Tuesday, 28 April 2009

uploaded new Campiranha demo tracks to http://ping.fm/4tzQ8 last weekend but forgot to mention it to anyone.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Wired Launch in the UK

Walking into the shop on campus this week, I noticed that the magazine Wired have now launched a UK edition. So I picked up a copy and though I've yet to read through it properly, it looks like it might be interesting. You can see a sample of the magazine here.

The sampler will give you an idea of how many adverts the magazine contains (perhaps not as many as some) and contains some nice interactive features, like Page 10 & 11 for instance, which allows you to see London before and after huge sea-level rise.

A quick skim of the magazine itself though reveals the usual tid-bits, factoids and design frills that I eventually found so annoying right before I stopped buying magazines a few years back. The only magazines that have really interested me lately are Private Eye, The Wire (soberly designed avant-garde music magazine; no relation to this one or the television series) and McSweeney's (each one a different and beautiful format, containing little else but carefully short stories by both professional and amateur writers). What I was (and am) hoping for from the UK Wired are some more critical articles on technology and its increasing (or already ubiquitous) presence in our lives and in society.

I've blogged previously about my tendency towards analogue snobbery - ie. finding enjoyment in getting away from the technology, preferably by going somewhere at least reminiscent of the feral... It would be good to see this reflected more often in technological publications. Like Bill Joy's doubts and worries about where technology is taking our civilisation and what we can do about it (one fasincating section even cites the Unabomber manifesto as a way of drawing attention to these issues) or Steve Silberman's look at the rise of autism in Silicon Valley in which he wonders if "math-and-tech genes are to blame". Both of these articles appeared in U.S. issues of Wired. While the U.K.'s edition has a centre-spread section titled "Fetish" in which readers are invited to drool over pictures and stats of new gadgets and laptops...

While there might be an irony in an e-Learning Development Officer (a job title which is often used interchangeably with the word "technologist") pointing to almost uncritical worship of technology and wearing an expression of vague concern, I think it's important to consider not only how technology can be used to enhance learning but also what impact it's having on students - from their expectations of the education system to their views on social interactions and participation, right down to their lifestyles in general.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Status Updates and Digital Identity

I have often blogged about language here and its uses on the Web and in e-Learning. While I have always been to some extent self-conscious about the kind of language I use on this blog (ie. what voice I project, what kind of identity this entails) my uses of Twitter, Facebook and Ping.fm have forced me to re-think what appears here.

Since using Ping.fm (which I blogged about previously) to update my status on Facebook, Twitter and this blog simultaneously, I have had to think a lot more about what status actually means.

Traditionally of course, status referred to something like class or one's ranking in society and I'm sure that definition still holds. In the new Web 2.0 sense of the word though, status refers to one's present state of activity, either in-the-world or on-the-web, and as such tends to give a microscropic view of the person's condition:
Rob is looking forward to a glass of Montepulciano
as opposed to traditional status which would be macroscopic:
Rob works at a bank and earns over £100,000 a year
The first example given above isn't necessarily typical however. That might have been typed in Facebook once but since the advent of Twitter, I've noticed status updates getting much messier. Now, we're more likely to see:
Rob That new AFX tune = tuuuuuuuune :-o
It's not about bad spelling, which has always been a pre-requisite of text-size updates due to the 140 character limit, but bad grammar.

I've become aware of this using Ping.fm because the same status update I send to Facebook also comes to this blog. It's not a professionalism thing; it's a case of my status updates making sense, whether or not they are prefixed by my name or not.

Whereas on Facebook, an update might read:
Guy is hungry.
the same update coming to this blog would read:
is hungry
Which just wouldn't make sense (to me, anyway) in the context of a blog. I suppose "am hungry" would make sense as this implies a truncated first person but then my status update on Facebook would read "Guy am hungry"...

