Software – more is not always better

Spent a frustrating day creating the images for my book today. Now up front I have to own up to the artistic level of your average 9 year old. Struggling with Corel Draw reminded me of the old days of trying to get the bloody thing to do what you want. I have become accustomed to easy to use software, which does one or two things simply, that I tend not to encounter these very specialist packages any more. What I wanted to do was create some fairly simple diagrams, but for instance, drawing a normal distribution curve that wasn’t skewed, bumpy or in some way deformed proved to be beyond me. My colleague Patrick McAndrew jokes that there are only three diagrams in Higher Education – the Venn diagram, the triangulation of forces and the normal distribution curve. There is something in this, and what I need is a drawing package that doesn’t give me lots of features, but lets me do the simple things effectively. The drawing package in Word is not bad for this, but the output often lacks that more professional (or less amateur) look. There probably is such a package out there. My point is that development is always about adding more, but for a whole range of users it’s not about more, it’s about simpler.

The anti glory game

As a Spurs fan, last night’s Arsenal-Barca cup final is a strange affair to watch. If Arsenal were playing a team I was familiar with, for example, Liverpool, I could easily switch allegiance and become a rabid red for the night. But football is so much a game of emotion, and I find this negative support (I’ll support you because I don’t like them – not dissimilar to the US foreign policy now I think of it), difficult to maintain. So no matter how hard I tried I wasn’t really willing Barca to score.

But I know in the long term I definitely don’t want Arsenal to win (I’d never hear the last from my brother for one), so you’re left in this no-man’s land, which must be something akin to a non-footie fan watching the game. You can’t really enjoy it. If truth be told, I envy Arsenal fans their chance to partake in the glory. As Spurs legend Danny Blanchflower said, "Football is not really about winning, or goals, or saves, or supporters… It’s about glory. It’s about doing things in style, doing them with a flourish; it’s about going out to beat the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom". So, watching your rivals in a big game is a curious sort of anti-glory event. The best you can hope for is schadenfreude, which is not the noblest of emotions (although for Spurs fans it is embodied beautifully by ‘Nayim from the halfway line’).

As it turned out Arsenal put on a good performance with 10 men, and didn’t deserve to lose. I’m glad they did and all that, but they didn’t deserve it (Barca were quite poor I thought). Still, do I envy them still? Yes. I half remember a quote that even Google can’t locate, which went something like ‘between despair and nothing I’d choose despair.’ As with West Ham on Saturday, Arsenal fans would rather have the despair of losing than the nothing of finishing 12th in the league.

Technology works sometimes

Spent a frustrating afternoon trying to set up a webcam link with the OU. As a homeworker I would really like to be able to come in to meetings easily via webcam. It still amazes how difficult this stuff can be for organisations sometimes. It was a firewall/port issue apparently when using Netmeeting. We can get through with lighter clients such as Flash meeting, but the feed is small.

Equally, I’m always amazed when technology just works. I tried Skype about eighteen months ago as part of a European project and it struggled with three way conversations. I used it again last week for one of these and it was good quality and worked straight off. This robustness always impresses me.

Institution vs individual environments

Have just completed writing for a course on eportfolios. I remain a bit sceptical on these, at times they seem little more than a set of prepared fields for web publishing. In terms of academic practice they can be seen as part of a general shift from the institution to the individual. Along with blogs, social bookmarks, individual portals, etc the emphasis is less on providing students with all their ICT requirements and rather on incorporating their existing tool set into the institution. This viewpoint sees its apotheosis with the Personal Learning Environment (CETIS PLE Project). Now if I had doubts about eportfolios, they are nothing compared to the ones I have regarding PLEs.

The not inconsiderable problems a PLE would need to address are:

  1. Support. The support issues for an institution and educators would be extremely complex if each user had a different set of tools, and so would most likely be passed on to the individual. One of the reasons why current VLEs have been successful is that they allow universities to centralize support and thus ensure a certain level of competence and quality of experience.
  2. Quality assurance. Increasingly universities need to ensure a certain quality of provision. This would be difficult to maintain and predict if everyone is using different tools.
  3. Suitability. While the learner-centric notion has much about it which is admirable, we should also be aware that sometimes the student is not the best judge of what is the best approach. In this context this could mean they continue to use a tool when a different one is better suited to the purpose, or they are not exposed to new technologies.
  4. Negotiation of activity. Although the choice and flexibility in this approach is a strength, it could also create a significant overhead in negotiation. For example group activities would be difficult to achieve if everyone used their own tools. While there may be some standardization and compatibility between systems (e.g. different IM clients may be able to communicate), this is difficult to envisage between different categories of systems e.g. IM and asynchronous tools. Therefore there would need to be negotiation between students as to which tools to use.
  5. Technological complexity. Although the service oriented approaches and standardization will help, it would still be an enormously complex task to enable the range of different tools to integrate with those systems required by an institution, and even more problematic if one has to assume a novice user

What the PLE work reveals and acknowledges is the growing use of technologies by learners. VLEs are often operating on an assumption of zero experience and competence (which is the safest thing to do, and for some students, valid). Higher education has not really begun to address the implications of Prensky’s ‘digital natives’ coming in to the higher education context with familiarity and loyalty to a number of different technologies.

The tension here is between institutional and individual technologies. VLEs are an institutional response to the opportunities of the internet. Most of the newer tools are based around the individual. The eportfolio is a good example of this tension. Many universities are beginning to develop or buy institutional eportfolio systems, so that they provide all students with this tool and use it in specific courses and for institutional aims, e.g. as a means of assessment. However, the eportfolio is an individual tool and one of the main drivers behind them is their ability to collate information and learning across institutions. So, should an eportfolio be a tool that a user brings to an institution or one that an institution provides for everyone? Of course, interoperability goes some way to solving the dilemma, since it means data can be ported between applications, but it is unlikely to be the complete solution, and many of the problems with the PLE outlined above, such as support and guaranteed level of provision will remain.

Some of the implicit and explicit criticism of current VLEs that is found in the PLE work is valid, but this does not necessarily mean that the PLE is the solution. Some of the complaints, for example the ‘one size does not fit all’ claim could be addressed by making VLEs better, either in terms of pedagogy or customization. One could envisage a rich set of tools being offered to students via VLEs, with customizable and personalized feeds, interfaces and tool selection, which would go some way to achieving the aims set out for PLEs.


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.