Thursday, 31 July 2008

ILP Walkthrough

Continued from previous set of screenshots... (As ever, click to enlarge/expand images.)

'ILP' stands for 'Individual Learner Profile'...

... a document which students are encouraged to fill out to aid them in the reflective process.

It was designed by Caroline Jacobs at the University of Portsmouth and adapted for the University of Reading by my colleague, Sarah Morey. The version we're seeing here has been further adapted (by me) from a paper-based form to a slightly more interactive web-form.

The idea of it being like this is that it fits seamlessly with the portfolio course-integration that I developed to making using e-portfolios in Blackboard easier.

If the user clicks the ILP option accidentally, they can always back out by clicking the familiar-looking 'Cancel' button at the bottom. As you can see in this screenshot, they're asked to confirm that this is what they want to do and warned they will lose any answers if they click 'OK'.

If the student clicks 'Submit' but hasn't answered every question, a little alert box tells which ones they need to go back and do.

This way, the students can't miss anything; they have to complete all questions before they continue.

When they finally do click 'Submit', the answers are automatically stored in their portfolio.

More on Step Four soon.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Blog of the Week: Greta Christina's Blog

Does 'blog of the week' sound patronising? I hope not. All I mean by it is that I've been looking at a particular blog this week and think it worthy of mention here. I don't mean to suggest that I've looked at all the blogs on the web and that this is the best out there, this week. It might not even be the best of what I have read in any given week.

But the blog I've been revisiting this week must surely be up there. Here's a nod in the direction of Greta Christina. As she herself says, she uses her blog to riff on "sex, atheism, politics, dreams, and whatever". She's been blogging, or better yet "thinking out loud", since 2005.

I found her site some months back after I'd read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. Despite being an atheist myself (albeit with an interest in religion), I wasn't very impressed with some of its arguments (especially with regards to moral philosophy). So I was on the look-out for other arguments from different viewpoints. And my search for the term "atheism" brought up this surely now-famous posting about anger at religious views in America and the world today. I recommend reading it, no matter what your views are concerning religion as I think it makes some very good points and passionately too.

More generally, I like the presentation of her site. She breaks up the text with little pictures, some of them purely decorative, some illustrative of some point and others poignant or disturbing. Check out the simple image of a coathanger in the "Atheists and Anger" post, for example.

Of what I've read, I think I can safely say that Greta Christina is always opinionated but never patronising, always well-informed but never digressive, and always engaging but always on equal terms with her readers.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

What I've Been Doing Today

It's not perfect by any means...

... but it will hopefully help ...

... by providing specific instructions ...

... as the user actually goes through the process ...

... of creating their portfolio.

Click any of the images to enlarge/expand.

Check back on Thursday...

for screenshots of the ILP feature so far.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Reading On/Off The Screen

A quick glance at the Guardian website today reveals a few separate but related articles, here, here and here. The common theme: reading from a screen.

It interests me because my last two posts have been fairly long and opinionated; perhaps not ideal for the computer screen. I wonder if I've really got the hang of writing for the Web.

I read and write a lot in my spare time; so far that's been the strongest influence on my blogging here. I've included pictures and blocktext in recent posts but a more radical approach might be in order...

The idea of the blog of the week I suppose is that I can look at what kinds of blogs are out there and what makes them successful in my (so far long-winded and prose-y) opinion. To date, we've only had three but two of them have been webcomics.

There's something about the comic strip form seems to lend itself really easily to the screen. It's visual, it usually gets to the point quickly and that point is normally funny. It'd be interesting to see if something like a longer narrative could be pulled off in this medium though.

Currently, I can't imagine trying to read a novel on one of the new e-readers coming onto the market - I'm too fond of paperbacks. What about you?

Friday, 25 July 2008

Facebook, Identity and Friends

Went out for lunch today and picked up a copy of The Independent, to later find the following inside...
The first I knew about it was a phone call. My girlfriend admonished me for succumbing to the temptations of Facebook, a website whose poisoned fruits I had previously said I found unappealing. I stood accused of two crimes: a lack of willpower and a failure to confess.

Not guilty on both counts, I pleaded. Alas, I was the victim of a fraud. Somebody, somewhere – and believe me, I'm pretty sure I know who you are – had launched a vendetta. They hated me. And what a visceral, calculating and malicious hate it was.
(More here.)