So I've worked out that using an application like Ping.fm, I'm limited to using verbs in the simple past tense or with modal auxiliary verbs tacked on the front. I can get away with a Ping.fm status like:
got hooked on The Wire over the last four days.
because it still makes sense over on social networking sites where my name is shoved in front of it. Likewise, I could update with:
would watch more of The Wire tonight but might go to see Che: Part One instead.
and get away with it for exactly the same reasons. I say "get away with" but of course no-one's going to punish me or even frown on me for not sticking to these rules. The only explanation I can give is that I prefer to construct my digitial identity in this way. It might seem trivial but status updates are the most prevalent indicators of digital identity, especially as they appear both on social networking sites and on blogs.

With a few tweaks to the stylesheet of my blog I've arranged for my status updates to be capitalised (that is the first letter to be in uppercase) just to make those decapitated sentences look that little bit neater, rather than have my Facebook and Twitter statuses look messier as a trade-off. It took a few seconds to write the following bit of code, which takes care of this tidy-up job for me:
div:first-letter { text-transform: uppercase; }
The only "problem" I might have left is the kind of restriction this approach places on my status. What all the above means is my status updates are always about what I have already done or about what I might do under certain conditions and never about what I am actually doing at this very moment. Right now though, I intend to go home.
got hooked on The Wire over the last four days.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Bb World Europe 2009 (Back-Posts #1)

Partly because I've been ill and partly because, until my return to the office, my internet access has been at best sporadic I was unable to blog while in Barcelona for Blackboard's World Europe Conference a couple of weeks ago. However, I did make quite a few notes and had my blog in mind as I always do at these sort of events.

So, because it's easier than posting it all up in one go, I've decided to stagger the release of the notes and also back-post them so they sit under the dates under which the notes were actually taken.

My first post is about the conference covers Michael Chasen's keynote on the Monday and my second is a brief account of Martha Cooley's talk on Tuesday morning, in which she talked Version 9.

More to come shortly...

Sunday, 19 April 2009

finished Homage to Catalonia and would recommend everyone at least read the last line.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

saw In The Loop and was amused and depressed in equal measure.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

had a cold, which soon became a flu, which then became sinusitis, or something like it... To be continued.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

BbWorld Europe (Day Two) - Xerte Toolkits

Again, I missed the keynote this morning due to my cold/flu having gotten worse but I did make it to a talk by Pat Lockley and Gil Fourte on their use of Xerte Toolkits at Nottingham. I did make some notes on this but TechDis provide a good explanation which I've pilfered to save myself some typing:
The information services team at the University of Nottingham have developed a free learning object editor – Xerte - that produces interactive, rich media learning objects that run in a Flash player. 

Xerte is an XML editor and run time engine that makes it easy to create and deploy interactive learning objects that are highly accessible and SCORM compliant. Xerte helps you focus on interactive design by providing tools that are fit for purpose and easy to use. 
You can see examples of the kinds of materials you can create at this site here.

There's more information on the software as well as the option to download it free here.

Pat has developed a Powerlink1 between Xerte and Web CT2, which makes it very easy for Course Instructors to create and add interactive learning objects direct without leaving their course.

Much of the talk was a demonstration of these tools which looked very impressive. Pat made mention of how accessible they were with keyboard shortcuts and concessions to screen readers all taken into account. Hence the TechDis description given above.

The toolkit itself is used by 250 to 300 users the world over and is certainly worth a look if you're looking for learning object creation solutions.


1. Like a Building Block in Blackboard Classic
2. Now rebranded as one of the various Blackboard editions; Nottingham have kept the old name to save confusion

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

went to a good talk on Generation Google this afternoon, but was annoyed to find copyright laws still obstructing creative clip culture...

BbWorld Europe (Day One, PM) - The Google Generation, Podcasting and Peer Review

At 4pm, I went to a fascinating talk by Dr. Chris Stokes who works in the School of Clinical Dentistry at the University of Sheffield. Apparently his talk was a continuation from one he gave last year though I must have missed him at last year's conference in Manchester. However, he gave a clear outline of what it was he was following on from...

Last academic year, instead of asking his students to give presentations, Dr Stokes decided to ask his students for podcasts as a form of assessment. They were asked to produce 5 minute mp3 files that would critically evaluate two pieces of scientific literature and then be peer-reviewed on paper.

