Stringle – almost a web 2.0 PLE?

Tony Hirst visited me yesterday in Cardiff and we spent the day going through his String n Glue VLE (Stringle). I’ll split up my posts on this, so in this one I’ll do a quick users guide, then I’ll look at what else it needs in another post, and finally some thoughts.

Before we get stuck in I ought to just say that there is a bit of clunkiness about this, and the immediate reaction might be ‘most students are not going to do this.’ Which is true, but a lot of this clunkiness could be removed with a bit of resource and programming (e.g. creating a button that automatically adds a resource). I’ll come back to this in the next post, but for now, assume it could all be made easy.

You will need a del.icio.us account and an OPML manager (e.g. from http://www.opmlmanager.com/) in place before you start.

Go to Stringle at http://ouseful.open.ac.uk/stringle2.php

You’ll see a list of tools across the top like Docs, whiteboard, etc. Clicking one of these will load the tool in to the Tools tab in the central frame.

One the left there is a list of content. Clicking on one of these will open the content in the Web tab in the centre (or you can add in a URL in the box at the top and it will display it).

And that is essentially it – you have your tools at the top and your content down the side. Both are configurable, so let’s start with the tools.

Say I want to add in a scheduler tool, like Remember The Milk. You need to bookmark the site using del.icio.us (any social bookmarking tool could be used but for demo Tony has opted for the best known one). You need to tell Stringle it is a tool, and to do this you use the tag stringle:tool You can create clusters or categories of tools, which you can load in to Stringle at different times. So for example you might have a collection of collaborative tools. Lets say I group my Todo tool in with admin tools. I would then add in the del.icio.us tag by leaving a space and adding ‘admin’. Now I want to tell it what text to put along the top in Stringle, so I add another tag, say ‘stringle:Milk’.

Now I want to load my admin tools in to Stringle. To do this I add in some text after the URL – ?t=del.icio.us name/category name. So in my case I would add in ?t=mjweller/admin to give the url http://ouseful.open.ac.uk/stringle2.php?t=mjweller/admin

Okay I said it got a bit clunky, but this could all be automated. Now let’s add some content in to the left hand panel, which comes courtesy of Grazr. To do this you’ll need to go to your OPML manager. If you are in OPMLManager, then right click on the main folder and create a sub-folder. Let’s say I’m creating a course on Evolution, so I’ll add in a folder with this name. As I discover different resources I can add them in here using the add link function. These can be sites, rss feeds, podcasts, etc.

Once you’ve built up your collection of resources, you want to import it in to Stringle. This requires URL jiggery-pokery again. This time add ?oURL for OPML feed so in my case it would be ?o=http://www.opmlmanager.com/opml/mweller.opml giving the URL http://ouseful.open.ac.uk/stringle2.php?o=http://www.opmlmanager.com/opml/mweller

Now we can of course combine the two to give my toolset and my content –

http://ouseful.open.ac.uk/stringle2.php?o=http://www.opmlmanager.com/opml/mweller.opml&t=mjweller/admin

It may be a bit buggy still (especially in IE Tony tells me), but you get the idea. That’s the boring stuff, I’ll look at what else could be done to it in another post.

My own blogging milestone

This is my 100th post, which I think means I can now officially call myself a blogger. I tried unsuccessfully to keep a blog several times before, so thought I’d reflect on why I had managed it this time. This is emphatically not a ‘guide to becoming a blogger’ since I don’t think one person can tell someone else how to do that. Just my thoughts on my experience:

Firstly, I narrowed the focus. Previously I had tried to be a blogger for all people, but I found it necessary to have a specific subject area, in my case educational technology and e-learning. With this acting as a spine I could branch of occasionally in to other subjects (witness ramblings on football), but generally I found it easier to use this as a basis.

Secondly, I found an appropriate tone. I had struggled before with how to comment on, say, meetings I had been in. While ‘X was their usual curmudgeonly self’ may be true it is both libellous and not very interesting to others. So I tend to use the meetings as springboards for more general points.

Thirdly, I built up some momentum before I let people know about it. This was helped by writing a book at the time, so I had lots to say and time to say it.

Lastly, I began to think about everyday experiences in terms of blog postings. This can become quite obsessive. I sometimes feel like the character in ‘The Grand Complication’ who compulsively ‘girdles’ everything. Sitting in conferences I would consider what my posting would be, as a way of passing the time. Actually, thinking about postings is a very good means of engaging with the world on an analytical level. It makes you consider what the essence of the situation is, and how it relates to your personal experience and broader issues.

Looking forward, I wonder to what extent blogging will become an integral part of one’s career profile. Just as some academics are essentially professional journal article writers, will some become predominantly bloggers. Blogging was something that I did in the occasional spare moment, but increasingly I feel it is central to what I do (if my boss is reading this – I still do lots of other stuff as well!).

