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By Any Other Name

My undergraduate and graduate studies were in Geology, a field rampant with classification schemes. The words of my petrology professor at the University of Delaware have always come to mind when we talk about categories of almost anything. “Doc” Allan Thompson said, “In the world of classifications, there are those who are lumpers and then those that are splitters.”

With a new classification term like “MOOC” we encounter conveniences and shortcomings by characterizing all examples that fall under that term. Even splitting them into cMOOC and xMOOC varieties produces generalizations that lose significance of what lies within, or between. 

This paper includes my experiences at all levels with an open course that defies classification with the ongoing MOOC discussions. Digital Storytelling a.k.a. ds106 (ds106.us), is the open course started at the University of Mary Washington (UMW)  by Jim Groom and first offered openly in January 2011. Influenced by the original course Connectivism and Connective Knowledge course (CCK08) that spawned the acronym, as well as the open teaching strategies of David Wiley and Alec Couros, when first released, ds106 self-identified as a MOOC. It’s design followed the lead of these first experiments in being a networked structure of online sites authored by its participants, both registered UMW students and open participants in their own digital spaces, aggregated at the course level.,

With the rise in popularity of the first super sized MOOC, Sebastian Thrun’s AI course at Stanford, the way of ds106 diverges from what was being touted in the media, so much that when I began reorganizing the web site, for a period the front entrance bore a throw down statement– “ds106 is not a silly MOOC.”

With two and a half years of online activity, more than 500 for credit students at UMW and other schools mixed with a dynamic open community of equal size (or larger, in total the site has aggregated at least 2600 sites), the question of being a MOOC or not is irrelevant. In this paper I outline the elements of ds106 that differentiate it from most of what mainstream media lumps into the MOOC terminology:

  • A syndicated network architecture that might potentially, but not necessarily,  Massive by mimicking the design of the internet itself
  • Openness in all facets, the methods, tools, and all content, plus a foundation built on open source software
  • Online in not just where it lives, but internet culture is woven into the course itself as an ethos
  • A structure where the Course experience for registered paying students need not be the same as that of Open participants, yet the boundaries between these groups disappear, making it as much community as course.

What we have created is not a one magic button software solution to teaching online, but the strategies and structures are offered freely (and openly) for others to model. Some may explain away what looks like “the fun class” (a design assignment to create ds106 propaganda posters was called “over-branding” by Stephen Downes) suggesting the methods do not apply to other academic areas. But that is mistaking the external appearance for the ideas beneath.

My ds106 experiences have run the full spectrum– brainstorming ideas for the the original open course, participating as an open online participant, teaching a section at UMW in person (Spring 2012), and online (Summer 2012, Fall 2012, Spring 2013), and building / contributing to the programming of the platform itself, including an experimental “headless” version in Fall 2013 just for open participants.  Experiencing it in this detail makes it impossible for me to “lump” ds106 in with nearly anything else.

The Story of a Course About Storytelling

One of the subtle ironies of ds106 and showing how it plays with norm, is that if you explore the UMW catalog, you will find no such course. Officially it is Digital Storytelling, CPSC 106, an undergraduate computer science class that counts as a creative elective:

People have been telling stories since the beginning of time, but how is storytelling evolving in the digital age? This course explores how computers are being used to tell stories. We’ll study text-based technologies – blogging, the web – and how those models have changed the way we publish and disseminate narratives. We’ll also study the roles of audio, video, and images in narrative: computer animation, the ethics of altering digital images, and the Story Corps project. Students will use technology including blogs, virtual worlds, and computer games to create and tell their own stories. No previous computer experience is necessary.

This class has been taught in the past and recently as a traditional lecture, textbook based class. When UMW Instructional Technologist Jim Groom took on a section for Spring 2010, he crafted a basic tenet of ds106 by requiring all students to publish their work and write about ideas behind it in their own blog space. The course itself used RSS syndication technology to aggregate individual student work to the class site. Groom leveraged the university’s experience of running an institutional wide blogging platform (http://UMWblogs.org). Based on Gardner Campbell’s conceptualization of a personal cyberinfrastucture (http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/personal-cyberinfrastructure), students were tasked with registering their own web domains and managing their own installations of the WordPress platform. Rather than students using a resource that belonged to the institution, they would learn to assert their own digital identity openly in a form they could own, manage, and take with them.

Having followed the class from the outside, I was very intrigued in December 2010 when Groom announced he would open up the Spring 2011 UMW course to allow open participation in ds106. Along with colleagues Tom Woodward (Henrico County public schools) and Martha Burtis (UMW) we brainstormed with Groom the ideas that fed into the first open iteration of the course. What was most interesting is that before the official UMW course started in mid January, through word of blog and twitter, people (including me) started registering their blogs with the ds106 site and began free form media creation– exploring animated GIFs well before they resurged as a popular internet meme–, and even launching an internet radio station (see below).

