Succession and _that_ Blackboard patent

I’ve been watching the Blackboard patent debate with interest. Initially I felt it might be one of those things that people panic about, but doesn’t turn out to be the higher education apocalypse everyone predicted. While this may still turn out to be the case, it is undoubtedly serious. Michael Feldstein has blogged extensively about it and provides a good translation of the patent, which makes it even scarier. Some of these  (e.g. An instructor can create and edit pages in a course space) seem so general as to be ludicrous, like patenting the concept of a wheel (and indeed being excessively general is one area where the patent may fail).

In terms of the succession model I have outlined elsewhere, I have argued that commercial VLEs have been, on the whole, good for e-learning. Because they match current classroom practice closely they have been easily adopted. Their presence has changed the nature of the environment however, and now many people are looking for more flexibility, and institutions feel they have gained sufficient knowledge to implement open source options. In short, they have been victims of their own success. I guess it was predictable then that a commercial organisation wasn’t just going to lie down and accept this. The patent is the equivalent of napalming the burgeoning plant succession and locking down the environment.

The seedy underbelly of ponyworld

My four year old daughter is very keen on horseriding (what is it with girls and horses?), so I have been dutifully taking her along every weekend to our local riding school. Now previously I had thought this was all rather sweet, but a bit dull. The story of doping at a children’s show-jumping event though has given me a renewed interest. Who would have thought that such rich thriller material could be found at a gymkhana? I await the release of the new My Little Pony, Sedata, who falls over repeatedly and listens to Hendrix…

Pretexting and the death of the HP way

Well the HP way has been near death for a long while, but surely the current crisis at HP spells its demise. In 2002 The Palo Alto weekly was forecasting its end. This quote from that article particularly highlights the difference between the initial culture fostered by Hewlett and Packard and the current debacle: "When former employees reminisce about the HP Way, they toss around words like "integrity," "trust," and "team." Hmm, there doesn’t seem to have been an abundance of trust and integrity in this case.

The OU has just received a grant from the Hewlett Foundation (not related to HP, set up by William and Flora Hewlett separately) to make our content open, as did MIT with the open courseware project. One can’t imagine such philanthropy from those currently at the helm in HP, they’d be more likely to spend their money increasing the legal restrictions on content than making it freely available.

The crisis also highlights the dangers of euphemisms. The practice of obtaining phone records from employees without their knowledge is known as ‘pretexting’. Now, if it was called ‘spying’ then it would seem unsavoury, but pretexting sounds scientific, techy and modern. One can imagine the conversation:

Investigator – ‘Well I could get all their phone records and then we’d know who the leak was.’

HP person – ‘Isn’t that spying?’

Investigator – ‘No, no, no, that would be illegal. It’s pretexting.’

HP – ‘Oh, in that case, go ahead.’

Open source models in education

I seem to have inherited an EU project…

The OU is a partner in FLOSScom – the idea of which is to look at open source communities and see how (or if) the principles can be applied in education, ie to what extent they can act as a model of an e-learning community. This is in my area of interest so I’m going to be the project lead for the OU.

Although I think there are lots of interesting things about the open course community which have parallels in education (for instance the exchange of ideas, status established by reputation, etc) what I think is just as interesting is where the model or metaphor does not apply. What is different about education to producing software? Are all subject matters equal? To what extent should education try to be like the FLOSS model?

Anyway, it’s just starting and it looks genuinely interesting which has not always been my experience with EU projects.

D4LD progress

The children are back in school (in their expensive new uniforms in my case), the holidays are over, back to work…

First up was a conference call with the D4LD team at the OUNL and Liverpool Hope. Over the summer we have mainly been concentrating on looking at some of the performance issues of Coppercore and SLeD. It seems the iTunesesque (I know, I know, let it be Martin) response times we were experiencing have been replicated by the OUNL team when they have duplicated our set up. The likely suspect was optimisation of the HSQL database. By fixing this and some minor code tweaks and an improvement to the caching method response times now seem to be down to a couple of seconds. Not ideal but a world away from the minutes we were getting at one stage.

At the OU Juliette White has been concentrating on some interface changes and bug fixes.

What we will find out now is what happens with real users as Liverpool Hope will commence using the system next week.

Will SpiralFrog be my usability saviour?

Following my disenchantment with iTunes, I was interested to read this piece in today’s Guardian. SpiralFrog will offer (legal) free downloads in exchange for suffering an ad while the download is taking place. Given that I could probably have watched a couple of Kurosawa films while the download from iTunes was taking place on my last laptop, this doesn’t seem too much of a hardship. It isn’t really cost that is the determining factor for me though (although given the choice, I prefer free), but rather choice (I need those eighties indie bands more than James Blunt) and, to rather hammer the point home, usability and robustness. SpiralFrog will need to make sure they crack these.

