Archive for the 'Open source' Category

Customizing open source software: benefits and pitfalls

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Aimed at e-Learning developers, this case study draws on the JISC-funded Cascade project’s experience of customizing the Moodle assignment module, to highlight the benefits and pitfalls of working with open source software.

This aspect of the Cascade project had two key challenges: (a) to specify requirements for enhanced assignment-handling functionality in Moodle; and (b) to develop the code itself.  Both proved far more challenging than anticipated.

The experience of the project suggests that customizing open source software to meet the institution’s bespoke curriculum delivery requirements can result in the development of a robust system offering improved services to stakeholders, however there can be pitfalls.  Key recommendations for other developers considering similar projects are:

  • Define the processes involved before working on the development of software; a broken or unclear process cannot have an effective technological solution;
  • Keep all stakeholders informed of what the final result will be, providing updates when the requirements/functionality change;
  • Have everyone concerned with functionality and bug identification use an issue management system from the start of the project;
  • Use version control to manage code, but keep it simple;
  • Learn and work with the norms of the open source community for maximum wider benefit.

Read the full case study at:  Cascade Case Study 2: Customizing open source software: benefits and pitfalls.

Switching from Windows to Ubuntu

Monday, January 11th, 2010

So, after a long time grumbling about how Windows gives me hassle, I’ve switched to Ubuntu on my work PC.

I had originally planned to dual boot both WinXP and Ubuntu whilst I figured out stuff like Active Directory domain membership, but in the end I got so fed up of Windows getting in my way, one day I just decided to switch. (Our IT team recognises that the developers in our group need administrator access to setup our tools and servers so, on the understanding that we don’t put our machines or the network at risk, we’re allowed fairly free reign.)

It took a while to get set up as I like it, but I think I’m there – so here’s a little overview…

NB: I’ve had only a little exposure to Windows Vista (where I found the continual “security” confirmation dialog boxes incredibly annoying), and to Windows 7 (where the window tiling function looks genuinely useful), so maybe MS have these newer versions of Windows would compare better than XP does.

What’s good?

  • I’ve installed (and use) software for web site browsing, word processing, vector drawing, image editing, version control, remote access sessions, programming, time tracking, and countless utilities – all with a few clicks from the built-in repositories (at zero purchase cost). The wealth of software available is amazing, for which the free software community is justifiably proud, and has my admiration and thanks :-)
  • Easy access to remote files. I can browse Windows shares (without needing AD integration), and even better, I can browse our Linux servers via SSH (really not very pleasant on WinXP), all integrated with the Gnome desktop via Nautilus.
  • Virtual desktops – I’m amazed that Windows still doesn’t support this. I know there are hacks and 3rd party extensions, but the ones I’ve tried were rubbish in comparison to Gnome’s default configuration.
  • Using VirtualBox virtual machines I can use multiple versions of IE in virtual machines, and my old suite of Windows apps if I have to handle proprietary file types.
  • Software updates are smooth and rarely interrupt me.
  • Startup and shutdown are a lot quicker than Windows, never leaving me with x updates to install before the machine will shutdown (which is good as I like to switch off the machine at the socket).
  • No slowdowns due to a virus scanner.
  • All the little things which seem to happen because of Free Software. Simple useful integration that just works, like that Nautlius’ file property dialog shows size and codec information for media files.

What’s bad?

  • Evolution is supposed to be able to connect to MS Exchange for email and calendars, which it sort of does – unfortunately the MAPI connector doesn’t seem to work at all, and the Webmail connector is slow and tends to disconnect often. It’s ok for light use but, if I’ve got a lot of mail to deal with, I’ll often open Windows in a virtual machine and run Outlook.
  • OpenOffice.org doesn’t have seamless compatibility with MS Office files (arguably Microsoft’s fault).
  • Connections to Windows file shares have crashed on occasion.
  • The video is a little unstable, crashing very occasionally, but I’m chalking that one up to the Nvidia closed-source binaries. I’m glad that Nvidia provide a driver at all, but believe they’d end up with a better product if they were more open-friendly.
  • The task switcher (ALT+tab) is slow if desktop visual effects are on. This used to be fine, and I guess it’s the Nvidia driver disagreeing with the kernel about something.
  • A few cosmetic issues like notifications appearing at the wrong position.
  • There are other areas I’ve bumped against at home that are also worth a mention: The lack of decent video editing software, the ongoing transition to PulseAudio/JACK for regular/pro audio use. These aren’t a problem at work though.

Overall I’m happy – my day to day workflow is much smoother, and – at risk of becoming a FLOSS advert – I get warm fuzzies from following the progress being made in various parts of the Free Software environment – like a non-destructive editing version of GIMP, desktop activity awareness, local map applications, pro audio –  there’s too much to mention it all! :-)

System upgrade

Friday, September 25th, 2009

I’ve just upgraded this blog to the latest WordPress. Everything seems ok, but please let me know if you spot anything wrong.

