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December 24, 2008

Finding eBook Neverland

Or "why publishers need to unlock more than their imagination".

At the JISC IE and e-Research Call briefing day last week John Smith of UKC mentioned that discovering the availability of eBook titles is way harder than it should be. The lack of any single point of aggregation of information about eBooks means that libraries are basically left manually searching/browsing multiple suppliers to see who has what.

I just took a very quick look at NetLibrary, Dawsonera, MyiLibrary and Books@Ovid, wondering what information I could find from each about a search API, RSS feed or anything vaguely machine-to-machine oriented.

Nadda.

Apologies if I missed something obvious.

I mean, come on guys... this is the bread and butter of the Web these days isn't it?  Throw us a frickin' bone :-).  I'm not asking you to make your eBook content openly available, just offer an interface that lets me write code to see what you have available without having to manually browse or search your Web pages.

December 23, 2008

The apples and oranges of Shibboleth and OpenID

The JISC-funded Review of OpenID was recently made available, announced in a blog post by James Farnhill and resulting in quite a long thread of discussion on the jisc-shibboleth@jiscmail.ac.uk mailing list.

The report is not exactly my cup of tea, though I can't find much fault with the individual words (I'll leave my detailed comments on James' blog post), more with the overall tone. The trouble is that it inevitably ends up comparing OpenID against the Shibboleth / UK Federation which is not comparing like with like - one is a bare technology, the other a technology delivered in the context of a set of national policies.

As I suggested (implicitly) in the follow-up discussion, a fairer comparison would be to consider what an OpenID-based UK Federation might look like - white-listing trusted (institutional) OpenID Providers and mandating the use of SSL as appropriate to build a reasonable(?) trust infrastructure on top of OpenID rather than Shibboleth.

Those who see OpenID as an all-or-nothing 'open' solution responded that such an approach wouldn't work.  Or as the report puts it:

... because "the OpenID technology is not proprietary and is completely free" then users, OPs and SPs will expect that all OpenID providers are equal and can be used interchangeably.

I couldn't disagree more.  That's like suggesting that all email providers are seen as equal.  It seems almost ineviatble to me that some OPs will emerge as being more trusted than others, either explicitly thru the creation of federation-like initiatives or as they naturally emerge out of the Internet soup.

In his response to the blog post, Brian Kissel notes that:

the OpenID Foundation would welcome participation, input, and recommendations from JISC on how OpenID could evolve to meet your needs.

This is helpful.  For me, I'd like to see more discussion around trust issues and how we might sensibly begin to layer trust networks around the use of OpenID in areas such as higher education.

Final comment... I love (not!) the apparent quote from the survey of attitudes to OpenID by computing service staff:

why would the University put in effort to make it easier for students to access other people's [non-academic] resources?

Good grief... with attitudes like that it's hardly surprising that users are moving to external service providers :-(

December 22, 2008

Construction--Sand

How does that song go that we used to have to sing in Sunday School - "the wise man builds his house upon the rock" or something?

In Uncool URIs, Ed Summers reports that he has been asked to close down lcsh.info. I don't know much of the detail here but I strongly suggest that the work that Ed has been doing in this area has been both ground-breaking and important in terms of showing how to transition vocabularies from the old world to the new.

In thinking about the demise of this activity I'm torn between the short-sightedness of the Library of Congress in shutting this down without having a credible alternative in place and the obvious dangers of building and sharing this kind of infrastructural service without the full institutional backing of those who have the power to pull the rug from under it.

Shame...

Web, scissors, stone

It strikes me that we continue to do a lot of stuff as though we lived in a paper-only world...

The whole scholarly communication cycle is a great example. Yes stuff surfaces on the Web - but only as PDF, a digital representation of traditional paper, and the way we cite and link between academic papers still happens as though we lived in a paper-based world by and large.

The JISC-funded Preservation of Web Resources Handbook [PDF], made available a few weeks back, is another nice example.  I have no idea whether it's any good or not! At over 100 A4 pages, it's impractical to read on screen and I don't really want to print out 50-odd sheets of paper just to read it either.

As funders ourselves, Eduserv is just as guilty as the JISC of funding people to produce long reports that it is difficult to do anything with other than convert to PDF and slap up on the Web as a single file.  I hate PDF! We need to get more imaginitive in the way we surface stuff. And we desperately need to get out of the mindset that more equals better.