My own leisure snobbery

Over the weekend I was forced to confront my own snobbery about what is a good use of leisure time. As I mentioned, we have a Nintendo Wii, and given the adverse weather at the weekend (overseas readers – it snowed in the UK, causing national hysteria), we stayed in quite a bit. My daughter played with the Wii for a while, and then I asked her to stop and switch to board games (which she did happily enough). It made me think about why I have a mental equation which goes something like ‘computer games = mildly bad, board games = good’. Why did I feel that the computer games needed to be rationed in some way? I accept the claim about sedentary lifestyles and obesity (although anyone who thinks a Wii is sedentary has never played one, I am currently suffering from ‘wii shoulder’ brought on by some over-energetic stretching during a tennis match), but given that my daughter does ballet, horse-riding, gymnastics, swimming as well as playing a lot with her peers, she is far from sedentary. And board games are hardly active, yet they don’t come in for the criticism computer games receive. No, it’s more about other pursuits being deemed more worthy.

As many have pointed out, including Steven Johnson (who has also blogged about the Wii) in ‘Everything Bad is Good for you’, there are a lot of intellectual and social benefits to computer games. I’m probably the last generation to have this snobbery (I wonder what my daughter will be snobbish about? She’ll probably tell her children to stop confusing the android and go and play some virtual reality games). I remember being admonished by my parents for reading too much as a child, so maybe it’s just the old parental adage that whatever you’re doing you should be doing something else.

RSS as universal acid – revisited

I blogged before about RSS becoming the universal acid or lingua franca of web 2.0. Yahoo have just released the beta of their pipes, which is a way of remixing feeds and creating mash-ups without getting too dirty in the programming. With his talent for understatement Tim O’Reilly says it is "a milestone in the history of the internet."

Tony Hirst has had a go creating a pipe for the openlearn content, and seems to like using them.

I’m not quite as convinced that they are a) as easy to use as people think (what techies think is easy is not the same as the rest of us) and b) they will have quite the impact suggested. However, I do think they mark another step in the RSS march to domination, and that is what will be interesting. When RSS is the standard format for all content, then aggregating it, sharing it and reusing it become standard practice. If one thinks of all content like this then the idea of creating static stuff locked away in a VLE seems at odds with the rest of the world, and rather uninspiring.

With my learning design hat on, I also wondered whether the pipes interface might be combined with something like LAMS to produce a powerful means of mixing content and activity.

10 things to unlearn

A nice piece from Will Richardson on 10 Things educators need to unlearn. There’s a bit of rhetoric about it, and sure it hides a wealth of complications, but if I worked in a strategy unit of a university or major corporation, I’d be asking myself ‘what would education look like if we tried to address these 10 issues?’ If we take just one of these e.g. "We need to unlearn the practice that teaches all students at the same pace. Is it any wonder why so many of our students love to play online games where they move forward at their own pace?" then that would have significant implications for how we structure education – it might lead to more e-learning for one, with user determined pacing, subscription models of content, changes in assessment practice, changes in the academic year (a semester doesn’t make much sense in a self-paced world), as well as possible negatives such as difficulties in establishing groupwork, loss of identity with the immediate cohort (although a wider one could be established), etc.

I think it is the wider ramifications of these changes that makes educational practice so resistant to change. I was discussing personalisation with someone the other day, and when we began to unpick it there were drastic changes required to how academics operate, what students do, how universities are funded, and so on. Within 10 minutes we felt the need to create a whole new educational structure, and that’s a bit much, so rather like naughty children who had unwrapped a Christmas present early, we packaged it back up as best we could and thought ‘best leave it alone.’

So while you might agree with a lot of Will’s 10 items (and I do), the tricky part is then translating them in to small, practical steps. This delivering is often undervalued in higher education (I know, I’ve made a career out of almost delivering). Steve Jobs, back when he was leading the Mac development team and before he became a professional messiah, used to have a mantra ‘real artists ship.’ Perhaps we should adopt that in education: ‘Real educators deliver’ (this would then be followed by a 100 page treatise on what constituted ‘real’, ‘educators’ and ‘deliver’).

I afford a Wii

We bought a Nintendo Wii last weekend. I’ve not been in to games that much before – my gaming days ended around the time of Doom/Duke Nuke ’em (now those were some games). My main problem with games is that they just take so much time to get any return on. I really don’t have 50 hours to give over to battling aliens, and if I did then I experience a form of leisure angst – there are those unread volumes of Proust on my bookshelf that I really should get around to, or there is a five mile run I need to do today, or some craft activity I should be sharing with my daughter.

I am very much in the target audience for the Wii then – a game console for people who don’t usually buy game consoles. It’s mildly depressing to realise how well targeted you are, because the Wii is exactly right for me! You can pick it up and play immediately, the games can be much shorter and it doesn’t require a big commitment to get any return from.