Dr Stokes played some examples of these in the presentation and you could really hear how students used the creative freedom they'd been given while still meeting the academic criteria. Some podcasts began with a group introduction, some revolved around use of music (there were some copyright issues with this) while others took on more diverse forms, ie. a news broadcast or radio show being transmitted from a zoo. We were told that audio was chosen because there was a feeling that video would tend to make students as nervous as a presentation might - in both cases, body language is on show.

I would've add that audio is far easier to create and edit, and where mistakes and time restrictions are involved good editing is crucial. According to the presentation, students dealt with technical aspects easily but found it difficult to condense the subjects they'd been assigned for podcasting purposes.

But Dr Stokes then went on to discuss what he has been doing this year. The peer-review aspect of the project has been moved online and focus is primarily on getting students to use Web 2.0 tools they are familiar with to develop relevant academic skills. Whereas, before last year's podcast trials students were asked to give a traditional lecture or presentation as part of their assessment, Dr Stokes wanted to move away from the "lecturers' domain" and into the "students' domain", seeing as lecturing is not a necessarily a key skill for the field of dentistry. To move further into this domain, Dr Stokes allowed students to choose what format they decided to submit their work in.

Given the previous assumptions about video and presentations, the results were surprising. At the end of the project, Dr. Stokes got:
  • 5 videos,
  • 14 Powerpoint presentations,
  • 2 wikis, and 
  • 9 web documents.
There were also over twenty "described weblinks" (presumably reviews of the sources students used but also included YouTube videos) and more importantly no purely audio podcasts!

The peer-review aspect of the project also required students to write blog entries on their contribution to the group in Sheffield's Blackboard system and also, potentially, reviewing the blog entries of others. This reviewing involved giving the blog entries a star rating and leaving a comment. Dr Stokes said giving the star-rating option however had been a mistake as students would rate the presentation but then use the comment to justify the numbers of stars they had given, leaving those being reviewed with little to no constructive criticism. Consequently the star-rating is something he intends to leave out in future peer-review projects.

Students were also given the option to work in Connect, which is Sheffield's branded version of the social networking software ELGG but this was merely a provision for those who would prefer not to use Facebook or some other site they might already be using. Apparently, some students used this but others didn't even sign up.

He talked a little about taking into account the demographic of his students, all of which (I think he said this) were part of Generation Z - alternatively known as Millennials, Generation @, and the Internet Generation. Typically this demographic consists of people living in Western or "First World" cultures, born between the years of 1995 and 2010. I've also seen this called Generation C (where C is close to the U.S. pronunciation of Z and stands for "connect", "click", "computer" or any other web-related word you might think of). Dr Stokes admitted to his preference for the term Millennials, which he said was "growing on" him.

It seemed to me that he'd made a real effort to understand where his students were coming from and, in doing so, had hit upon some surprising conclusions. For one, some students want to write essays, as evidenced by the Word documents in the pot at the end of the project. Nevertheless, he recognised that online spaces for learning "seem important". And finally, students don't seem all that interested in audio podcasts - except, perhaps as part of enhanced podcasts (that is, with simple visuals like still images of Powerpoint slides).

This last point is an interesting one. I personally think this could be for two reasons. Perhaps students are trying to meet what they perceive as traditional expectations by producing something like the presentation they would've been previously tasked with, with the exception that it's digital and online.

Or perhaps students don't feel the same constraints that we ourselves feel and expect. As I mentioned, audio is easier to create and edit and therefore time-saving but perhaps, for students who have been given the creative freedom to make their project really unique, convenience isn't as much of a priority as it is for people in full-time work. Perhaps it's about students being given the opportunity to take pride in their work, to fulfil the set criteria while making the project something of their own.

BbWorld Europe 2009 (Day One, AM) - Version 9

Due to my worsening flu-like illness, I wasn't able to make the keynote first thing in the morning so spent the time trying to regain my sense of taste over breakfast instead. Still nasal, I did make it to Martha Cooley's talk at 10.45, enabling me to get a good look at the room I myself was placed to deliver in, as well as Version 9.