We now regularly ask our projects to blog throughout the life of their work, with the expectation that doing so is good for engagement and results in something incremental and part of the fabric of the social Web. I'm sure the JISC do this as well. But even where we do that, we still often end up with a final deliverable that is the complete antithesis of what the Web is about - i.e. a long PDF file. See our series of snapshots of the use of Second Life in UK HE for an example (though we are currently in discussion about how we improve things going forward).  Is there any reason why a handbook isn't delivered as a proper Web document (and, no, I don't mean one of those horrible automated conversions) for example?

And more generally... what about funding documents tailored for use on a mobile device like an iPhone? What about CommonCraft-style videos? What about ongoing Twitter streams? And if the format really does demand a traditional 'book' (as might well be the case here) why not optimise it for one of the print on demand services so that people can end up with a nicely bound volume rather than some scrappily printed, stapled together collection of A4 pages?

And please don't give me that crap about PDF being the best preservation format. Sheesh!

December 18, 2008

The @ crowd

Writing at life under electronic conditions, Benedikt Koehler discusses Networks that matter on Twitter: the @-Crowd, suggesting that there are three kinds of networks at play: your direct network of followers/followees, a wider indirect network of their followers/followees, and your so called '@-crowd', the people you are actively in conversation with using the @andypowe11 mechanism of directed tweets.  He cites a very interesting paper by Bernardo A. Huberman, Daniel M. Romero and Fang Wu called, Social networks that matter: Twitter under the microscope which provides some analysis of this last network and suggests that:

the driver of [Twitter] usage is a sparse and hidden network of connections underlying the "declared" set of friends and followers.

The paper ends with:

In conclusion, even when using a very weak definition of “friend” (i.e. anyone who a user has directed a post to at least twice) we find that Twitter users have a very small number of friends compared to the number of followers and followees they declare. This implies the existence of two different networks: a very dense one made up of followers and followees, and a sparser and simpler network of actual friends. The latter proves to be a more influential network in driving Twitter usage since users with many actual friends tend to post more updates than users with few actual friends. On the other hand, users with many followers or followees post updates more infrequently than those with few followers or followees.

I sense an (unwritten) assumption in the paper that the use of this sparser network somehow has more impact than the wider one. Perhaps I'm being unfair? Speaking personally, I would hesitate before suggesting that people who have more "friends" (using the definition from the paper above) are somehow getting more impact out of their use of Twitter than those with fewer. It's not hard to think of cases where lots of directed posts are used to share complete drivel between people - equally where a one-way feed of undirected tweets can be powerful alerting mechanism. Nonetheless, it's very interesting to see this kind of analysis taking place.

Other than that, I have two very minor gripes with the paper. Firstly, it defines "friend" in a very particular way (see above) whereas that term has traditionally been used by Twitter to mean 'a person that you follow'.  The paper introduces 'followee' for this which I quite like. (Note: although 'friend' is no longer used in that way in the Twitter Web interface, the word 'friend' still appears in the URL for the list of people that you follow). Secondly, the paper doesn't acknowledge that Twitter can also be used to send private 'direct messages' (DMs), the use of which surely forms part of this sparser network. Clearly, such usage is difficult to measure in an automated way, since it is private and not exposed through the Twitter API.

If you are interested in playing with this stuff, Benedikt Koehler's TwitterFriends application let's you see how your network of "friends" (as defined in the paper) shapes up.

JISC IE and e-Research Call briefing day

I attended the briefing day for the JISC's Information Environment and e-Research Call in London on Monday and my live-blogged notes are available on eFoundations LiveWire for anyone that is interested in my take on what was said.

Quite an interesting day overall but I was slightly surprised at the lack of name badges and a printed delegate list, especially given that this event brought together people from two previously separate areas of activity. Oh well, a delegate list is promised at some point.  I also sensed a certain lack of buzz around the event - I mean there's almost £11m being made available here, yet nobody seemed that excited about it, at least in comparison with the OER meeting held as part of the CETIS conference a few weeks back.  At that meeting there seemed to be a real sense that the money being made available was going to result in a real change of mindset within the community.  I accept that this is essentially second-phase money, building on top of what has gone before, but surely it should be generating a significant sense of momentum or something... shouldn't it?

A couple of people asked me why I was attending given that Eduserv isn't entitled to bid directly for this money and now that we're more commonly associated with giving grant money away rather than bidding for it ourselves.