The Spring 2011 ds106 course was an explosion of creativity as open participants followed the syllabus and interacted with the registered UMW students, with several hundred individual blogs joining the ecosystem. The idea of an open assignment bank (http://assignments.ds106.us/) emerged as a participant created source of creative tasks — rather than having one set of required assignments for a unit– students and open participants are able to choose from a collection of almost 600 ones in areas such as Visual, Design, Audio, Video, Mashup, etc. These are ones that  ds106 participants have added to the site, each one with a crowdsourced difficulty rating (1-5 stars). Assignments have unique tags, so when a participant published on their own site their work on an assignment, if their site is connected to the ds106 site, it is able aggregate and add their example to a specific assignment listing.

Another emergent component to ds106 is its own internet radio station. The idea of ds106radio (http://ds106.us/ds106-radio/) arose as a desire for a more open and community focused synchronous platform than typical slide dominated environment of tools such as Blackboard Collaborate and Adobe Connect. Harkening back to the powerful genre of radio storytelling, ds106 radio is a free form broadcasting platform to bring in guest speakers, publish student audio work, and explore mobile tools for audio storytelling/performance. It became the focus of group projects to write and produce a full radio show that would then be premiered live on the radio station..

Further iterations of the course as fully online ones saw experimentations with a class as performance act (2011 Summer of Oblivion, 2012 Camp Magic MacGuffin, 2013 The ds106 Zone), expansions to allow similar classes at other institutions to join the infrastructure, and development of components such as The Daily Create (http://tdc.ds106.us/) and the Assignment Remix Machine (http://remix.ds106.us/).

Massive: Scale Like the Internet Does

The MOOCs you read about in the New York Times grow to tens to hundreds of thousands of students, by replication- the same experience, the same schedule for all, and very often distancing instructor from student. What scales is the teaching of open course; what can be repeated en masse via video lectures and automated assessments. As a network model, it would map as a star shaped pattern, where central is the superstar professor and the platform provider.

The internet itself provides a more effective model of scaling, one where the network is distributed, and ds106 achieves this using what we refer to as the syndication bus– the subscription of a course site to ones managed by its participants, where updates are communicated via RSS feeds. Whether participants are registered students at UMW (and elsewhere) or general interested open participants, we are able to aggregate centrally the work of anyone who elects to connect their site to ds106.

Yet there is another level of this distributed network that we can aggregate many sources together and yet re-organize them again in meaningful groupings.. Since that first open version of ds106, educators at other institutions teaching similar, but not exactly the same, courses  (York College, Kansas State University, Kennesaw State University. University of Michigan, Temple University Japan, SUNY Cortland, Jacksonville State University) join ds106 and have their students blogs also brought into the community site. Because of the way we set up the registration on the site, we are able to split out views of the contributions from these groups to their own unique slices of the ds106 site or view them in one massive flow of content.

When someone not affiliated with one of these designated classes signs up for ds106, they are free to follow a currently running class, explore the assignments available– there is no set syllabus or path for open online participants. Their level of activity is driven by their own interests and schedule, and thus we bypass any notion of “dropout” — or in ds106 parlance, anyone who joins is “#4life”.

In this sense, there is actually no single ds106 course– multiple courses run on overlapping schedules, and people choose to do portions in the spaces between. While this overall structure appears perhaps more fragmented and unorganized– as much as the internet itself, it is not organized into neat folders and categories; ds106 unfolds and is emergent, serendipitous as the web itself.

While this approach of growth may not achieve the 100,000 MOOC level of registered participants, it does offer a more customizable, flexible approach for both teachers interested in using the ds106 resources and for learners to choose their own levels of participation.  Because of the way we syndicate content into ds106 (a local copy is made in the ds106 site, but links always point back to the source), since January 2011 we have aggregated over 30,000 distributed blog posts from some 2600 ds106 participants.The main site itself has attracted 25,000 unique visitors since the start of the year Google Analytics).

Open in the Widest Possible Sense

For the majority of MOOCs. the first “O” indicates open for entry– but often course materials, activity are hidden behind logins and passwords. Every bit of ds106, from content, to the tools we use, are open for viewing and re-use. 

In our teaching of ds106 at UMW, the media that students create are not the full end goal- we ask them as well to document in their blog the thinking behind their work, the influences, and the details of how they made it. We ask them to explore issues of creativity, copyright, and internet culture as they engage in work that builds off of others.

The platform we have built for ds106 made of open source– all of the course sites run on WordPress, the aggregation is achieved via a free plugin (Feed WordPress http://feedwordpress.radgeek.com/). While UMW students are required to use their own hosted version of WordPress for their own sites, open participants can use any platform, self hosted or on services such as Blogger, WordPress.com, Tumblr, as long as it produces an RSS feed we can subscribe to. The ds106 radio station is built on the open source Airtime software (http://www.sourcefabric.org/en/airtime/). Participants are encouraged (but not required) to post their media on available free social media sites- flickr for images, Soundcloud for audio, and YouTube or vimeo for video.

