Archive for March, 2008

Learning designs, representation and reuse (2)

Friday, March 28th, 2008

In the Mosaic project we are moving on from looking at the course as a whole, to writing specific screens of content, and it is providing a good way of unpicking our assumptions about what Phoebe means for planning at the activity level in the context of a specific course. In our earliest thinking about Phoebe we always intended to have a “mind map” interface. We never did manage to implement this as we had enough other fundamental issues to address, but for me there is no doubt that it is at the more granular levels of learning where these sorts of representation have the most to offer.

As we have looked into how people design learning, both the the earlier LD Tools project that was done at OUCS, and our evaluations for Phoebe, it is clear that unless mandated externally, preferences in terms of representation are extremely diverse. A significant number of people do really want spacial map like plans, but an equal number would never plan that way, and prefer liner or tabular representations – all of which ignores those who use PowerPoint, paper, the back of a napkin….and the whole area of when designs move from just design into something you can instantiate.

So while we are working towards a tool that can cope with all the things outlined above….one day…. what does any of this mean in the shorter term? One thing that has served us well as Phoebe has progressed is acknowledging complexity, but trying to find simple solutions to the aspects of this space that can be tackled here and now.

Then chipping away at the larger more complex issues as we go….

So to take a simplifying step sideways when it comes to designing activities, in the sort of distance learning context we are designing for in Mosaic, this basically means writing instructions for students about undertaking activities that link to the tools they will need to use to accomplish them. Most of the time all you need to describe an activity is some words. So for Phoebe, just a box to write them in?

Although in the Phoebe team, we are resistant when people suggest that Phoebe is all about the guidance, I am starting to think that until we can really unpick the representation issues the most value to be found in Phoebe at the activity level is all about the right guidance. We also know that this guidance is the most powerful when it is very precisely targeted.  Coming back to the reuse observations I made at a course level, our authors definitely write better activities when they start with examples of similar activities used in other course, and they write the best activities when those examples are from courses in their own discipline.

So, ok this works  fine in a relatively small department such as ours –  look at the other courses we have built, get some ideas – but how do you scale this for national contexts, how do you find these “just right” examples? OK now we’re back at the more complex issues  – but certainly something that the wider D4L strand and other work at JISC and elsewhere has things to say about.

But blog posts shoudn’t be too long should they, and it is a Friday.

Photoshop on the web

Friday, March 28th, 2008

Adobe have released a Flash-based photo editing site Photoshop Express. The functionality is limited, and similar to other products like Picnik. Will probably be useful for casual snappers, but isn’t going to replace Photoshop or the GIMP.

Writing a sample unit

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

I’ve produced a draft of the first unit. The problem was the sheer amount of information I wanted to include, and the number of websites on the subject. I want to make available to users as much as possible, and to help users to be aware of the length of Anglo-Saxon history, the diversity of Anglo-Saxon peoples, and the richness of Anglo-Saxon culture, but not to overwhelm them or so drown them in choices that they don’t choose any. I have selected sites to include on the basis that: they are informative; they are accurate (usually moderated in some way); they are accessible (don’t require existing knowledge, or translations; have a readable style which suggests an infectious enthusiasm); they are well designed and illustrated; they don’t repeat material used elsewhere in the unit; they have good links to other resources. I’m keeping a list of sites which cover the same material, though, in case any of those I have chosen reject our advances.


Marion Manton has talked to me about the ways in which we can organise the site; how we can incorporate such a wide range of different kinds of material, and maintain a narrative thread that will lead users through it. I need to make sure that I produce the units as a kind of marked-up script for TALL, distinguishing between the different sources of material, and identifying copyright holders, and indicating such things as where pop-ups might be needed to define terms, and which text goes with which illustration (and vice-versa). I’m using different fonts and indents, making editorial comments and recommendations in square brackets, and studding the pages with yellow highlighting. I hope it make sense!

Finding more content for Mosaic

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

I’ve been organising my Anglo-Saxon and Old English ‘finds’ into groups broadly corresponding to the unit divisions I plan to have on the course site. There will be some overlap, of course, but it’s helpful at this stage to have an idea of how whether there are roughly equal numbers of resources for the history, archaeology, language, literature, and other aspects of the subject. There are some excellent sites from which I want to use a lot of material. I hope we can get permission. Peter Barker has produced a great user-friendly online introductory textbook, Stuart Lee has introductory lectures as podcasts, and a virtual tour of British Museum holdings, and there are three very well illustrated ‘Anglo-Saxon’ daily life sites which would really help people to imagine what it felt to live in that period. The only resource I have not been able to find is the Hwaet! Anglo-Saxon/Old English site produced by Professor Catherine Ball, It used to be hosted by Georgetown University, but though it is referenced on practically all Old English portals, it no longer seems to exist, and Professor Ball no longer seems to be at Georgetown. It was such a good, wide, scholarly but accessible, and fun site that I would be very sorry not to be able to resurrect it in some way. The wonderful wizards of TALL are going to help me to look for it.

Web2rights, IPR and Phoebe

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

A few months ago I spent a frustrating few days trying to get to the bottom of IPR and Phoebe. This is a question operating on quite a few levels as indicated below.

  1. IPR around the tool itself and how we release it to users – ok a pretty straight forward open source software issue, I think we are going to use GPL2 which seems to be fairly standard for JISC projects.
  2. IPR in the guidance within Phoebe – again not too bad, all the usual plagiarism and copyright issues, but as we produce online content all the time we know what we are doing here so not a problem
  3. IPR on the designs or templates an individual creates in Phoebe and opts to share – much more confusing. It seems obvious that creative commons or something like it is the way to go, but which one exactly?

