I attended the first Jisc Digital Leaders course a couple of years ago (you should go, if you get the opportunity), and one of the central ideas is that of Visitor and Residence (VandR) in digital practice.
VandR is a really useful way of thinking about people’s interactions/behaviours/relationships with technology. You can read more about it on Dave White’s website. I think it is fair to say that VandR was a counter against the prevalent (and potentially dangerous) use of Prensky’s Digital Immigrant/Native work.
As those of you who follow me on Twitter, I hate the terms Millenial, Generation Y/Z; I find it lazy and potentially damaging. The Immigrant/Native argument runs parallel to this: that you either ‘are’ or you ‘are not’, there is no scope for change or development. Much greater minds than me have critiqued/blown-out-of-the-water the idea of Immigrant/Native in digital spaces. See Donna Lanclos for a good start.
Waiting on the platform
In my previous position, I was responsible for the institutional WordPress network. It was established a couple of years before I started there, and by the time I had left, it numbered over 10,000 registered users and 5000 active sites.
However, when it was set up, it was not designed to scale in that way. The software, WordPress and BuddyPress, could deal with it, but the systems surrounding it could not. There were hundreds of plugins and themes installed on the network, with little quality control or systems for managing them.
In a time when the ICT department enforced greater control and restrictions on users and Marketing wanted to control the external ‘message’, the WordPress network was a completely open, free digital space. It was originally intended to provide blogs for small student projects and basic eportfolios. However, in the following years its use proliferated, most departments set up their own sites; the library website was even hosted on the network.
I think I can be frank when I say the system was creaking. The servers were not loved by ICT (running Linux in the land of Microsoft), and updates were problematic. The final straw was when the system went down for a few hours, it took the library website with it, including the portal to all library systems. While blogging disappearing for a few hours was unwanted, access to the library systems was fundamental.
Return trip to VandR
Instead of complaining to ICT about the servers going wonky, I started to think about how we could prevent this from happening again. The answer: looking at what we actually needed.
For full disclosure, I wasn’t actually wedded to the idea of using WordPress – I really like the software (and it is Open Source), but what was more important was that we had the right tools for the job.
As I was the only person in the institution who really cared about how the blogging network was run, it meant I could pursue the ‘reimagining’ however I liked. I decided to have a little fun and try something different; I used a version of the VandR mapping exercise on creator’s intent.
I decided to use audience/user: Internal<->External and content: One-way(pushing)<->Two-way(interactive/collaborative). I know, snappy.
[Edit: Lawrie Phipps and James Clay refer to these as ‘tension pairs’ and explored alternatives in their ALTC16 session ‘Building digital capability through mapping and collaboration‘]
I performed an audit of sites (for another thing), and used this, plus my knowledge of the network, to identify a number of typical use cases.
- Student individual assessment
- Student group assessment
- Departmental/school websites
- Internal research projects
- External research projects
- Staff blogs (often research- or SOTL-focussed)
- Other student groups (e.g. societies)
- Internal comms
- Student external portfolios
Plotting the map
What the map showed me was there were some very distinct areas with considerable overlap (see areas 2 and 4). I used this map to help me consider that there may not be just one platform, but actually we might need many (well, four).
Rights of way
Within the mapping, it also brought home to me a particular problem WordPress multisites have: they all share one user database. So, to give access to an external user as part of a research project, they got full access to the entire network. While most co-researchers are benign, it did highlight a vulnerability in the system.
This vulnerability was brought to a fore when a bot gained access to the network and started reproducing itself as live users and creating new sites. It was only because I noticed a big jump in user and site numbers that we were able to get it under control. Aaargh.
[I am aware there are ways to protect your network from this, but it is only a sticking plaster over the real problem]
Therefore, we also needed a way of securing the new systems at an appropriate level for their use/content. This became the ‘third axis’.
I felt the use cases could be served by four different networks:
The networks were as follows:
- Student assessed blog network – locked down, with basic plugins pre-installed and activated.
- Student/staff/casual blogging/site network – laissez-faire and largely open, few plugins pre-installed, more themes available including visual builders. This largely mirrored much of what already existed.
- A ‘marketing’ blog network. Very much PR output and ‘high quality’ staff blog sites and curated student posts. Very locked down and centrally controlled. Users only provide content, very little control over anything else.
- Sites network – this was largely for departments, projects (possibly fitted in marketing one above) and conferences (possible had own network). There was no provision in the university website for this, although it would have fitted there better. Quite locked down and ‘branded’ but with some flexibility for departments to control their look/feel to suit.
We weren’t tied to WordPress specifically for each of these, but it generally worked until we could go through the process of replacing the platforms. The ‘assessed student’ network could easily have become an e-portfolio system, like Pebblepad. There was talk of subsuming the ‘sites network’ into the University’s website and giving departments a little more ownership of their spaces; you could see the Marketing department’s fists clench at the thought.
It was clear that we needed to make sure people understood what each new network was intended for.
Rate your journey
As I left the institution, I didn’t get to bring the project to completion (although I have heard the ‘marketing blog’ went live), but I did learn a lot from the process of using my bastardised VandR mapping technique.
Doing the mapping helped me see links between use cases that I might not have noticed; the visual nature of the output really helped. I think the choice of continua was very difficult, but I think that in this instance, it worked (I would say that though, wouldn’t I?). Different axes would probably have given completely different outcomes.
One downside was that the mapping didn’t add concrete-ness; the result was still very abstract. That said, I think the use of the mapping exercise helped.
This is a brief account, so if you have any questions, please post them below. If you have any comments, suggestions or knowledge of where I can buy discounted medication then post away.