Note also that ds106 lacks the reliance on discussion forums for participant communication. Again, the openness of ds106 is shown in the use of twitter as the main vehicle of communication (the #ds106 hash tag https://twitter.com/search/%23ds106). Others connect in a Google+ Community. Participants ask/answer questions, share work and resources in the open spaces of the web itself.

Who joins in this type of environment? We have seen higher education practitioners from around the world,, K-12 educators exploring it for professional development, elementary school teachers modifying assignments for use with 3rd graders, professional photographers/videographers, java programmers, retired artists, researchers at large corporations, traveling musicians all find parts of all of ds106 that trigger their creative interests. In the Fall of 2013, a group at 3M is participating in ds106 activities but within their intranet.

Online is More than Where to Find It

By definition, offering a massive open course online means it potentially can be accessed by anyone with access to the internet. In most MOOCs it is as much online as a means of publishing course content.

But ds106 is more than just a means to put content online, it actively functions to help participants be part of the forces that create web content, that weave the fabric of the web. They do this not only by creating media, but also documenting their ideas and sharing tutorials, lessons, and adding challenges for others to do. 

And  internet culture itself becomes raw material for parts of the course, with assignments based on internet memes, and fostering the idea that storytelling is not only something that can be published on the web, but can also be told within the web itself (see the Web Stories http://assignments.ds106.us/types/webassignments/ Fan Fiction http://assignments.ds106.us/types/fanficassignments/ and Animated GIF assignments http://assignments.ds106.us/types/animatedgifassignments/).

Invariably while working on remix and mashup assignments, participants encounter issues of copyright as their work often gets flagged on YouTube or SoundCloud — and this is the opportunity for them to explore the question of what is or should be available for them to use as media if they are creating something new.  One of the goals for the ds106 experience is for students and participants to ponder the question of ownership of their own content, the value of sharing via Creative Commons licensing, and how they can assert their own digital presence that does not rely on the vagaries of third party providers which may take away services once provided free for individuals (e.g. Posterous, Google Reader).. 

And sometimes without any prompting or direction, some people use ds106 as a way to explore the nature of character and online identity  by creating online personas, such as the fictitious Dr Oblivion, a character created and later destroyed by Jim Groom in teaching of the Summer 2011 ds106 class (http://ds106.us/summer-of-oblivion/), plus characters based on the frozen mountain man from the movie Jeremiah Johnson (http://olhatchetjack.wordpress.com/) or a talking doll from a Twilight Zone episode (http://iamtalkytina.com/). 

Course or Community?

A course is finite in time and space; ds106 goes beyond those boundaries more as an open community of creativity. Some people are just interested in using the openness of ds106 radio to share music, live action, and real time communication. Others tap into low threshold creative challenges of the Daily Create. Others use ds106 in twitter as a reference to a much broader mode of storytelling and media creation.

What has emerged through ds106 is a space for it to be both, and yet the course parts are not rigidly bounded, they are more permeable in the way open participants can be part of an existing course, or contribute by offering feedback and resources for registered students. Again, a ds106 course is not a slice of the internet sectioned off to a closed corner, it exists as part of the open connected network itself.

At the time of writing this article (August 2013), there is no currently running ds106 course at UMW, yet people continue to do work on their own, and reflect and feed off of the work of others who are exploring assignments or taking up other creative challenges (e.g. a July Daily Create challenge http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ubHn4xEnRP8). 

We have seen an interesting set of related spinoffs of ds106 such as a reading group organized by open participant K-12 Educator Ben Rimes- the ds106 book club (https://sites.google.com/site/bookclub106/). Another elemantry educator in Scottland, John Johnstone, has been inspired by his ds106 activities to develop new tools for storytelling such as one that matches images and audio from social media sites (see http://johnjohnston.info/flickrSounds/index.php). This expansive capability becomes possible in an open community space.

Where does the ds106 Story Go Next?

While courses have completion dates, a really good story should never end. As an experiment, in the fall 2013, we will run a version of the course specifically for open participants (re-using a syllabus from the Spring 2013 UMW course) that will not be lead by any teacher, but facilitated by participants themselves– this has become known as the “Headless ds106” (http://ds106.us/2013/07/21/coming-soon-the-headless-ds106-course/‎)

Other open courses have used similar approaches to ds106, including the open photography courses at the University of Coventry (http://phonar.org/ and http://picbod.org/), The Educational Technology and Media MOOC (http://etmooc.org/), and the current Making Learning Connected MOOC (http://blog.nwp.org/clmooc/). 

And given much interest in the ds106 structure, there are possible plans to develop portions of it as more generalizable WordPress templates, so you could create a site like the Assignment Bank or the Daily Create for use in other areas. 

Whether ds106 is a MOOC or not actually matters little – what is more important is using openness in the ways best exemplified by the greatest experiment and implementation on massive scaling– the internet itself.


Published as a chapter in Krause, S and Lowe, C, ed Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses (2014). Anderson: Parlor Press, http://www.parlorpress.com/invasion_of_the_moocs This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncom- mercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/us/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.