Archive for February, 2008

So many reasons to dislike Blackboard

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

As everybody in the education blog world has commented in the last few days, Blackboard won their case against Desire2Learn and this is a bad thing for eLearning. As I was busy reading the excellent summaries of commentary across the board provided by Stephen Downes, here, here, and here , Dave forwarded the reaction on Slashdot here.

As the bloggers I was reading were lamenting this for issues around patent law, IPR, trust in vendors and wider philosophical perspectives, all the comments on Slashdot were busy criticizing Blackboard as a system, by tutors, students and sys admins. Personally I have not used Blackboard since 2001 so I cannot comment on the truth of these crisicisms, but it was an interesting jolt back to the practicalities of it all.

It also reminded me about one of the best things of working in TALL, and actually how unusual it is, that we are a big enough team to represent most points of view in eLearning, but small enough that we all talk to each other and (hopefully) manage to avoid getting too caught up in our own perspectives….although I don’t think there is anyone on the team who would defend Blackboard just at the moment.

Where to look for reusable content?

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

As we kick off the Mosaic project (trying to develop a short course in early English literature using at a majority of preexisting content) I am trying to develop a list of places to start looking for this content that we want to re-use. I know that Sandie (our subject matter expert) has already identified lots of excellent resources using her knowledge of the discipline, but with the growth of OERs (Open Educational Resources) and portals and repositories to access them, I should hopefully not just be able to identify some likely looking content, but also content that will be easy for us to reuse – in terms of permission and copyright.

I have been clipping this area for about 3 years so had a list of about 65 things tagged free content and about 75 tagged OERs. A lot of these were the same thing tagged in different contexts or commentaries on the phenomenon more generally, rather than links to specific content, this got rid of a lot of links. A lot were very specifically K12 or focussed on a specific discipline that was not our course (at the moment it seems to me there is a lot more on the sciences and social sciences than on the humanities). There seemed to be a lot of initiatives that had a very impressive front page but very little behind it, or ones that did have a lot of content but clearly even I (as a non subject specialist) could tell there would be nothing appropriate for our course.

So now I have a list of things I want Sandie to check out and … consists of 12 things…..

To be fair some of these are VERY big portals to a lot of other content, but I am kind of disappointed. Also having had a quick search around I am already almost totally certain that it is sites that are not as explicitly focussed on reusable learning content that are going to be the most useful. Sandie will be doing more digging on this in the next few weeks, and will let us know what she finds. In the meantime here are the links i think it is worth Sandie following up:


  1. Intute –
  2. The OU –
  3. Jorum –
  4. Merlot –
  5. Rice Connexions –
  6. MIT OCW –
  7. Open courseware consortium –
  8. OER Commons –
  9. Jisc Collections –
  10. Directory of Open Access Journals –
  11. UNESCO List of Open Educational Resources –
  12. Google OCW search –

So if you know somewhere else we should be looking let us know.


Finding the real need for planning tools

Monday, February 25th, 2008

The concentration needed to develop our pedagogic planner tool Phoebe has necessarily brought our gaze inward during parts of the project. Over the last few weeks we have returned to looking outward, and have been talking to various people from other projects in the same space, particularly Jeff Earp from the ReMath project, Andrew Brasher from Compendium and Helen Walmsley from the Best practice models of e-learning project . It has been interesting to catch up and see where we all are, and to get a sense of how the themes that seem to be emerging from Phoebe resonate (or not) with other projects in this area. Added to this is an on going dialogue with our “sister” D4L funded Pedagogic Planner the LPP.

A key focus of all the current projects has been to develop tools that are fundamentally informed by the needs of our future users, rather than implementing a vision that is divorced from actual practice. Our current evaluations have been focusing on the practitioner level, but as our two projects come to the end of this phase of funding JISC are using this as a chance to address these questions more strategically.

As part of this Phoebe and the LPP will be at the centre of a review meeting that the JISC are organising in Birmingham on the 4th March. This will provide an opportunity to share and discuss our work with key stakeholders, and to explore how they might use the planner tools in their communities.

Copyright infringement is different from theft

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

Although the media industries like to confuse copyright infringement with theft*, it’s not the same thing. The Los Angeles Times has a nice article covering the subject: File ‘sharing’ or ‘stealing’?.

* For instance, the annoying would you steal… trailers, at the start of DVDs.
Whilst on the subject, the fact that you cant skip these messages about not viewing the DVD on an oil rig, etc. is a fine example of DRM – which should be enough reason for anyone to conclude that DRM is a Bad Thing.

Even hard drive encryption can be defeated

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

If an attacker has physical access to a computer, then there is no way to secure its data against him: New Research Result: Cold Boot Attacks on Disk Encryption (via Schneier).

We know where you live.

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

The New York Times has an article about the difficulties of leaving Facebook – or rather, ensuring that all your personal information is cleared off when you leave.

Briefly, to erase your presence there as much as possible, you should:

  1. Delete everything from your profile (Personal details, pictures, messages, wall posts, groups applications, etc.)
  2. Contact Facebook and request permanent account deletion.
  3. You should get a deletion confirmation – try logging in. If it asks if you want to reactivate your account, it hasn’t been deleted – bug Facebook.

More detail in the Facebook group How to permanently delete your facebook account (oh, the irony).