It might sound a little brain-dead of me to say so but I never thought about the possibility of this kind of fraud occuring before. I already have a Facebook profile and so the idea of someone setting one up for me with the intention of defaming me hadn't crossed my mind.

A drunken woman... vomiting. Found via Wikimedia Commons...A significant proportion of people - most of them students - probably do a pretty good job of defaming themselves on the site anyway, via drunken photos and carelessly filled-out profiles. It's interesting the way some people casually put up (or at least put up with) their bad pictures in what is arguably a public forum - as the article says:
Online networking [...] destroys the boundary between public and private. My public identity becomes not so much a consequence of my achievements as of your dodgy snaps from last Friday.
In many cases those 'dodgy snaps' become a matter of pride - how many of them do you have? How many comments are there for each one? More recently, I've noticed via my own newsfeed a tendency for comment-trading. People commenting on others' pictures - often making only short remarks, in order to start up conversations around the images and how they look. It seems to border on obsessional in some cases. It's not just comments which are quantified in this way...
Online social networking is having a profound effect on the way in which people communicate, chiefly by substituting virtual association for real friendship. In so doing, it is also redefining friendship, giving it more porous boundaries and relaxing the rules by which two people, or a group, interact.
This, I think, is the largest consequence. I've had conversations with friends about this (I mean actual conversations with real friends - in a physical place where you can hear yourself talk - remember those? Or am I getting old-fashioned here?). Different people I know have different policies toward it. Some accept friend requests from everyone (even if it's the kid they hated at school), some only accept requests from people they like(d) and for others only the people they're currently in touch with will do.

I think there are three main "policies", each with their own argument:
  1. Kennedy and Khruschev: not friends exactly but they understood the notion of stockpiling...Stockpile "friends". Why not? Your number goes up which means you look more popular and you get to play the voyeur by checking out what these people are up to, what kind of online conversations they have and even what their weekends and holidays look like. The more you accept, the broader a view of humanity you have!
  2. "Friends" reunite. You may not know them now but that doesn't mean you won't ever know them again. Why not maintain a connection with the people you liked from your past? It could lead to some interesting places or offers... and even if it doesn't you still get to spy on them.
  3. What are "friends" for? If you accept or add anyone, then your "friend" count on Facebook isn't really a truly reflection of your actual circle of friends. After all, friendship by definition should be about quality and not quantity and you shouldn't let social networking re-define that for you.
Perhaps someone can think of other approaches or arguments like this... What are your thoughts?

Anyway, I could go on. But I'll round up here: I have friends (again, actual friends) who, like the author of the Independent article, would follow that last argument. The difference between them and the author is that they actually have set up Facebook profiles. They say they're nearly always on the verge of deleting their accounts but then as long as they dictate the terms by which they use it, I don't see why they should.

Especially, if someone's going to go and set one up for them otherwise.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Blog of the Week: Very Small Array

Okay, I missed one last week. I was busy tidying my room, washing my hair, going on dates... (Yeah right; it was work as usual).

Here's Very Small Array. Brought to us by Dorothy Gambrell of Cat and Girl fame (which'll one day be a blog of the week here too, probably), this one is updated pretty irregularly.

As with the previous blog of the week (yes, two weeks ago now...) only the newest post ever shows on the front page, normally featuring an interesting visualisation of some obscure data. Somehow, most entries manage to be both quirkly funny and bizarrely poignant at the same time...

Check out this one, for example (as ever click to enlarge/expand):

And for the confused or bored, let me elaborate.

is a site featuring free classified ads and discussion forums. The most well-known (or notorious) section of Craigslist is the "Missed Connections" area which features posts from people who thought they had some kind of brief but unarticulated spark with someone, usually a stranger, usually in a public place. For example:
You were on the Central line and I got on and we made eye contact a few times. You seemed very tired, but you still looked cute. You had on a brown knit sweater on top of a plaid undershirt, and some cute loafers.
The ads are written in the hope that that stranger (or whoever) will read it and recognise themselves described in the post and reply and then that something will happen...

The site is used all over the world, though it was started in America, and the locations where "connections" are missed are, as you'd expect, very varied.

So the above image shows the names of places where connections were most frequently missed by State, displayed in the actual States themselves. While I have no idea what the black patches mean, there's something poignant about the data being presented in this way with the stark white-on-black. Instead of being given their proper names, States are labelled with the names of corporate coffee houses (like Starbucks) or popular shopping destinations (Wal Mart) and I can't help but picture lonely people wandering around with shopping trolleys or sitting quietly desperate with coffees, surrounded by so much stuff but still hoping for something as simple as a "connection"...

