Get beyond the title James

Rather an off topic post, so look away now if you wish:

Listening to Oliver James (a TV psychologist in the UK) promoting his new book on 5Live in the car yesterday I had one of those ‘I’m shouting at the radio’ moments. James asserted that although Dawkins’ Selfish Gene was published in 1976, it was probably not until the greedy eighties that it became popular as it was used to justify self-interest. Huh? Dawkins book is (partly) an attempt to explain how altruism occurs within the process of natural selection. Indeed in his analysis of game theory he sets out how selfish behaviour works to the detriment of society as a whole.

Two possibilities occur to me here – the first is that James is a critic of evolutionary psychology. That’s fair enough, it’s a scientific theory and you can argue with it. But what I think is wrong is to deliberately frame it in a social and moral context that is simply not true.

The second possibility is that James hasn’t read the book and has simply taken the ‘selfish’ in the title and the summary part about natural selection and made the erroneous assumption that the book should have been called ‘In praise of selfishness’ or something. Just in case he’s in any doubt, The Blind Watchmaker is not in fact a textbook for manufacturers of poor quality timepieces.

Given this misreading of Dawkins, you don’t hold out much hope for the rest of the research underpinning his book, do you?

As an aside, my five year old daughter loves evolution. It started with the deceptively simple question ‘where do sharks come from?’. I commenced with a mummy and daddy shark -based explanation, but she cut me short ‘no, before there was a mummy and daddy shark.’ ‘Ahhh, evolution.’ I now operate a martini approach to this, giving the explanation anywhere and anytime. So, for example we will be in a queue at Tesco, clutching a packet of Jammie Dodgers when she will ask, ‘dad, tell me about evolution….’

BB patent reexamination – all good news?

As you’ll probably have seen elsewhere, the Blackboard patent is being re-examined, the prior art raising serious concerns (never!). While this has generally met as a welcome development (it would be more worrying if it wasn’t being reexamined), a cynical part of me thinks that it may not be the victory it seems. These reexaminations can take two years, during which time the patent hangs in limbo. Perhaps this was BB’s intention all the time – it isn’t about actually getting the patent, it is a means of undermining competitors while making yourself look dominant. If you were an institution choosing a VLE now, the threat of the patent might make you decide against another commercial system such as Desire2Learn, and make you think that BB was the only way to go, whether you liked it or not. The panopticon works as a control method because you could be monitored, not because you are being watched all the time. In the same way the patent works because it could put others out of business, not because it will. And the longer that uncertainty reigns, the better.

It might also make you nervous about going down the open source route (despite those reassurances from BB), but I think this is where the patent has backfired. It has inadvertently raised both the profile and the imperative for open source solutions, and thus made the commercial option seem more precarious.


A JISC interview with Patrick Masson, (via EdTechPost) formerly of State University of New York, who implemented a service oriented architecture, based around a mixture of LAMS, uPortal, Sakai and their own tools. He is honest about some of the difficulties, but still remains convinced about the need for a SOA solution for VLEs.

A few things from my perspective – firstly SUNY is a case study I use in my book, but this section would now obviously benefit from this kind of material. So once again one is faced with the time lag between writing something and it being published – the book is out in March and there are already bits of it that feel dated (ahem, it’s still worth buying though!).

Secondly, he reflects my own feeling on Sakai, saying "I wonder why Sakai isn’t devoting its time and energy to producing a framework which at the end of the day many people could use, what do we gain from getting another Moodle?". I always felt that this was what Sakai really offered, a method of integrating different services, but they seem to have been distracted by the need to deliver a product. In doing so I think they have lost some of the clarity of their approach.

Lastly, it reinforces for me that the OU was right to adopt Moodle as a kind of middle ground between the full SOA and a monolithic system. As project director I had recommended the SOA, but Moodle provided a firm enough technological base to work from, while still allowing us freedom to develop. Whether Moodle remains the right choice in the face of web 2.0 technologies will be the next question.

