Stephen Downes’ visit

Stephen Downes came to the OU today and gave a talk on PLEs. We had a chance to chat beforehand, and his talk was, as ever interesting and thought provoking. I felt that his vision of a PLE, although it steered clear of the client based talk I have seen in other ones, was very much based around an individual and their collection of resources. I didn’t see much room for collaboration in it. I queried him on this and he responded that the resources should include community and peer resources and tools such as Skype would be included. I can see how this would be neat (and as I have blogged before, I like the netvibes personal portal approach to collecting tools) – however it still makes collaboration difficult if we all have different tools. If you have Skype and I have Trillian, how do we conduct a collaborative activity?

VLEs are often criticised because they provide a blanket provision, but the benefit of this is that you can get on with doing the task in hand, safe in the knowledge that everyone is using the same system. This is part of my problem with PLEs – the problem they report to solve is not so great as to require the massive technological and cultural change it would require. For instance in order for a PLE to be most effective we need interoperability between all tools, and for universities to become a thing of the past, or at least how we think of education to alter radically. I’m not sure either of these is likely to happen in the near future. What I do like about PLEs is that they force us to think about learners as being in the technology world, and not technological tabula rasa. I don’t think higher education has even begun to grasp what it means to have the net generation entering their ranks. But I still have my doubts about PLEs – I think I may just be lacking that visionary thing.

VLE architecture and open source

We had a meeting today to discuss the architecture of the OU VLE. I was the project director during phase 1, and we made the recommendation that we should adopt a service oriented architecture. This was partly a pragmatic decision because although we didn’t have a VLE as such, we had over the years developed, or bought in, a number of the components, including conferencing, assignment handling, authentication, etc. It was also partly a recognition that this was where the world was moving to. I made the analogy today that it is like the claim that many sociologists and economists make (I think Castells is amongst them), that many developing countries can now skip the industrial revolution and go straight to a knowledge economy (not sure how true this is, but for the sake of the analogy we’ll go with it). The OU could effectively skip the ‘monolith’ stage of VLE deployment and go straight to SOA.

However, we did end up opting for Moodle. I think this was an entirely reasonable compromise – it gained us time in that it already had some functionality we needed, it gained us a technological method (instead of arguing how to do things, we knew we had to do them the moodle way – this ‘hard target’ for integration is important) and it gained us some kudos (not to be underestimated). And at the same time we still had access to, and some control over the code. However, it did represent a slight compromise on the pure SOA vision. So today’s meeting was to discuss the extent to which that has happened, and where we want to head in the longer term.

Overall I came away happy that we were moving in the right direction, and that Moodle remained the sensible option. As long as we develop with this in mind, and don’t take too many shortcuts, the overall service approach is not compromised too much. It is also an issue that lots of people are grappling with I think. Joel Greenberg and Jason Cole, who were at the meeting today, will be discussing these issues at Alt-i-lab this year.

The social values of software

At the PROWE meeting yesterday I was once again struck by the social values that are associated with different pieces of software. The project is looking at wikis as a tool for tutor support and also personal repositories/e-portfolio. They have selected ELGG as it seems to straddle both of these camps. While that is true technically, there are process issues that reflect the different values of these two approaches. This was brought in to focus when we started discussing lurkers. Some members wanted to discourage lurking. I was coming from a wiki mindset and thought this strange – after all most of us are ‘lurkers’ on wikipedia. But viewed from an eportfolio perspective it makes sense, since there you select who you wish to share your portfolio with and you may not want access to your personal repository to be completely open.

When I missed the wiki bus

I am on the steering committee for the PROWE project, and attended a meeting today. The project seems to be going well, but all this recent obsession with wikifying everything gave me cause to reflect on how I had rather missed the opportunity to get in early with this technology. In 1997 I attended a conference and heard Mark Guzdial talking about them. I could see how useful they’d be in distance education and when I came back to the OU I evangelised about them briefly. Then other things got in the way and I let them drop, and it was only last year that I finally introduced one on a course. I regret not having stuck at it a bit more in the early days – I could have become a wiki guru! Sadly my suggestion that we just put up a whole course in a wiki and let students update and modify it is always rebuffed on the grounds of quality assurance. Even the Open Content team baulked at it. Come on guys, go with the flow.