Cooley is the Senior Director for Product Management at Blackboard and said she's only been in the job a little while. She was a good presenter though, down-to-earth and tried to answer everyone's questions. Much of the talk seemed to be aimed at appeasing (or perhaps just helping) WebCT customers ('Vista clients' in the official lingo).

She had some good news:
  • Blackboard (Classic) Version 8 would be supported until October 2012.
  • An English (UK) Language Pack is available in Version 9. Meaning the word "Organisation" will now be spelt "correctly"!
  • There is a Portfolio Roadmap for future versions - meaning we could be seeing improvements to the tool soon (at least two words in that sentence may be overly optimistic).
I noticed so many people Twittering on their mobile phones while the talk was going on - am I missing out on something by sticking to this retrospective-account-of-the-event thing? I think they used to call it blogging. I am (in many ways) so past tense...

woke up to find this cold/flu/illness-type thing isn't going without a fight and, apparently, beats you up in your sleep. Sorry, keynote :-(

Monday, 6 April 2009

BbWorld Europe 2009 (Day Zero!) - Keynote

Day Zero? Strangely this year, Blackboard decided to schedule Michael Chasen's keynote the day before the main conference. Chasen is Blackboard's CEO and last year his talk was in the afternoon, sandwiched between other talks but nevertheless a very energetic performance in which Chasen gave a demonstration of the then-unseen Blackboard Version 9 with its new "Web 2.0 look and feel".

This year's talk, which one might've expected to be more motivational in order to kickstart the conference, seemed a lot more subdued and in places felt as though it was an attempt at being more reflective than inspiring. Whether or not this has anything to do with the new administration in Washington isn't clear though Chasen didn't hesitate to use clips of President Obama talking about education to break up his delivery.

The focus was on what's being called (by Chasen at least) the 'global education imperative' - this imperative itself comes from Obama's urge for education reform, in particular a line from his speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in which he says 'Education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it is a prerequisite'. To be honest, it took me a while to work out just what Obama was saying here, let alone Chasen.

A pathway and a prerequisite can be the same thing, surely - or at least that's what I thought. But, I suppose Obama is saying that to be educated is no longer a sufficient condition for success but a necessary one. Hence the imperative.

However, some of things Chasen said I have yet to get a grasp on. For example, one of the keynote's recurrent phrases was 'leveraging the community'. I struggled to understand what this meant in practical terms. 'Leverage' is not the most eloquent of words even in its proper context, which I believe is that of financial markets. There it's a noun; Chasen used it as a verb. I wasn't sure if he meant 'promote', 'lift up' or simply 'use'. Not that Chasen would have said 'use', preferring the longer and not entirely necessary 'utilise' instead.

In the end, it seemed to be a reference to the new Blackboard Connections site, which as a tool seems to be designed to listen in on the gossip and complaints of the user community and gather more feedback. Perhaps 'leverage' is meant to imply that they are trying to stick the oar in, lift us out of our group huddle. But these huddles are important if we're to work out what it is we want, what our strategy is going to be. A simpler phrase like 'listening to the community' would have won me over.

'Expanding openness' was another refrain of the speech, showing that even if the software is moving away from clunkiness, the corporate language isn't. In practical terms, this primarily referred to the new, more inclusive API so that students being asked to access modules on various systems and VLEs now need know only one login to get to the materials (presumably the Blackboard one).

However, it also seemed to be vague enough to encompass other things like Facebook Sync, Blackboard for the iPhone, and, most interesting of all, the use of Blackboard outside America. Tim Collin, Vice President of Blackboard's EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Asia) Division, gave us some interesting information on the government initiated roll-out of Blackboard to the whole of Columbia (that's the Columbian government doing the initiating by the way, in case there was any doubt) and said that, globally, so many institutions had opted for the Blackboard hosting option, their servers now contain more data than on the whole of Facebook.

All in all, I don't think Chasen or Collin succeeded in joining all the elements from the bigger picture to the elements in the smaller but the talk was an interesting way of trying to frame both so that they were at least occupying the same gallery space. I was glad that the talk was different from last year's delivery which, while more enthused, was closer to what I'd expect from a shrill salespitch than from a keynote.
never learned a word of Spanish, let alone Catalan.