According to the Facebook terms and conditions, deleting all your uploads expires the license you give which allows Facebook to use them for whatever they want. However, they may still have copies on their servers. How much of your personal data is preserved when you delete it isn’t clear, and I wonder how that figures with the UK Data Protection Act.

Creating mashups involves real work

Monday, February 11th, 2008

A nice article at The Register relating the complexity in building mashups that is sometimes forgotten.


Thursday, February 7th, 2008

We have recently heard that we have got funding for the Mosaic project which aims “to develop an online course, ‘An introduction to the earliest English literature’, and a standard induction unit to introduce students to learning online, from pre-existing content external to the University. The project will also develop guidelines and case studies, as appropriate, to disseminate the lessons learned both within the University and to the wider HE community.”

This is going to be a really exciting and challenging project for us – taking something we already do well, developing short courses in English literature but doing it using at least 50% content external to Oxford.

Anyone who has studied one of our online courses will know we already have a policy of using the best content on the web to support the learning process, so that will be nothing new, it is the extent to which we are going to try and do this, that will prove the real challenge. In our favour we are working with one of our most experienced academics ,Sandie Byrne, who has already written Critical Reading: an introduction to literary studies, Jane Austen, and many other excellent courses for us.

As well as producing a course which maintains the high standard of online learning we already have across all our offerings, we are also looking to explore the issues to be found around developing courses with reuse of content and to develop new approaches and best practice for ourselves and others in the University. At the moment I think key issues are going to be identification of content, the line between learning content and learning design and the ever present copyright and IPR. I am sure it will all become clear over the next few months and we will endeavor to keep you informed on what we learn.

Google ♥’s the social semantic web

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

The semantic web is making steady progress in the social networking sphere via microformats like XFN and FOAF, which provide standard ways to describe me, friend, and other relationships between websites – and by proxy, their owners.

Lots of websites and tools already support these (e.g. WordPress, ClaimId,, but there’s a lot of duplication of effort required from users with, for example, having to find and add your friends in multiple social sites – adding the same relationships multiple times.

Google’s Social Graph API looks set to help solve to this by providing an easy way to identify the relationships found in their index of webpages. Social sites can ask about any URLs a user gives (e.g. their blog), and the API it will tell them about any other URLs that relate to it via the microformats, and use those to link up all the user’s me pages, and set match up other users on the site who are identified as friends elsewhere.

This API, along with other efforts such as OpenSocial, really help the web’s network effect, and make it a lot more interesting and useful.

I don’t think we have any projects in TALL that will use these tools yet, so I think some of my next tasks for my band’s website with be to see if I can automatically a) set up some relationships, and b) push out gig listings from our database into social sites like MySpace…

Following Online Society Across Time and Tech

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

Below is a pitch for a research project that doesn’t exist yet because I can’t describe it properly. The ‘Open Social’ concept and Social Graph API seem to be a tech kind of response to the phenomenon I am attempting to outline. I can’t seem to find an academic tool/framework to help me though…


The web continues to expand and diversify its capacity to support communication and collaboration. This is evident in the expansion and popularity of social networking sites such as FaceBook and communication tools such as Skype. The increase in groups that now straddle the real and the virtual is now having significant cultural impact. Individuals are increasingly part of a network of friends, acquaintances and colleagues that is distributed across multiple locations on and off-line.

These groups of distributed individuals are relatively new in form and are constantly changing in character as advances in online technologies provide new affordances which interplay with individuals aspirations to extend/refine their group and collaborate in novel and useful ways. Despite this being in a constant state of flux it is highly likely that individuals in the first world will be part of a distributed group for the majority of their lives. A 28 year-old in 2008 may have been part of an online group for over 10 years, a group that has morphed as that individual moved through a number of different life stages. The group is likely to have moved across a number of online technologies or environments and may exist across multiple environments at any one time.

Collaborative groups have been characterised in many ways, for example, Affinity Groups (Gee), Communities of Practice (Wenger) and Knotworks (Englestrom). Each theory describes different motivations, goals and structures of groups of people attempting to work together with some sense of shared participation. In each instance the theory in question is based on a particular area or type of collaboration or interaction for example fandom or institutional work. This is not to say that these theories are not applicable in a wider sense rather that their underpinning rational has a specific types or styles of groups. A similar bounding can often be seen in research undertaken in this area which is often focused on activities that take place within a particular tool or environment for example, Second Life, FaceBook or World of Warcraft.

It is increasingly important that we gain a better understanding of the phenomenon of the persistent distributed group, one which is not too closely tied to a particular style of interaction or type of technology. We are at a point in time where it is possible to trace the history of an individuals relationship with these groups, following that individuals changing relationship with other members of the groups they are part of and the technology involved. This would require investigating individuals motivations for being members of a group, their reasons for types and levels of participation and their changing perception of what constitutes the ‘real’ or what Castronova calls the ‘Semi-Permeable Membrane’ between online and offline worlds. The aim being to discover and map the underlying principles that are forming as online technologies facilitate the changing makeup of societies, becoming paradoxically more distributed and fractured while at the same time affording greater flexibility for communication and collaboration. In thinking about this it is important not to bounded by a single technology but to accept that many groups transcend specific technological advances or shifts and morph across the changing online environment. In this way a clearer perspective will be gained and a better understanding of the longer term implications and opportunities for society will be understood.


So there it is. I’m assuming that if you made it this far you are intrigued by the idea. Let me know what you think.