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.

VLE workshop

I gave a presentation today at the VLE workshop at the OU. It went quite well, I tried to cover a range of general issues, while others talked more specifically about our implementation of Moodle. I used it to put forward several ideas in my upcoming book, particularly the idea of succession and VLE 2.0 (ie what would a web 2.0 VLE be like?).

Download VLE_presentation.ppt presentation

Thunderbirds are go(ish)

Ellen (my daughter) has a new favourite film, Thunderbirds. This was widely panned on release, and in truth it’s not a classic. But I understand why she likes it. This is a tough sell, but I’m going to argue that Thunderbirds is a better film than The Incredibles. Well, it’s a better film for kids. Ellen didn’t really get The Incredibles, but Thunderbirds is aimed directly at kids. Which is why of course adult film reviewers don’t get it. Kids apply a different set of criteria. All the adult in-jokes that have become the stock in trade of Pixar films are lost on kids. This has a secret island, lots of kids beating adults, some cool machines, etc. So what if the characters, script and dialogue is rubbish?

I’ve not convinced you have I?

Clients are the new flares

I spent some time in a session on Personal Learning Environments recently. The issue of PLEs aside, what intrigued me was that most of the talk focused on the development of rich, desktop clients.

In fashion they say if you stay still long enough, trends will come back around to where you are. This is true with educational trends also I guess, so for some it seems that clients, like flares, have come around again. Some of you will remember the early e-learning days where you had a plethora of different clients for each functions – email, discussion forums, online simulations, etc. Then the web came along and the web browser became the ubiquitous interface. This was a significant step forward and was partly responsible for the phenomenal growth of internet usage in the nineties. Now you could use any browser to access most of the functions you wanted to perform online. This is very useful if you log in from different locations, as you don’t need to rely on multiple versions of different software clients being available. It also means you can integrate different tools as they are operating within the same browser framework. However, there is often a loss of richness and speed in using a web version of a system compared to the dedicated software client.

With PLEs the fashion seems to have come full circle again, and the talk is now of rich, desktop clients once again. Two reasons are put forward as the main advantages of this approach, one of which I feel is valid, and the other less so. The first, more powerful argument is the ability for the user to create a rich environment with complex functionality, which would be difficult to achieve through a web browser. The software is housed on the user’s machine, and not located remotely on a server, which means that the transactions are quicker and the level of control greater.

The second argument put forward is that a client allows the user to work offline, since the connection with the server is not required. While this is important for users sometimes, it is something of a red herring. Most users can easily arrange tasks for periods when they know they will be offline, for example downloading documents for reading. It runs counter to the trend in society for almost ubiquitous connectivity. There may be times when you want to take your mobile device to the top of a mountain to study, but these are not so frequent as to necessitate the massive development and cultural effort that a PLE-oriented system requires.

If I had to back a winner here I’d go for ubiquitous connectivity and browser interface (maybe with some thin clients), over the rich desktop client.