SOIL is a grassroots initiative to facilitate sustainable, open, interactive, learning by treating knowledge as source code. SOIL content creators use the same successful tools, practices, and paradigms as software developers—just simplified and adapted to all areas of learning.
Specifically, SOIL seeks to
- focus on the learner,
- build on a foundation of trust,
- empower all content creators,
- apply microlearning principles,
- identify working conventions,
- simplify existing conventions,
- organize composable modules,
- focus on current knowledge,
- maintain compatibility,
- ensure accessibility,
- encourage sharing,
- protect from system failures,
- host anywhere,
- enable discovery,
- simplify metadata,
- promote modern referencing
- support conversational user interfaces,
- reduce Internet dependency with offline-first, and
- guarantee a standard that remains open—forever.
Many educational frameworks, standards, and organizations have lost focus on the individual doing the learning. Often assessment results are not even provided to the person who diligently prepared for them and labored intensely taking them. Some systems of assessment are even meant to deny individuals further learning opportunities (ACT, SAT). This is tragic.
SOIL is founded on the principle that learning and assessment are primarily for the individual. This promotes creation of interactive content that must to be for the learner and not the organization or creators.
SOIL requires a trusted learning environment.
Learning cannot happen without trust, and trust requires faith.
Many have lost that faith.
One oft-cited¹ reason assessment organizations fear giving students details of their assessment is primarily the perceived risk to the assessment system itself. The risk is valid, but the premise is not.
Let it be emphatically stated that any approach to learning other than in a trusted environment promotes an adversarial relationship between the learner and facilitator. The traditional terms "teacher" and "educator" even imply learners are acted upon instead of acting for themselves. This is not how learning happens and never has been.
The sad reality exists that many have been made responsible for the learning of many people who simply do not want to learn and have, to say the least, a pegorative outlook on education. This hardens the environment making learning for everyone impossible. When some teachers fear for their lives how can the sun-baked clay of that trustless environment ever allow learning to grow.
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. (Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela)
Want to change the world? Share what you know. The Web was created by scientists at CERN to share their knowledge with each other. More people with skills and knowledge need to start creating content. This includes
- teachers tethered to an outdated text book,
- retirees with years of practical experience to share,
- ambitious newcomers with fresh ideas but few contacts, and
- disruptive thought-leaders shut out by the ruling class.
Many of the world's best thinkers and doers succeeded despite the system. Thankfully we live in a time when much of that system no longer matters. SOIL seeks to empower individuals and groups using practices, paradigms, and tools the system will never control, to disrupt the monopolistic dominance held by traditional publishing and ivory tower society.
⛔️ $170 text books are a fraudulent crime today. Paper is Passé.
Not Just Tech
Although the core SOIL mantra is leveraging best practices and patterns from technology to keep educational content as current as technology there is no specific focus on tech content, or even educational content about technology. Relatively unchanging subjects such as mathematics can also leverage the SOIL standard.
Microlearning is the name given to organic personal learning from brief, small, varied modules of learning content. It enables just-in-time skills learning when one is asked to perform a task and needs to quickly learn the skill.
The microlearning movement has largely been enabled by modern learning media and the departure from traditional text books. SOIL seeks to codify these best practices and tools in a way that can be dependably organized and consistently applied while maintain the flexibility to integrate existing learning sources.
It's hard to justify another standard.
When it comes to educational content there simply is no open standard.
Luckily when it comes to technical documentation we have some well established conventions from which to draw.
For example, pretty much every software project uses Git for source management and has a
/docs directory containing consumable, user-facing documentation about the things produced by the project.
SOIL codifies these conventions and broadens their application to interactive learning material on any subject.
There's no shortage of learning management systems and services out there, but none are simple enough that anyone can learn in an hour to create learning content in a way that can be easily maintained and shared, forever. SOIL aims to address this problem by prioritizing simplicity over everything else. The novelty is this simplicity.
Once again, simple conventions for this already exist for software development. BaseML, a simplified markup language created for writers, can be memorized in under an hour.
Microlearning requires modularity. This allows learning modules to be clustered and linked through dependency management, much like software.
SOIL modules contain the content. A module can be made up of other modules allowing a single module to match the content for the length of a class, week-long camp, or full semester course. This composition pattern, taken from the successful world of software development, is a core SOIL design principle that enables granular and frequent updates with the least disruption.
Links in the content imply dependent modules and can be mapped without any additional dependency management configuration. In other words, we don't need a complicated dependency configuration file such as NPM's
packages.json. We simply use the content itself.
In the world of educational content we emphasize current knowledge. If after a change the previous knowledge is worth keeping around then the new knowledge should have a different identifier.
💬 This is one big difference between knowledge source and software source. Software source code usually has to maintain previous versions for a very long time, knowledge source would have us forget the previous—often incorrect and potentially dangerous—versions as soon as possible.
Whenever possible SOIL modules should have a last updated time stamp on each independent page of data.
SOIL modules are also required to provide a link to the Git source in the metadata. This allows readers to quickly identify the specific things that have changed.