The short answer is that this call is in an area that is of growing interest to Eduserv, not least because of the development effort we are putting into our new data centre capability.  It's also about us becoming better engaged with the community in this area.  So... what could we offer as part of a project team? Three things really: 

  • Firstly, we'd be very interested in talking to people about sustainable hosting models for services and content in the context of this call.
  • Secondly, software development effort, particularly around integration with Web 2.0 services.
  • Thirdly, significant expertise in both Semantic Web technologies (e.g. RDF, Dublin Core and ORE) and identity standards (e.g. Shibboleth and OpenID).

If you are interested in talking any of this thru further, please get in touch.

December 17, 2008

Virtual World Watch requests information

Over at the Foundation-funded Virtual World Watch project, John Kirriemuir has issued a request for updated information on UK university and college activity in virtual worlds, to provide the basis of a fifth "snapshot" report, which he anticipates making available in late January 2009.

This time the questionnaire is explicitly extended to look beyond the use of the Second Life virtual world and to cover other virtual worlds too. It has also been "slimmed down" to a relatively small number of "open-ended" questions. John is running to quite a tight deadline and would like responses by Tuesday 6 January 2009.

The previous snapshot reports have been well received as a current source of information, so if you have activity to report on which you'd like to see included, please take a break from the "Only Fools & Horses" repeats on Boxing Day, and have a look at John's questionnaire.

Further details available from Virtual World Watch.

December 11, 2008

OpenID Foundation community board member elections

The election of community board members of the OpenID Foundation is underway and voting is now open. Snorri Giorgetti has a nice summary of why this is important (though I should note that using this link is not explicitly intended to endorse his candidacy).  As a non-profit member of the Foundation and an educational charity, Eduserv will be using our vote in what we consider to be the best interests of the UK education community.

As I minor aside, I note that in email discussion around the voting process Peter Williams has asked all 17 candidates to state where and how they use OpenID or to justify why they don't use it.  Setting aside whether this is a valid criteria for selecting a candidate (FWIW, I'm not totally convinced that it is) it did prick my conscience about this blog which still doesn't support OpenID-based comments.  Why not?  Because despite the advent of things like Typepad Connect and Profiles it still feels harder than it should to configure this stuff on any Typepad-hosted blog where you have moved to advanced use of the templating system.

We're working on it and offer our apologies in the meantime.

December 04, 2008

Brief thoughts on the CETIS Conference 2008

I spent part of last week in Birmingham at the JISC CETIS Conference 2008. See my live-blogging for day 1 and day 2 for details, covering the introductions by CETIS staff, the opening keynote by Andrew Feenberg, the Learning Content Management Repository Virtual Environment system 2.0 and its future session on the first afternoon, the OER Programme Scoping session on the second morning and the closing keynote by Stuart Lee.

All good stuff.

I enjoyed both keynotes though I confess to finding parts of the first one difficult to keep up with while live-blogging. I don't know if anyone else felt the same way but I found there to be something of a discord between Andrew Feenberg's promotion of the value of face-to-face lecturer/student contact in the form of the traditional lecture (as opposed to textual renditions of the same, e.g. a streamed video) somewhat at odds with his own delivery style - which was basically to read out a written paper, a style that I find quite difficult to properly engage with. I also felt he underplayed the kind of collaborative learning that can take place, facilitated by social networks and/or virtual worlds, around streamed media. That said, his introduction of the "city vs. factory" metaphor for learning was genuinely valuable and the fact that his talk was constantly referenced during the two days undoubtedly shows the mark of a good keynote.

Stuart Lee was also thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking at the conference close.

I will also briefly mention the OER Programme Scoping session on the second morning which, for me, was probably the most interesting and useful part of the conference. OER stands for Open Educational Resources, a joint UK programme being run by the JISC and the HEA, and is described by John Selby of HEFCE as follows:

Significant investment has already been made in making educational resources widely available by digitising collections of materials and enabling people to reuse and adapt existing content to support teaching and learning.

This new initiative will test whether this can be done much more generally across higher education. If the pilots are successful, we will have demonstrated that we could significantly expand the open availability and use of free, high quality online educational content in the UK and around the world. This will give further evidence of the high quality of UK education and make it more widely accessible.

This, it seems to me, is a programme with huge potential to really change our cultural attitudes to the sharing of educational resources. However, doing so will not be easy.  We've seen significant activities like this in the past, the NOF-digi programme for example, that did not really succeed in bringing about such changes.  What's different now? Well, we have a more mature attitude to open content and the licences that go with it - Creative Commons in particular - so, undoubtedly, we are better placed now than we were then. On the other hand, we've been talking about the sharing of learning objects for some time with precious little success at anything other than the very granular level of individual images, videos and so on. So I think we've got to be realistic about what kind of content people want to share and re-use - we certainly don't want to be thinking about things like content packages for example - and you'll see from my live-blogged notes that I think such realism is having an impact.