It is also another example of the drive toward all content being free. With the success of open source, the rise of open content and the liberation of information one sometimes wonders if _everything_ will be free one day. I await the first open source car with interest.

Blogs and broadcast

Hilarious post from John Naughton about a researcher from Richard and Judy contacting him to ask about blogs, and just not getting it. They asked John to appear on the show and he declined. Shame –  personally I think John’s withering responses to Richard Madeley’s platitudes would have been a YouTube classic.

I haven’t had that much to do with journalists but when I have I have always had an encounter similar to John’s – you are trying to explain something and they say ‘so can we say the internet has killed television’ (or something similar). And I reply, ‘no, what I mean is …’ and then they come back and say ‘so we’ll say that the internet has mortally wounded television’ Then, resigned and tired I say, ‘yeah, that’s right.’ There does seem to be this overriding need to simplify things to a standard position.

I have been asked to do radio a few times but it’s never come off, and now I don’t get asked much. I think you need to have either a big profile in a specific subject area (like John) or actively court these things. This is something of a relief to be honest –  if Garrison Keillor has a good face for radio, I have a good voice for mime.

The runner’s internet

I’m always intrigued by the way a particular community takes to new technology. I think it is in such communities that you see the unexpected uses, and where innovation lies – it’s where you are likely to find von Hippell’s ‘lead users’. As a (not very fast) runner, I think the running community’s use of technology is probably typical of this specialist development.

Firstly, there is the community itself – for all those people who think that discussion on the internet is just teenagers flirting with each other, they should read the forums as Runners World. These are interesting, informed, insightful and intelligent (and lots of other words beginning with ‘in’ as well). This kind of informed discussion doesn’t happen in broadcast media, and rarely even face to face. It is a good example of the sort of discussion that can only arise because of the internet. As Jeannette McDonald asked of e-learning ‘Is as good as face to face as good as it gets?‘ I feel the same about much discussion – we should invert the situation and after a good face to face chat with someone pass the compliment ‘that was almost as good as online.’

Then there useful tools – for instance Gmap pedometer takes the Google maps API and overlays a device for plotting your route. This is invaluable for planning runs. Unfortunately only a few countries are available at the moment. Luckily for me Cardiff is in very high definition. Then there are sites such as Asics, which allow you to create programs and offer log books and calculators. I am using this to train for a half marathon at the moment.

Then there are the tools. Runners are generally obsessed with data, and many like me, are rather addicted to their Garmin forerunner, which will give you pace, distance, route, history, training partner, etc. It does struggle on a cloudy day though and one can spend more time looking at it, waiting for the signal to come back than actually concentrating on running. And while they may not be my favourite companies, you have to admit that the new Nike+ is cool – a sensor in your shoe transmits to your ipod Nano, giving you audio update on pace and distance and you can select ‘power songs’ which tend to boost your running. The site has some good tools also.

Yes, iTunes is unusable!

After transferring all my songs I plugged in my three ipods (not simultaneously) in to my new computer. The mini worked fine, the shuffle had no problem but when it came to the nano, itunes wouldn’t recognise it. It then said the ipod software needed updating. I agreed to this, and it promptly wiped all the songs from the nano and corrupted it. I spent most of Friday evening and Saturday morning trying to retrieve the nano, but to no avail. I followed all the advice on the Apple support site, but the nano won’t be recognised by the computer or itunes now, even after resetting. Inbetween bouts of sobbing, swearing and ranting the thought that kept coming back to me was ‘playing music shouldn’t be this difficult.’ So, reluctantly I think I’ll have to go back to CDs and just use ipod like a walkman, but not as the main music hub.

About eight years ago I spent a lot of time researching the computer business (for the course T171 – You, your computer and the Net which used the story of the PC to teach about computers). My attitude towards Microsoft varies between the standard anti-proprietary approach that anyone who works with open source software adopts and being a partial apologist. What I never understood though was the ‘Microsoft bad, Apple good’ attitude that many people have. Sure, Apple products have a much higher design aesthetic (Bill Gates wouldn’t really know good design if it control-alt-deleted him), but Apple products are by no means more robust than MS ones, and arguably the dogmatically practical approach of MS has done more to democratise computing than the somewhat elitist attitude of Apple. And as for openess, well Apple don’t score highly there either.