionals in the west, was volunteering his time to assist some of the 5 billion-with-a-b people in the world who lack affordable and safe access to surgeons. This number comes with a cost of an estimated 17 million lives annually.

A common response to this problem is to send western doctors to remote, 3rd world hospitals and clinics to relieve some of that pressure. The trouble that Dr. Ellegala noticed, however, was that local medical professionals were essentially being ignored by the visiting doctors. At the morning meetings when the medical staff would review the charts and images from the previous night, all the wetsern doctors would be seated at the front of the room, with a clear view of the xrays and other images, while the Tanzanian staff would be standing at the back of the room, unable to see clearly. Following the discussion the western docs would go about their business of visiting patients and doing their doctorly things.

The Tanzanians were completely disenfranshised and excluded from caring for their own patients.

Dr. Ellegala decided to do something different. As a  professor of neurosurgery in the US, Ellegala had a keen appreciation for the skills and temperament required to perform successful neurosurgery and he noticed one of the Tanzanian medical staff, Emmanuel Mayegga, not a doctor, but an assistant, had it. So he decided that by the end of his short trip, Mayegga would be able to perform brain surgery.

Short story even shorter, they began immediately andwithin 6 months, Mayegga, with no medical school background, was able to independently perform brain surgery, something that Dr. Ellegala had trained for a decade after medical school to be able to do competently.

Of course, there were naysayers. Ellegala's colleagues in the US were far less than enthusiastic and supportive, but Ellegala's response was that they could either train locals to perform this surgery, or people would continue to die unnecessarily. So he proceeded.

He even invited the chief neurosurgeons from nearby Kenya and the Tanzanian capital to his remote hospital. They joined the surgeon in surgery, looked at the data that had been collected on outcomes, visited patients and were stunned at the results. in the course of a few days, they had shifted their mental paradigms.

And that is what I contend will transform online learning at TWU and elsewhere. a paradigm shift from students as receptacles to students as co-creators of knowledge who are empowered to share their learning with their communities.

By providing students with the means to take ownership (literally and figuratively) of their learning, we are developing a system where students are trusted, given true agency in decision making, and empowered to affect change in their own communities. And that is why I want Domain of One's Own to become a central anchor in TWU Online (and offline). There is tremendous power in trusting and empowering students.

It's not brain surgery.