The dilemma at the heart of learning design

I’ve been up in Birmingham for a couple of days at a workshop for the JISC D4L projects (I’m the director on the D4LD project). The two pedagogic planner projects generated quite a bit of interest. I know about IOE’s planner, so went to the session on Oxford’s Phoebe. This is a wiki-based resource that helps users with two main pathways in – ‘I want to do activity X’ and ‘I want to use technology Y’. This multiple perspective is essential I think in any design tool – I’d probably add in ‘I need resources on Z’. It’s a good resource, but as they recognise not something that is really stand alone, ie you wouldn’t let any educator loose on it, since it doesn’t have enough guidance. This is intentional, it is an open model, and this contrasts with the IOE planner which offers a level of guidance (based on Laurillard’s Conversational model but this could be swapped out with any theory of your choice). This gets to one of the problems for me in developing a learning design aid (something we’re trying to do for OU course teams) – people have many different ways of working, so you need to have an open, broad system that accommodates these, and yet if the system is too broad then it doesn’t help the user enough. You need to add in a level of guidance and interpetation, but as soon as you do that you are imposing a method of working, which if it doesn’t match the way you operate can become tedious.

I remember when we were developing a course for the ill-fated UKeU. Sun, who were developing their VLE, created a complicated workflow system that you had to go through. This didn’t match the way any of us worked and the best feature they provided was a ‘select all’ button which would just tick all the workflow stages so you could bypass it. Obviously you don’t want the same to happen to any design tool, so getting the balance right between flexibility and suitable guidance and affordance is the key issue I feel.

A Google Desktopesque VLE?

Okay, this is probably so obvious that everyone has already thought of it, but bear with me – Now I’ve gone over to Google Desktop (read ‘the dark side’ for some), I thought ‘why can’t my VLE be like this?’ Ie. a light client with dynamic panels that is always running. Just for starters here are the sections I’d have:

  • Forum postings – any postings to forums I’d subscribed to (or been subscribed to automatically given my student role).
  • Current content – links to the content that I am supposed to be working on. Especially if that content is wrapped in RSS or something similar so it can update dynamically.
  • Related feeds – perhaps a mixture of feeds I had subscribed to and those automatically given me by the course designer e.g. all Psychology students get a news feed from the American Psychological Society. Not directly course related, but of academic relevance.
  • To do list – maybe linked to a calendar so that central messages can be sent e.g. assignment due next week.
  • Top tools – shortcuts to the tools I use most, or the default set provided by the university.
  • Email – just give ’em Gmail.

As with GD you could expand any of these, and clicking on them would launch you in to the VLE proper.

Technically this wouldn’t be rocket science, but it would require a few changes in academic practice, such as producing content in appropriate chunks. What would be interesting would be the influence it had (if any) on the learner. Would it promote (for those of a nervous disposition I’ll refrain from saying ‘afford’) a learning strategy that breaks everything down in to small time slots? Would it help some learners to incorporate their education in to their everyday lives, for example if you are at work you don’t have to separate out a lot of the education, it is something you do inbetween other tasks? Would it help schedule work for learners? Would this mean a loss of flexibility? And so on.

It is often quite simple tools such as this that have a subtle influence on the individual and their relationship to the formal learning experience, so at the very least it would make an interesting research project.

The irrationality of preference

Having posted about Google desktop and Netvibes it made me consider why Netvibes is my preferred personal portal. There are many others available and while I could come up with a justification for Netvibes over Pageflakes, say, it would all be a bit post hoc. In a recent survey on VLE use in universities the OECD pointed out that

"there was little to choose between different systems. The past seven years of intensive LMS development and adoption in tertiary education have seen considerable system convergence…. Some respondents asserted that a particular system was the “only genuine” enterprise LMS, or “by far the easiest” to use, but it was difficult to evidence such claims. "

I think in some ways we choose software on a much less rational basis than we might like to admit, and rather like our choice of football team (or religion if you prefer), this very irrationality of selection makes us defend our choice more vigorously. Having made a selection free from logic, we are then able to indulge it at an emotional level. I have often been struck by how emotionally attached people are to particular software packages. When deciding on a particular piece of software to use for a project or course I have found myself in very heated debates, which pretend to be about functionality, or database compatibility, but are in fact about personal identity, emotional attachment, love even. Within particular functions we tend to be monoamorous, so you only love one browser/operating system, etc. We can be happily be polyamorous across different functions ie you can love an operating system and a browser.

The analogy with football is too tempting (and obvious) for me to pass up. You have to be monoamorous supporting a team at one level (any football fan that tells you they support Arsenal and Chelsea say is by definition, not a football fan and deserves your contempt). But you can be polyamorous across different levels, e.g. you can support one national team, one main team and maybe your local non-league team also. I’m being slightly flippant here, but there does seem to be a similar process in operation – it may be an evolutionary tick, the process for promoting monogamy to secure the succession of your genes latching on to other aspects in life also.

