Archive for August, 2007

Oxford’s IT in Teaching and Learning Awards 2007

Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

TALL and colleagues were recently runners up in two categories of Oxford’s IT in Teaching and Learning Awards 2007.

Administration, support services or research

Department for Continuing Education website
Matt Street, David Balch, Sean Faughnan, Michael Brooks

Special award for best Teaching and Learning project created with assistance

TALL – Good practice in citation
This course is an introduction to the issues surrounding plagiarism.

For further information on the awards go to

Windows vs Ubuntu – why switch?

Friday, August 3rd, 2007

I want to re-install my work PC – get rid of Windows and install Ubuntu. Here’s why…

Around 5 years ago, after using AmigaOS, MS DOS, and MS Windows (versions 3.1, 95, 98, ME, and NT, 2000) , I started playing with Linux (or GNU/Linux if you prefer). I started with Mandrake (now Mandriva), and Linux From Scratch (compiling and setting up the whole operating system from source code), and I learned a lot about how a Linux system is put together, how software is developed and managed, and how PC hardware is often poorly put together, neglecting industry “standards” in favour of “does it work on Windows?”.

It seemed clear 5 years ago that Linux could do all I want a computer do, do it well, and maybe even gratis. The only problem was that it took a lot of effort to get to the system set up correctly in the first instance. Once it was ready it was great, but getting ready took time, research, and effort – that’s fine for messing around at home, but not so good for getting work done.

I now run Ubuntu Desktop Linux on my home PC, with virtually no effort required to run it – as these things should be.

My work PCs have always run MS Windows. Currently it’s Windows XP, and gives me hassle most days.

I don’t want to write reams of prose about the two platforms, so I’ll just describe the key issues that bother me, comparing Windows to Ubuntu:

(Apologies for the odd table, not suited to this thin theme.)

Issue MS Windows Ubuntu
Software management
  • Automatic updates for MS products only, unless you’re running multiple update programs
  • Add/Remove Programs tool works most of the time for some programs.
  • Periodically asks me whether I trust a security certificate.
  • Doesn’t really support adding new programs (get them from CD, or the web.)
  • Usually dumps an icon at the top of the start menu, making it a mess.
  • Central auto-update system for all software I reasonably might use (thousands of programs).
  • Cleanly installs and un-installs programs
  • Digitally signed, automatically authenticated repositories.
  • Places menu items in sensible categories – all from one simple to use program.
  • For the few cases where I want something not available in the system by default, I can usually add a new software source for it – problem solved
Malware scanner
  • Sophos anti-virus regularly brings my PC grinding to a halt.
  • No need for a virus scanner.
  • Maybe one will be needed in future – but not today.
  • Even with a rather generous 2GB RAM and 8 processor cores, I’m often waiting for simple tasks like a dialogue box to open or directory listing to appear.
  • That really bugs me.
  • Might be network related, rather than WinXP. One way to find out which…
  • My 1.5GM system slows down if I’m loading a multi-GB audio or image file, but that seems fair.
  • Switching between windows can be a bit twitchy if I’m not running Compiz Fusion – the new display acceleration system (which isn’t officially stable in Ubuntu).
Hardware support
  • Generally good.
  • I never managed to get bluetooth working, and getting the PC and my phone to talk through a cable was hassle, trying to find drivers/software.
  • Adding new devices can be rather hit and miss, with the problems of finding the right website->page->download needed.
  • When a device is supported in the kernel it’s usually seamless.
  • When not in the kernel, it can be as much hassle as Windows.
  • I got Bluetooth operational, although it was horribly slow – I suspect that’s just the format.
  • There are still lots of gaps in consumer hardware support (I expect recent moves from Intel and Dell will help close these gaps)
User runs the computer, or the other way around?
  • Do what Microsoft wants you to do – MS is the only producer of MS Windows
  • I get the impression that Windows Vista has lots of problems, heavy hardware requirements, but no compelling reason to use it.
  • In Microsoft’s business model everyone must “upgrade” to Vista – even the homepage for WinXP is covered in material steering you towards Vista.
  • There are many competing distributions of GNU/Linux, all essentially compatible with each other.
  • Differentiation on cost, support, features, architecture.
  • If you don’t like how things are heading on one distribution, you have a choice of others to use.
License costs
  • Software is not gratis.
  • Administrative overhead.
  • Perhaps a bigger issue for servers & CALs.
  • Pay more to run on multi-core/processor CPUs.
  • Software is gratis.
  • Pay for support if you want it.

Some of these problems could be decried as “standard industry practice”, but I see Free software changing the standard practice for the better.

So, if I want to use Ubuntu at work, what will I have to do? I’ve started listing up key Windows-Linux interoperability issues that will need to be solved – and their solutions – but that’ll have to wait for another post…

Writing web pages – the alt attribute is important.

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007

There’s a nice article about writing for the web on A List Apart, with this anecdote about including alt attributes to provide content for visually impaired users:

“If a user is blind,” I reasoned, “what does he care that I have a photograph of the university tower on my website?”

My fellow designer shrugged. “Well, I guess if you don’t really care about what the image says,” she said slowly, “you really don’t need it in the first place.”

I’m generally pretty good at including useful alt text, but this is a great way of saying why we should do it…