Web 2.0 vs Higher Ed mindsets

I’m just writing the conclusions to my book and one of the subjects that has cropped up recently is the tension between what we might term the web 2.0 mindset (as so eloquently set out by Tim O’Reilly) and the traditions in Higher Ed. While web 2.0 development is about perpetual beta, quick, lightweight assembly, the traditions of higher education are founded in research and liberalism. This means their software methodology tends to be rigorous (from the research background) and highly consultative (from the liberal history). So if you look at any documentation on say, acquiring or developing a VLE, they are the outcome of very thorough processes that usually take a loooong time. This is at odds with the ‘develop first, ask questions later’ philosophy of web 2.0. There is an awful lot to be said for the methodical approach, and the consultation element is often more about political and cultural acceptance than about producing a better functional spec. The problem is that time scales are shortening, so by the time you’ve gone through the process things have moved on and it is already out of date.

The big issue for me is whether the tension between these two approaches can be resolved. I suspect that in its usual leviathan manner higher ed will carry on with its existing approach, but gradually elements of the other will seep in. These things are rarely resolved by revolution and sudden change.

Software – more is not always better

Spent a frustrating day creating the images for my book today. Now up front I have to own up to the artistic level of your average 9 year old. Struggling with Corel Draw reminded me of the old days of trying to get the bloody thing to do what you want. I have become accustomed to easy to use software, which does one or two things simply, that I tend not to encounter these very specialist packages any more. What I wanted to do was create some fairly simple diagrams, but for instance, drawing a normal distribution curve that wasn’t skewed, bumpy or in some way deformed proved to be beyond me. My colleague Patrick McAndrew jokes that there are only three diagrams in Higher Education – the Venn diagram, the triangulation of forces and the normal distribution curve. There is something in this, and what I need is a drawing package that doesn’t give me lots of features, but lets me do the simple things effectively. The drawing package in Word is not bad for this, but the output often lacks that more professional (or less amateur) look. There probably is such a package out there. My point is that development is always about adding more, but for a whole range of users it’s not about more, it’s about simpler.

The anti glory game

As a Spurs fan, last night’s Arsenal-Barca cup final is a strange affair to watch. If Arsenal were playing a team I was familiar with, for example, Liverpool, I could easily switch allegiance and become a rabid red for the night. But football is so much a game of emotion, and I find this negative support (I’ll support you because I don’t like them – not dissimilar to the US foreign policy now I think of it), difficult to maintain. So no matter how hard I tried I wasn’t really willing Barca to score.

But I know in the long term I definitely don’t want Arsenal to win (I’d never hear the last from my brother for one), so you’re left in this no-man’s land, which must be something akin to a non-footie fan watching the game. You can’t really enjoy it. If truth be told, I envy Arsenal fans their chance to partake in the glory. As Spurs legend Danny Blanchflower said, "Football is not really about winning, or goals, or saves, or supporters… It’s about glory. It’s about doing things in style, doing them with a flourish; it’s about going out to beat the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom". So, watching your rivals in a big game is a curious sort of anti-glory event. The best you can hope for is schadenfreude, which is not the noblest of emotions (although for Spurs fans it is embodied beautifully by ‘Nayim from the halfway line’).

As it turned out Arsenal put on a good performance with 10 men, and didn’t deserve to lose. I’m glad they did and all that, but they didn’t deserve it (Barca were quite poor I thought). Still, do I envy them still? Yes. I half remember a quote that even Google can’t locate, which went something like ‘between despair and nothing I’d choose despair.’ As with West Ham on Saturday, Arsenal fans would rather have the despair of losing than the nothing of finishing 12th in the league.

Technology works sometimes

Spent a frustrating afternoon trying to set up a webcam link with the OU. As a homeworker I would really like to be able to come in to meetings easily via webcam. It still amazes how difficult this stuff can be for organisations sometimes. It was a firewall/port issue apparently when using Netmeeting. We can get through with lighter clients such as Flash meeting, but the feed is small.

Equally, I’m always amazed when technology just works. I tried Skype about eighteen months ago as part of a European project and it struggled with three way conversations. I used it again last week for one of these and it was good quality and worked straight off. This robustness always impresses me.

