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.

Is iTunes becoming unusable?

I am one of those iTunes users who has gone over completely – I don’t buy CDs anymore. All was well for a while, but increasingly I am finding that iTunes is struggling to scale up to the sort of demands that a well stocked library places on it. I’m not that an intensive user – I have about 2000 songs in my library – but on my old laptop it had become unusable. I think it is a real CPU hog, and it got to the stage where there was a one minute delay for every action. So you click on a song, a minute later it is highlighted. Trying to create playlists or organize your library is impossible.

I got a new laptop this week, and the performance has greatly improved. However, connecting to the music store is still painfully slow. The little bar goes halfway along and then stops. You go away, write a blog entry, come back and it’s still waiting. This is with a good broadband connection and a zippy processor.

I’m sure these problems can be ironed out but what it demonstrates to me is the way software gets stretched and used in ways that haven’t really been planned for by its designers. Apple must have done some load testing, but maybe not from the UK on a slowish laptop. The trouble is if you are setting yourself up as the new music format, then it has to be ultra-reliable. At the moment I am thinking of digging my old CD player out.

Now, if iTunes was open source, my guess is these problems would be ironed out, but at the moment they seem more concerned with adding new features rather than resolving reliability and robustness issues. I fear they will face something of a backlash though if these issues aren’t addressed.

The size of education

I had the final award board for a short course I created yesterday, T186 An Introduction to e-learning. It was a short (10 point) course, created as part of the short course programme in the Technology Faculty here. The course has gone along okay, but I think the short course programme hasn’t quite been the success we thought it might be. There was a feeling in distance education, particularly with the advent of e-learning, that perhaps the full 32 week, 60 point course was the wrong size of course, and shorter, more up to date courses might be the way to go. The jury is still out (there is a good argument that they haven’t been marketed particularly well), but the student numbers haven’t been what we had hoped. Maybe there is an effort threshold – if you’re going to sign up for a course it may as well be a full 30 or 60 point one.

What T186 is a good example of is reuse (actually despite all the talk of reuse there are very few real examples of it) – I created it from the Masters level course H806 Learning in the Connected Economy. H806 consists of about 120 Learning Objects (it was designed around learning objects from scratch), and I took about 30 of these and reversioned them so they were suitable for level 1 students. This usually involved simplifying the task a bit, removing some of the readings and altering the assessment strategy. Although it was never a case of simply reusing an object, they all needed reversioning to some extent, it greatly simplified the task of creating a new course.

H806 objects have also cropped in a couple of other courses and been reversioned for some internal staff development courses, demonstrating that if you preversion (ie design with reuse in mind) then the opportunities do arise. If we had done all our courses like this five years ago, imagine the stock of reusable material we’d have now…

Corporate sympathy

I had to renew my car tax the other day. I can’t tell you how impressed I was that I could do this online now. Gone are the days of lining up in post office queues sandwiched between chainsmoking alcoholics, only to find the document you have entitled ‘Insurance Certificate’ is not in fact a certificate of insurance, and being told curtly to come back and enjoy the experience again tomorrow.

I am always impressed when these things actually work because working for a large institution I have an appreciation of systemic complexity. One of the (many) problems with modern media is that they simply cannot understand complexity – they always seek to find an individual to blame and having done this, they feel the problem is solved. But in large organisations dealing with complex tasks it can be the case that everyone is working perfectly well but things can still go wrong. That’s the nature of complexity. For this reason I always find myself rather siding with the corporate spokesperson who is called on to a consumer rights programme such as Watchdog and is given a grilling by the unsympathetic presenter who prides themselves on being the people’s champion.

So, when things like the tax renewal work, I am pleasantly surprised because I have an understanding of the complexity of the problem – imagine having to coordinate all those databases, get agreement from the insurance agencies, create the appropriate software, check with the MOT database, and so on.

Learning Design project

Had a meeting yesterday with the people from JISC, who are funding the D4LD project which I am project director for. Our colleagues from Liverpool Hope also came along and we had the OUNL on the telephone.

The main aim of the project is to improve our Learning Design player, SLED, and the underlying Coppercore Learning design engine from the OUNL. We are doing this in the light of feedback from Liverpool Hope who are using the system on real live students on four courses.

The improvements tend to fall in to three categories:

  • Performance – this really degrades with a few users. We have found a few bottlenecks, probably in the database, but we are still unsure whether the performance issues come down to a fundamental architectural issue.
  • Usability – there are a number of interface issues we need to address, but at the moment the performance one overshadows these.
  • Bug fixes – the usual.

Apart from the LAMS system (which is not pure Learning Design, but is very usable) there aren’t really any other Learning Design players around (the effort seems to have gone into authoring systems). In trying to promote the Learning Design approach the barrier one often faces is its relative immaturity, and thus lack of good examples. Having a usable system, with learning designs from an actual course will make this job easier.

This is our third iteration of the SLED project, and it is still not clear that Learning Design is the way to go. I think a second strand of evaluation in this project is that of the specification itself. While I remain convinced that tools and a methodology that is focused around pedagogy and allows the exchange of designs is necessary in e-learning I am less sure that the formal IMS Learning Design spec is the way forward. I admire the very pragmatic approach taken by the James Dalziel and the LAMS team. In the Learning Design community the debate is often characterised as that between Learning Design with a capital L and D (Ie the specification) and learning design with a small l and d (ie a learning design type approach).

Is everything an urban myth?

When I was doing the post yesterday about the wisdom of crowds, I was going to use the example of the mob that attacked a paediatrician, confusing them for a paedophile, as an example of the dumbness of crowds. I was sure that this actually happened on an estate in Portsmouth, and many well informed people have used it as an example of the dangers of hysterical crowds.

Turns out it is something of an urban myth, and the truth is more about the dumbness of an individual than a cautionary tale about mobs, as the BBC reports.

I always flattered myself for having a reasonably good nose for urban myths, but it goes to show that you can always get fooled. I mean, next they’ll be telling me the Kentucky fried rat isn’t real.

The Granularity of Ideas

I’ve finally got around to reading The Wisdom of Crowds. It’s enjoyable, and while I know lots of bloggers have retaliated with tales of the dumbness of crowds, but I think that misses the point. We know that crowds can be dumb, and become mobs, but what is interesting is when they become smarter than the smartest individual. Suriowecki claims that conditions need to be right for this to happen.

What had put me off reading it though was that the title, or maybe the introduction, kind of told you all you needed to know. This is true of many popular business books that cross over to a general audience – for example the Tipping Point or The Innovator’s Dilemma are both neat ideas that can be pretty much encapsulated in a paragraph, or at least an article. The popular writer is in a dilemma here – in order for their book to be popular it needs to promote one good idea that could be conveyed in the typical Hollywood/elevator pitch. But the currency for such ideas is the book, so the idea has to be stretched over 80,000 words.

It would be nice if the blog post became the granularity for ideas wouldn’t it and then we could save all that time reading and writing books which aren’t really required. Not sure how you’d get rich in this model though…