Anyway, suffice to say that the OER Programme Scoping session was very informative and interesting with a good level of debate that could have gone on significantly longer than the time allowed. It seemed to me to have a buzz of excitement around it that I've not seen for a while.

Overall then... a very useful conference and I'm looking forward to next year's.

December 02, 2008

Digital students

Today's UK Guardian newspaper carries a special JISC supplement looking at the digital student and the way that:

technology has transformed education over the last decade. Sponsored by JISC to launch its 'Student experiences of technology' campaign, the supplement - 'Digital Student' - explores the achievements of institutions in this area and some of the future challenges as universities and colleges look to exploit technology and place the student experience at the heart of learning and teaching.

The online version of the supplement carries stories about Second Life, podcasting, iTunes U, SMS, accessibility, copyright, e-portfolios and more. Which reminds me... why doesn't our growing use of Apple's iTunes U attract more negative comment in the way that, say, Linden Lab's Second Life does? It seems to me that using iTunes U to host podcasts is significantly more closed than we'd really like it to be?

December 01, 2008

What do you call a device you can use on the run with one hand?

I installed Ocarina by Smule on my iPhone the other day. Nothing stunning about that I suppose... well, apart from the fact that it's the first time I've ever turned my mobile phone into a social musical instrument! 

But that's the weird thing about the iPhone - it isn't really a phone at all. It's a ... a ... - see, the trouble is, as Stefan Fountain noted at FOWA in London, we haven't got a word for what the iPhone is.

Via @ajcann I note that 100,000 applications have been added to the iPhone App Store in the last 142 days.  That's impressive isn't it? Mine is continually in use (if not by me then by my kids, who love all the games that can be installed) yet in the 3 months or so that I've owned it, I've only used about 6 hours call time - that's about 4 minutes a day (on average). Have I been getting my money's worth? Of course. The real value comes from all the other things I can do with it - not from the fact that it is notionally a 'phone'.

Apple haven't got everything right of course. The choice of O2 as the only UK network provider isn't great (IMHO). The fact that my kids seem to ignore the mute button, turning the volume right down instead, thus causing me to not hear the ring tone every so often (a usability issue?). The somewhat closed nature of the Apple iTunes App Store (meaning that 'jailbreaking' is required for some uses). But on balance, the iPhone gets a lot more right than it gets wrong and I, for one, could never go back.

So, what's the definition of a mobile phone? In the FOWA presentation above, the following definition is suggested:

a device you can use on the run with one hand

I think that definition is slightly broken, since it appears to include the iPod Touch, which doesn't fall into my mental model of a 'phone' (despite the fact that it presumably supports VoIP over wireless). But, to be honest, I can't think of a simple definition of 'mobile phone' that doesn't rule too much out or too much in so maybe the one above is good enough. And perhaps that's the point - convergence is about the blurring of things that used to be separate and as a result, the clear-cut names we used to use no longer apply cleanly.

Well... better get used to it I guess since the situation is almost bound to get worse rather than better - or do I mean better rather than worse!?

Facebook in HE

A quickie... and one that I meant to write a while back actually, in response to a short debate I watched happening on one of the Higher Education Academy mailing lists about the use of Facebook in UK universities.  Unfortunately, as with many of my potential blog posts, it got forgotten at the time.  Then, more recently, I noticed that Brian Kelly had posted on the subject, What is the Evidence Suggesting About Facebook?, leading to several comments and a response by Paul Walk, Why I suppose I ought to become a Daily Mail reader.

The problem with Facebook in HE is that we tend (not always I'll admit, but often enough to be worth noting) to approach it with questions like, "how can we use Facebook in universities to allow us to engage with them?" - where 'us' is the lecturers and 'them' is the students. And this approach tends to degenerate into the kind of, "oh, but Facebook is their space not our space" or, "is it OK for me to have a student as a Facebook 'friend'?" debates that we see so regularly.

If, instead, we approached it with questions like, "how can we use Facebook in universities to facilitate students/prospective students/alumni talking to other students/prospective students/alumni?" - as, for example, Ruth Page does in Facebook Fresher's group: Success story - I think we'd be on firmer ground.

Basically, it's about using Facebook (or any other social network for that matter) to facilitate conversations in spaces that 'we' are not necessarily part of.

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