And then you have to produce a 20 page business case for a committee that incorporates your software choice in an objective manner…

Google Desktop vs Netvibes

I installed Google Desktop a few months back, but didn’t really do anything with it, mainly because I was viewing it as it is billed – a desktop search tool. Probably because I’m quite linear in the way I work (I’m male – I don’t do multi-tasking), a desktop search tool isn’t something I really need a lot. Sure I need to find online resources, but then I use normal Google, or search journal databases (if Google could sort out the federated search across multiple database problem, that would be useful). But now I have my new laptop (a Vaio – why did it take PC manufacturers so long to realise that just because we use Windows doesn’t mean we like beige – Mac users need not reply), I took the time to configure the other parts. I’m now almost a fan, and usually I don’t bother with client-based software much. I love having my main blogroll going continually – it’s a small window so you couldn’t have all blogs in there, but the people who post a lot it’s worth following. I put some quick reminders in the scratch pad, I have a number of different Flickr photo streams, as well as the My Pictures archive scrolling through on Photos, I use the To Do list to organise my day, and I even check the weather (it says it is raining in Cardiff today, and a quick look out the window – yes, it’s right!).

So it’s very quickly become part of the constellation of tools and services I operate within. I also use Netvibes for some similar purposes, so here is how they compare for me:

Google Desktop:

Pluses – always present, embedded search facility, good range of tools

Minuses – can be a distraction (I keep jumping off to look at photos that come by, or read blog entries – not good when you are trying to write a project plan), slow to load (maybe a result of the indexing process), photo streams seem to get stuck showing the same pictures (particularly if it is loading ones from hard drive).


Pluses – tabs makes it much more structured, seems much quicker at loading RSS (postings that have yet to appear in GD show up immediately), potentiall richer tool set

Minuses – no desktop integration, need to visit site, not a search tool

Outsourcing learning technologies

This article in the Economist Consumer technologies are invading corporate computing (via George Siemens) outlines how some universities are effectively outsourcing a lot of technical development, using the Google Apps for your domain bundle. The guy says that "Compared with the staid corporate-software industry, using these services is like “receiving technology from an advanced civilisation”, says Mr Sannier."

A couple of things on this – firstly there is often a delay between the rhetoric and the reality when new ideas come along. The whole service oriented approach was one of these. I found myself wisely telling everyone to think of everything as a service, without really being sure what this meant. Google have continued to demonstrate what this really means, and this is a good example. It’s not about buying a big bit of kit for your IT guys to install, you simply say ‘all our students get the Google services.’ Secondly, it really does mark something of a watershed that universities are now formally recognising these consumer, real world apps and not insisting that somehow education is special and needs to develop its own tools. Thirdly, what sort of impact does this have on institutional practice? As a small example, at the OU we have struggled with a calendar project for a while (partly it isn’t a calendar project but a multiple database problem), but at what point would it be effective to say ‘hey, go with Google’. What the institution needs to concentrate on then is making data available in the right format. It’s kind of analagous to educators needing to shift their focus from creating content to supporting understanding.

The real reason behind that Cisco lawsuit

So Cisco are suing Apple for the use of the iphone name. I heard this numerous times today and my initial reaction was ‘how could Apple have been so dumb?’ But then I noticed that every news report seemed contractually obliged to mention that the iphone ‘which Apple describe as magical’, was a really cool product – and who are this Cisco bunch anyway?

And then idiots like me blog about it – in this day alone Apple have recouped more in advertising and blogosphere chat than any lawsuit will cost them. When you’re Steve Jobs and you have cool looking gadgets, all publicity really is good publicity.

On the subject of the phone itself I’m not convinced by the pricing – it costs an absolute fortune and then they tie you in with only one provider (at the moment in the US that is what is planned anyway). This is Apple’s old closed world view in play again – they may be the last great proprietary company. Ironically, given their foundations, they resemble IBM more every day – I think in many years to come we will view them both as one of the same kind. In much the same way that we no longer view Hard Times as an historical novel from Dickens, but just a Dickens novel, the gap between the two is lost when viewed from a decent time lapse.