Open content and libraries

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

I was really interested in Tony Hirst’s recent post Open educational Resources and the University Library Website, which raised something which had never occurred to me and I am not sure why.  At the end of the Mosaic project one of our key conclusions was “maximise discoverability, put open content where people already look for things” and somehow in writing this, immersed in the web and web 2.0 and thinking of google and flikr I overlooked one of the  key places where people already look for things are library sites.

It still seems to me the two biggest barriers to wide-scale uptake  of OERs remains 1)  licenses and 2) the ability to find useful OERs in the first place.

So I agree with Tony, this is something we have to resolve, and soon.

Who needs Flash anyway?

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Twitter particle systems using HTML5

Also see:  Die IE6.

OpenSpires

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

TALL is part of a team, led by Oxford University Computing Services, that has recently been awarded funding from the JISC/HE Academy Open Educational Resources Programme for the Open Spires project.
The project has two purposes: to increase the amount of learning content (especially audio and video) released from Oxford and to enable the University to investigate the implications of making some of this material available as ‘Open Content’ under a Creative Commons or other suitable license. This means that quality educational content will be available for reuse and redistribution by third parties globally, provided that it is used in a non-commercial way and is attributed to its creator.
This funding will enable the University to build upon the Oxford iTunes U service launched in October 2008, which has widespread participation from Oxford academics. Oxford podcasts currently include recordings of guest lectures, interviews with researchers and conference presentations. The project will have a global impact, as the free-to-download resources are in many cases from speakers, researchers and visiting lecturers with high international profiles.
The project hopes to benefit the University by:

  • Enhancing Oxford’s global reputation – enabling the production of more material that has international impact and places the University in a leading position within the UK Open Content movement.
  • Ensuring expert legal scrutiny – the complex licensing and IPR issues associated with Open Content will be investigated by the University’s Legal Service office.
  • Enhancing current provision and accessibility – text transcripts will be produced to accompany existing podcasts.
  • Enabling the University to produce more audio and video content that brings the modern day University to life for its many alumni.
  • Improving admissions by enabling the production of more podcasts that will reach and inspire the key 16-18 age group.

The project started on 30 April 2009 and will last for one year.

License awareness, for perfectly informed consumers…

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

These days it’s very easy to acquire digital copies of stories, pictures, music, video, fonts, code – any sort of media you care to mention. Sometimes this is legal, notably through open source/free software, creative commons licenses, and Bittorrent. Sometimes it’s illegal – through Bittorrent*, copying files from websites, lending CDs/DVDs, etc.

Obviously, this is in clear conflict with established media industries, often represented by acronyms groups like the BSA, RIAA, and MPAA, who want to maintain their historical place in the distribution channels. Many others around the web have commented on how these businesses need to realize that they don’t have a right to a profit in their particular part of the market, and I concur, but won’t rehash that here.

Instead, the whole reason for this post is to point to what I hope is the way forwards: License transparency at the client level – nicely demonstrated with the display of licensing information in recent work on the Banshee media player.

I don’t think this feature has filtered out to a release yet, but a suitably enabled Banshee will display the license information for songs, along with the track name, duration, etc.

This may not seem like the sort of thing that would be useful to 99% of the population, but it is relevant to 100% of the population, as many people may not realize that, in many cases, ripping the CD they borrowed from cousin Kev is illegal. For the cases where it’s the artist’s intent that copies should be made, I think it should be advertised and encouraged.

As a both a musician and an open-source enthusiast, licensing rights can be an important tool to help me ensure the quality and longevity of my work in both those areas. I haven’t a solid plan for this, but suspect that outright, no-strings, free-for-all copying won’t help me develop my rock-star career. (Any advice on developing the rock-star career is welcome :-)

I believe that most people don’t currently consider the licensing of the media they use, and just copy it if they feel like it. Rather than taking the futile DRM approach, I think it’d be better to share media quite liberally, and for software to inform people what’s going on, enabling appreciative users to support it – with financial (particularly for music), and direct (more relevant with software) contributions.

If we’re in a market-driven economy, let’s try and work towards perfectly informing the consumers…

Merry Christmas!
Dave B.

* Note the dual use (legal/illegal) potential of some technologies.
† Ok, I’m a drummer – it’s close enough ;-)

Open source community

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Jono Bacon, community manager at Canonical (sponsors of Ubuntu) posts about the Ohio Linuxfest, including a video demonstrating a great community moment.

Maps on the internet

Thursday, September 25th, 2008

It used to be difficult to get good quality maps on a website – or at least long-winded and expensive finding them and purchasing a license, or clearing copyright.

In these Web 2.0 days it’s easy to get a good looking map on your website, and I’ve just done that for Vikings: raiders, traders and settlers (one of the 25+ online courses we’re running this term).

We provide simple maps with settlements marked and annotated, as well more complicated maps with tools to investigate the languages from which town names are derived, and detailed exploration of a town’s heritage of defense against the vikings 1000 years ago – still visible today!

Visit the Vikings maps pages to explore and learn about notable viking settlements through text, video and panoramic images, all linked up using the Google Maps API, blip.tv, and PanoSalado.

Open source textbooks

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

The Commonwealth of Virginia is getting into open textbooks (with a Creative Commons license).