Learning modules creating in existing systems cannot easily be exported and imported into other systems. SOIL requires the base format for all knowledge source be 100% compatible not only with other SOIL systems but with most all software source management systems as well. Content creators need not fear that their content will be locked away.
Content creation tools are equally well established, open, and compatible. Written SOIL content can be created with any text editor and secondary content with industry standard tools.
SOIL exceeds established guidelines for digital accessibility—particularly with priority support for conversational user interfaces.
💬 Unfortunately, in this age of unlimited technical possibilities, there are still those who irresponsibly create tools and content that are needlessly inaccessible to a substantial number of people.
Every aspect of SOIL content is designed such that anyone can access it and learn from it.
SOIL accessibility addresses the knowledge source organization itself—not just its presentation.
Knowledge source is always available in raw form allowing any rendering specifics to be ignored. Renderers and learning applications can reliably and easily be created for different target users with different needs.
Written content is prioritized because it can be spoken by speech synthesizers.
Images, video, and sound are secondary whenever possible and always provide alternative text that can be spoken describing what it contains.
Content never depends on color and low-contrast for anything. Links are always underlined even when not active.
An Internet connection is never assumed allowing distribution of content through other means such as USB drives.
SOIL modules are stored in Git repositories.
Git started as the standard for containing the source code of the Linux operating system and has since reached world-wide adoption as the standard for storing and managing any source. It follows that Git should be used for knowledge source as well.
Git repos can be hosted or shared directly from a USB disk or over the Internet.
To the non-technical writer Git could be prohibitively complicated but improvements to tools such as Visual Studio Code have overcome this barrier.
Git is built on the premise that anyone with a repo has a fully working version of the entire source that can be made to be its own master in the event other source is lost. This means that a backup system—with potentially thousands of master copies—is automatically provided to anyone who maintains their source in Git.
Services like GitHub, GitLab, BitBucket, and Netlify provide free hosting for any Git repo including a web-rendition of that repo. SOIL modules can therefore be hosted for free and downloaded from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection.
Metadata is data about data. Unlike software packages, no separate metadata file is required. The data contains the metadata. BaseML helps by specifying semantic macrostructure on the source itself. This means organizing your content in an expected way giving insight into what it is about and what concepts and terms best represent it.
This allows content creators to focus on content instead of learning yet another meta language such as JSON, YAML, or TOML. Some great educators and content creators are simply not programmers. This way non-technical content creators can collaborate with coders resulting is solid material with interactive content.
Not all the changes to modern learning material are good. Forums and up-votes have replaced considered examination and experience. Popular opinion is rarely trustworthy without the substance of even informal scientific method. Yet critical decisions are make daily by what is being blogged and posted to forums by anyone. Often experienced professionals with dissenting wisdom on the topic are voted down and out of view.
SOIL seeks to counter this trend in all online learning material by providing an opportunity for those with experience to share what they know, with references. Very often such individuals are simply to busy working an projects of substance to produce their own learning content when it is exactly their content that would be the most valuable, to everyone.
Additionally, SOIL modules require the use of a modern reference system that embraces hyperlinks and produces readable, speakable reference pages.
Modules that comply with the SOIL standard can be easily translated into any language.
💬 Few learning management systems today take internationalization into consideration. Most are hobbled to begin with by being built on foundations that are not multi-lingual.
Things like the use of BaseML and emojis for metadata ensure maximum internationalization.
For example, things English speakers take for granted, such as the arabic numerals, are not international. HTML itself is not international. Some things like left-right direction in knowledge source can even be adapted since all BaseML paragraphs are a single line.
Content created must consider how it will be uttered as a synthesized voice through conversational user interfaces. Not only does this meet universal accessibility requirements mandated from the beginning of digitized educational material but suits a wider range of learning styles and encourages content to be focused and relevant, not unnecessarily verbose.
While learning apps have been around for a while, the offline-first progressive web apps standard removes the dependency to app stores provides a particularly bright future for all learning applications.
These days with the offline-first movement content is being created with priority given to how it will be saved on devices and called back up without an Internet connection. Nothing could be better for the many educational organizations that face limited bandwidth constraints. Modern instructional design must take this limitation into serious consideration.
Indeed, this has been the model of digital books for some time. This convergence between PWAs and existing digital publishing models is timely and unique and allows for truly interactive learning content to become a world-wide reality.
However, embedded video and other large media and Internet connection dependencies hinder the ability to create rich learning content that can be cached and used anywhere. SOIL addresses this directly by restricting content to only to that which can be easily cached. Everything else—including videos—can be externally linked.
When Richard Stallman started the free software movement to liberate software from proprietary control he can't have known the impact it would have on all of humanity, not just software. While some consider his ideas and ethics extreme the main idea of open source (a term he detests) has permeated ever aspect of modern life.
Starting with the GNU/Linux operating system—now the most prevalent operating system on the planet—the open source model has grown to include successful business models built around free products and services including education. For example, MIT releasing the entirety of its courseware for free. For more than a decade organizations have demonstrated that profitable models exit despite their main product being free.
The age of tree-killing, over-priced textbooks; publisher ambivalence; and world-wide "standards" that require a paid subscription to even read is thankfully coming to an end. The present and future of education is open.