Badger Glue

A few days ago, Mark Surman wrote a blog post, Making tools for webmakers. I love the opening line, “We want everyone to tap into the full creative power of the web.” That’s a great mission. The rest of the post is a review of what we’ve done towards that mission so far, and some direction for the next few months. We’ve been talking about the ideas in the post inside of MoFo for some time now, trying to figure out what’s missing from the tools, what it means to learn on the web, and how to support the teaching goals of the Foundation with the software the Foundation is producing.

I’ve been focused on the idea that we need a central framework to hang all the learning pieces MoFo is producing off of, so that there remains a large amount of flexibility in the ways someone can interact with our tools, but without having to recreate a significant amount of architecture with each new tool feature.

Some constraints (fun-ppurtunities!) I had in mind,

  1. We want lots of data around the effectiveness of the learning.
  2. We want to give people a learning path, but also let them mess around on their own.
  3. Features should speed time to release, not throw up more roadblocks or add to the workload.

A Webmaker Project

The Summer Code Party is using Popcorn Maker and Thimble for most of the online webmaker activities. Both tools have a similar project pattern,

Pick a Project

Both Thimble and Popcorn start picking a project.

Pick a Thimble Project

Pick a Popcorn Maker Project

The metadata carried with the project is different, the assets are different, but the essential thing you’re doing is the same – picking something from a list of options, with information about what you’ll be doing in the project.

Work on the Project

The learner works on the projects inside of the tools.

Inside Thimble

Inside Popcorn Maker

Publish the Results

After the learner finishes the work, they publish. The publish step is similar in both tools, with Popcorn requiring a user account, but no user account for Thimble. The Popcorn team has had a gallery in the works for a while, which will change the way we publish projects, creating a gallery of published projects. Thimble has similar gallery in mind, but only publishes the finished project.

Thimble Publish Dialog

Popcorn Publish Dialog

Modularize all the things!

Given the similarity between the two tools, it makes sense to break out the common parts into modular tools you can mix and match to build future webmaking tools. The two obvious pieces are the project builder, and the gallery tool. In both cases, they’re responsible for either creating or displaying blobs of html & static assets. Both contain tool specific metadata, but they’re not so wildly different that we couldn’t make a base tool to create as much as possible, then extend it to include the tool specific bits. The gallery is the essentially the same thing – display a bunch of output html, plus some static assets.

All that said, it’s not a slam dunk, the details are…the details. There’s a fair amount of work contained in these humble paragraphs, so buyer beware. Let’s focus on the positives – if we’re working off a common codebase, we save time and energy. If we deploy these things as services, then we only need to work through security audit once. The bulk of our time should be focused on making the learning tools awesome, not recreating a gallery or a login system or a whatever. We’ll have all the lego pieces, if we build the sockets right, every day will be an exciting lego land adventure, rather than constant weeding and tending and digging.

OpenBadger, gluing it all together

So – lots of moving parts, everyone wants modular pieces, how do we glue it all together?

Badger Glue Fixes It All

The three parts to any webmaker project – pick, make, publish, match the three pieces of a badge pretty closely – criteria, evidence, assertion. The criteria are the list of things someone needs to do to earn the badge, the evidence is the result of them doing what the criteria asks, and the assertion ties it all together in badge form. The intent of the three pieces is to create a badge, but it’s not strictly necessary. We could use the three pieces as the scratchpads that each stage in the webmaker process looks to understand the context around the step it’s being asked to complete. Each of the three major pieces could be built on top of OpenBadger, like this convenient ASCII drawing illustrates,

 +-------------------+    +--------------------------+ +-------------+
 |                   |    |                          | |             |
 |Create a Project +-|----|-> Do the Project +------>| |Publish      |+--------------->  MASTERY!
 |/ Pick Project     |  + |                      +   | |             |        +
 |                   |  | |                      |   | |             |        |
 +-------------------+  | +--------------------------+ +-------------+        |
                        |                        |                            |
              |         |                        |                            |       |      
              |         v                        v                            v       |
              |                                                                       |
              | Create Criteria URL           Ping Complete              Confirm      |
              |                               Evidence URL Created       Issue Badge  |
              |                                                                       |
              |                                                                       |

Arrows pointing to OpenBadger are either webhook API calls, or posting next-step metadata.

By splitting the direct connections between the pieces, and passing them off to OpenBadger, we can leverage OpenBadger for all sorts of clever analytics – regardless of whether we’re offering a badge for a particular project. That’s an important note – OpenBadger doesn’t need to limit itself to issuing badges, it’s a platform for any sort of learning activity, if we use it in a way that makes sense. OpenBadger isn’t about issuing the sticker at the end of a process, it’s about keeping track of the steps involved with an online learning project.

The most Meta of Metadata

We’re not the only people in wide world web looking to make exchanging education data easy, LRMI is a Creative Commons project to bring common metadata to learning resources. If we use LRMI as a basis for our criteria url’s, and then extend it with tool & display specific information, we’ll be able to take advantage of other LRMI parsing infrastructure (like the Learning Registry).

Next Steps

Over the next week or two, we’ll be discussing the plans for Webmaker tools, and start working on making everything fit together in early August, with a launch of all kinds of new stuff for Mozfest London in November. Between the Thimble, Badges, and Popcorn teams, we have some super smart developers. I’m hoping they tear this blog post apart, rebuild it in a way that makes sense to them, so we can start pounding keyboards in dramatic software development montage sequences that end in high fives, hugs, and exploding fireworks over Big Ben (because we’ll be in London…get it?)