I'm not sure if this counts as webcomic or not but it's pretty powerful stuff and I can't imagine it existing in any form quite so potent and far-reaching as a blog.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Portfolio Update

The new developments I've been working on for Blackboard's e-portfolio system are now being shown to staff at Reading in the context of our iLearn project:

This is just a screenshot of the entry point to the tool, which sits inside a standard Blackboard course. This is pretty much the final version as we're going to be copying this for anyone who's requested an iLearn course this week. It's quite clean and simple and I like it that way :-)

The tool itself has changed a lot. What went from being a simple help system (which I presented at conferences in Manchester and Wolverhampton) following your movements around the portfolio help area in Blackboard is now an attempted enhancement of the tool - with Preview functions built in and additional quizzes which students take to populate their portfolio with information. The "help" itself has shrunk, however, from being a full explanation of what each area of the portfolio tool does to simple snippets of text that basically tell the user where to go next. The idea being that users wanting to do more advanced things will usually disregard help anyway...

I have been trying to work on a system that will assist the user in uploading documents to the Content System though this has proved more difficult and we're running out of time... More on this soon.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Blog of the Week: xkcd

Well, why not one a week? Assuming I read enough blogs that I consider worthy of attention, it shouldn't be any trouble. I suppose, if I run out of ideas, I can just go all self-referentially postmodern and link to this one.

But this week I want to mention a different kind. Normally, when I'm explaining what a blog is, either to an individual or during a talk, I use the analogy of a diary where the newest entry is at the top. I don't know that that's a good explanation really but it gets people started - they understand that the blogging tool does the dating and sorting for you and I think that's the crucial difference from ye olde "Web 1.0 "websites.

Only blogs don't have to be in journal or diary form at all. They can be webcomics like xkcd:

A sample from xkcd. Click to enlarge...
One I thought might appeal to academics - click to expand/enlarge. Although my recent favourite, which contains some swears and is therefore mildly NSFW, is here.

Which is why I think it's worth a mention here. When you visit the website, the newest strips always appear on the front page and then there's a "Prev" and "Next" button for you to navigate your way through other comics. It's updated every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and you subscribe to a feed as with other blogs.

Also, it's funny. Which should've been reason enough really.

Tip: Hover your mouseover each strip for a follow-up punchline. It means misinformed screenreaders but they were never very good with webcomics anyway.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Recovering from e-Learning Week

Not that we have much time! Tomorrow marks the beginning of Reading's annual Learning and Teaching Conference (programme here); for the first time it'll be running over two days. I'll be chairing a session and, along with my colleague Maria, giving an overview of Blackboard Academic Suite and how we've piloted it this past two years. I wouldn't want to give the illusion that we've prepared though...

Last week's run of sessions on e-Learning went well though. Just to explain: e-Learning Week also runs annually - whereas we repeat a number of talks and workshops on various e-Learning topics throughout the year, dedicating five days to the lot means we can make a concentrated effort and join some of the themes and strands up. Our "Good Practice" session for example is two hours long and, this time round, allowed for about half an hour talking about general tips on e-accessibility and course design, as well as showcasing some "good practice" examples of courses, before going to a "hands-on" and letting the attendees try things out with practice areas while we go round and help those that need it.

I delivered Friday's penultimate session which was more of a lecture and was called "Keeping Up With Your Students: Changes in Technology". It generated lots of discussion as usual, not least the title which could be deemed controversial depending on how it's interpreted. More on that another time, perhaps...

Feedback for the week overall was very positive and I think only one of the sessions was in any way weak. But it was one we'd never run before so we'll re-arrange it before next time. When the responses have been compiled, I'll post some of them here.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Interview with me

To my surprise, I've discovered that someone has uploaded a podcast interview with me. Actually, there's input here from other people, most of whom manage to say far more interesting things. The title suggests it's just between me and Alan Carr though.

It also implies that we sat down in a room together and he asked me questions to which I had considered and worthwhile responses when in actual fact Andrew Middleton, microphone in hand, caught me during a coffee break at April's PPPSIG while I was trying to get my teeth into an enormous cake. That not only explains the noise in the background but also how I manage to talk a lot without really saying anything...

Perhaps it goes to show: you really can't have your cake and eat it :-)