Institution vs individual environments

Have just completed writing for a course on eportfolios. I remain a bit sceptical on these, at times they seem little more than a set of prepared fields for web publishing. In terms of academic practice they can be seen as part of a general shift from the institution to the individual. Along with blogs, social bookmarks, individual portals, etc the emphasis is less on providing students with all their ICT requirements and rather on incorporating their existing tool set into the institution. This viewpoint sees its apotheosis with the Personal Learning Environment (CETIS PLE Project). Now if I had doubts about eportfolios, they are nothing compared to the ones I have regarding PLEs.

The not inconsiderable problems a PLE would need to address are:

  1. Support. The support issues for an institution and educators would be extremely complex if each user had a different set of tools, and so would most likely be passed on to the individual. One of the reasons why current VLEs have been successful is that they allow universities to centralize support and thus ensure a certain level of competence and quality of experience.
  2. Quality assurance. Increasingly universities need to ensure a certain quality of provision. This would be difficult to maintain and predict if everyone is using different tools.
  3. Suitability. While the learner-centric notion has much about it which is admirable, we should also be aware that sometimes the student is not the best judge of what is the best approach. In this context this could mean they continue to use a tool when a different one is better suited to the purpose, or they are not exposed to new technologies.
  4. Negotiation of activity. Although the choice and flexibility in this approach is a strength, it could also create a significant overhead in negotiation. For example group activities would be difficult to achieve if everyone used their own tools. While there may be some standardization and compatibility between systems (e.g. different IM clients may be able to communicate), this is difficult to envisage between different categories of systems e.g. IM and asynchronous tools. Therefore there would need to be negotiation between students as to which tools to use.
  5. Technological complexity. Although the service oriented approaches and standardization will help, it would still be an enormously complex task to enable the range of different tools to integrate with those systems required by an institution, and even more problematic if one has to assume a novice user

What the PLE work reveals and acknowledges is the growing use of technologies by learners. VLEs are often operating on an assumption of zero experience and competence (which is the safest thing to do, and for some students, valid). Higher education has not really begun to address the implications of Prensky’s ‘digital natives’ coming in to the higher education context with familiarity and loyalty to a number of different technologies.

The tension here is between institutional and individual technologies. VLEs are an institutional response to the opportunities of the internet. Most of the newer tools are based around the individual. The eportfolio is a good example of this tension. Many universities are beginning to develop or buy institutional eportfolio systems, so that they provide all students with this tool and use it in specific courses and for institutional aims, e.g. as a means of assessment. However, the eportfolio is an individual tool and one of the main drivers behind them is their ability to collate information and learning across institutions. So, should an eportfolio be a tool that a user brings to an institution or one that an institution provides for everyone? Of course, interoperability goes some way to solving the dilemma, since it means data can be ported between applications, but it is unlikely to be the complete solution, and many of the problems with the PLE outlined above, such as support and guaranteed level of provision will remain.

Some of the implicit and explicit criticism of current VLEs that is found in the PLE work is valid, but this does not necessarily mean that the PLE is the solution. Some of the complaints, for example the ‘one size does not fit all’ claim could be addressed by making VLEs better, either in terms of pedagogy or customization. One could envisage a rich set of tools being offered to students via VLEs, with customizable and personalized feeds, interfaces and tool selection, which would go some way to achieving the aims set out for PLEs.


I had a good Skype chat today with two academics in the Netherlands who are interested in the Open University’s Open Content project.

During the discussion one of them pointed me at Netvibes. This is great, it’s an individual portal tool. What I really like about it is the way it blends tools and information feeds. This is what web 2.0 is all about! It also takes us one step closer to a really service oriented approach to VLEs. In this future the VLE ceases to exist, and one can view it as simply a portal to a set of tools, which may be provided by the institution or the individual. I have created my own portal in netvibes and have sent some evangelising emails to colleagues.

I am advising on the portal project at the OU, and I think netvibes will be a good way to show people what is possible with portals. One of the problems with these kind of projects is that you can’t really do consultation because people don’t know what they want from such a tool, so you have to take something to them initially that they can react to. The same thing applies to the Learning Design project I’m working on.