Anyway after much trolling around it seemed there were a lot of people out there who were happy to explain all the problems in this space but not many who would suggest concrete solutions.

Hopefully this has started to change, at the pedagogic planners review meeting earlier this month Lawrie Phipps suggested I look at the Web2Rights project JISC has funded which at a first pass seems to be offering all that practical advice that was missing before.

Now all I have to do is read this all and decide what license to use and how to use it. I will try and remember to blog our final decision – or in the next month or so of course you should be able to go to Phoebe and see it in action!

Linux pretending to be Windows

Monday, March 17th, 2008

My housemate has user account on my Ubuntu laptop, which she mainly uses for browsing the web. Last night I noticed that the online poker game she was playing wasn’t browser-based, but an MS Windows application.

This made me a little nervous at first, as I believe those sort of downloads are a major vector for malware, but as a) the site looked reasonably respectable, and b) I suspect that running Windows malware in an unprivileged account in Linux is less dangerous than running it on Windows – I figure it was probably safe.

But how was this Windows poker program running on Linux in the first place? I had already installed WINE, a Windows compatibility layer, to try and run Populous: The Beginning, and when my housemate downloaded and ran the installer program, it Just Worked – she hadn’t even realized anything special had happened.

Getting Populous to run hasn’t been so easy (I’m still working on it), but well done to everyone at the WINE project for a great system!

Learning designs, representation and reuse (1)

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

As part of the Phoebe project we have been doing a lot of thinking about how to represent learning designs, and certainly the outputs of the Mod4L project in the D4L programme, did a lot to unpack how complicated this can be. There is no question to that we are a lot clearer about the challenges in this area than we were before the D4L work started, and some interesting ways of thinking about the problem have emerged. In particular the distinction between designs for inspiration versus designs for implementation, or anything else, which seems obvious now, certainly helped me think about this all a lot more clearly. Also I think we are better able to articulate the levels of granularity at which design operates and are starting to explore what is the same and what is different when thinking about design at the level of a course, module, unit, or activity.

Taking a step back from considering this in theory I am also interested in this on a more practical note for the Mosaic project. The main requirement for this project is to reuse as much as possible to create a course. As a committed D4L alumni I really want to see if we can reuse learning designs as well as content, but what does this really mean in practice?

Ignoring for now the possibility of reusing external designs I want to try and work out how we can reuse what we have internally. We now have about 50 online courses and 8 in English literature alone – clearly in all of this there are some learning designs that we could reuse, but how to get at them? All our courses have specifications which act as one sort of learning design at the course level – and there is no question that our authors look at existing specs and get inspiration for their course, I don’t think this is perfect but at this level I think reuse at an inspirational level is working quite well. However there are also other levels where this sort of design inspiration would be valuable, where the way forward is a lot less straight forward. In our case I think design has a part to play most importantly at unit level (1 weeks online study) and activity level.

In the case of unit level design along the way we have actually developed a very clear model across all our English literature courses – much more so here than in any of the other disciplines. However this is not encapsulated anywhere in an easy digestible format – essentially each new author has looked at previous courses and thought, hmm I think I’ll do my course a bit like that. This works up to a point but is actually becoming less scalable the more courses we have.

To take a step sideways I have tried to put the structure with the content stripped out in a word document – perhaps with the idea of using it as a unit template for authors, but I am not sure that it makes sense anymore – partly because it is too abstract but also perhaps because as soon as you start to think of it as a template for a unit you want to start thinking about the next level of design mentioned above, the activities – and that is a whole additional level of multiplying possibilities.

And of course if we have done our job right with Phoebe, anything I am trying here should be possible to model in Phoebe. I have done this with the course spec level already, and there is a sharable template for anyone who is interested (note you will need a login to Phoebe for this link to work). I think I am going to have to think harder before coming up with a unit level template, but it should be do-able. At an activity level I am not sure we if we are entering the place where Phoebe stops being the right tool for the job – although in theory it could work?

Well that is where I have got to today. Clearly I need to explore this more but I am going to put this out there anyway as if I don’t do this now it will remain in my drafts folder for ever more.

So more thinking to be done – better representation for unit level design – how to capture activity level design and how to do any of this in tools like Phoebe.

U.S. to hunt terrorists in WoW (maybe)

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

Via Schneier: The terrorism-obsessed U.S. is running project Reynarda study of massive multiplayer online games looking for “baseline normative behaviors” with the intent to “determine the feasibility of automatically detecting suspicious behavior and actions in the virtual world”.

Terrorism aside, the research is unclassified – so it might be possible to see their results eventually.

Take study groups online and they become cheating, apparently…

Friday, March 7th, 2008 reports on a student facing disciplinary action for running a Facebook study group. Sounds like the institution took a dislike to normal study behavior just because it was happening online.

Reviewing Pedagogy Planners

Friday, March 7th, 2008

On Wednesday JISC organized a meeting to look at the two D4L funded Pedagogy Planners, our Phoebe and the LPP. Liz at the Planners review

It was a really useful day, consolidating many of the themes that had come out of our other evaluation. If you want to know more about it you will be able access all the presentations here (as soon as they are posted).

Grainne has also blogged this here , here and here , and Sheila MacNeill here.