It’s a big hit with the family too – my daughter has repeatedly knocked me out in boxing. Now I would be remiss in my academic duty if I didn’t mention affordances here. The Wii is a model of affordance for interaction – watching my daughter struggle with a PS2 controller compared with the ease with which she took to the Wii could be a case study in interface and object design. I should probably try and find some educational uses for it, but that isn’t what it’s for – its affordance is fun.

The anti-social life of information

I was on campus at the OU yesterday. We have something of a parking crisis, which for a campus in the middle(ish) of nowhere, this is bad news. The response to this has been to outsource parking control to a firm who hand out £80 fines. Well, you can guess where this is going – I spent twenty minutes trying to park and eventually opted for a less than legitimate place as I had a meeting to make. When I returned less than an hour later I had a parking ticket. I was incandescent with rage (anyone who witnessed me discovering it might be tempted to add ‘literally’ in to that sentence).

What particularly aggravated me was that I had been in a meeting which was trying to find ways of saving the University lots of money by more efficient course production techniques (I favour use of RSS feeds). At the same time the University was busy raising some extra revenue (and the fee does seem vindictively high) by slapping a ticket on me.

It struck me that this is one of those relatively small things that have a disproportionate impact on staff relations. I certainly felt less devotion to the cause afterwards. As a keen e-worker it made me reflect that for all their evocation of the benefits of real social contact, Brown and Duguid should produce a sequel (they can have the title of this post if they want) which looks at some of the downsides, such as the tyranny of open plan offices, gossip, distractions. I want to set chapter 5 aside for parking…

What does HE provide exactly?

A few people (e.g. weblogg-ed) have blogged about the following demo of Zoho Notebook (which isn’t released yet)

It does look very good and one can immediately see all sorts of possibilities for it in education, with students sharing and collaborating on content.

What it made me think was, as I posted a few days ago, increasingly I wonder why we bother to develop technologies in higher education. None of the stuff we develop is ever as agile, cool, usable or useful as this wealth of free commercial software out there now. Imagine you were employed to find the technology that would have the most significant impact on education in the next 5 to 10 years. Would you seriously look at what universities were doing to find the answer?

Partly this is cultural – the values that higher education holds dear are things like rigour, transparency and thoroughness. These are reflected in the software approaches it adopts with very sound stakeholder consultation, deeply studious problem analysis, measured and precise software specification, user testing, etc. By which time the product is irrelevant.

The pace of change is worrying too, my colleague Tony Hirst (who pointed me at this video) says he finds something every weekend that he thinks he could use in a course, and I don’t doubt him. So even as it stands I want to say to developers ‘can we just freeze everything for two years so we can catch up and start using this stuff?’

But the problem for higher education is even worse when you consider the wealth of content out there. Perhaps this is the sort of admission a professor shouldn’t make, but I read more (and get more from) blogs now than I do from learned journals. And I would advise students to do the same. Add in podcasts, YouTube, Slideshare, open educational resources and the idea that the university or educator is the provider of the content looks decidedly shakey.

In essence we are all autodidacts now, but rather than being the oddball dilettante of Sartre’s Nausea, autodidacts are now able to take any subject to a fine level of detail while maintaining a social life. Even worse, we are all autotechsupport now as well.

So, with the net providing the content and the technology I am reminded of the quote in Schindlers List when Itzhak Stern says to Schindler "Let me understand. They put up all the money. I do all the work. What, if you don’t mind my asking, would you do?" I think increasingly this is a question that students will ask of HE, but more importantly which it should ask of itself.

Is which VLE even the question to ask?

I’ve been up in Inverness as part of a panel looking at UHI’s VLE strategy for the past couple of days (I write this while delayed at Edinburgh airport – not the best place to spend your Friday night). A few things about the rather intense two day process – the first was how much it mirrored the debates we had gone through at the OU. You find yourself continually oscillating between options, which demonstrates that it is a hard decision. The second issue was the tension between what is needed or good now, and what is the better long term, strategic option. The third is the manner in which the decision making approach itself influences the outcome however much we might like to think it is a purely objective, rational process.

What was perhaps different was that with the advent of web 2.0 and portals was whether choosing a VLE was that important anymore. In the end I think getting that enterprise system in place is actually a vital step in then moving beyond it. Even if the technology was mature (which it isn’t) an institution couldn’t go straight to an open portal-based PLE type environment without first having gone through the centralised VLE stage. You have to suck everything in before you can breathe it all out.

web 2.0 workshop

I ran a workshop for the e-learning community at the OU today. It went quite well, I had two activities, one of which got people to consider their current practice and how they might add some 2.0 to it, and another which got them to look at some web 2.0 applications and think about how they might be used in a course.

Anyway, the powerpoint is on slideshare, and embedded below. If you’ve looked at any of my other web 2.0 presentations, you’ll see that it’s not dissimiliar. I used to feel bad about this, but actually each one changes slightly, so the presentation evolves over time. Having been schooled in learning objects, open source software and web 2.0 over the past few years, endless reuse has lost its shame for me – I now embrace it.

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