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July 25, 2008

Education panel at Virtual Policy '08

I attended the first day of the Virtual Policy '08 conference earlier this week to take part in a panel on Education, Learning and Virtual Spaces.  My co-panelists were Andrew Burn (Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media Institute of Education, University of London)and Anna Peachey (The Open University).  Unfortunately I couldn't stay at the meeting very long because of other commitments but it looked like an interesting event, with a slightly different kind of audience than one usually finds at these kinds of things.  With hindsight, I wish I'd registered properly and attended the whole thing.  The conference was organised by the Virtual Policy Network and held at the Department of Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform (BERR) in London, with New York Law School providing program support.

Our session was chaired by Annie Mullins of Vodafone. The three of us each spoke for about 10 minutes, followed by Q&A.  My understanding was that we'd been asked to respond to the following three questions (though I'm not 100% sure that message got thru to all of us):

  • What are people saying about education in virtual worlds that, perhaps, they shouldn't?
  • What works - and where is there evidence to show that virtual worlds offer something new or better to educators and learners? 
  • What needs fixing - from access issues to firewalls, what do we need to know, make or circumvent to make virtual world pedagogy viable?

FWIW, I think this is an interesting set of questions and it'd be good to hear other people's answers to them.

The remainder of this post summarises what I had to say in response.  Given the limited time available, I tried to limit myself to 4 bullet points about each of the 3 questions (though I crept over slightly with the last one).

So, what are people saying about the use of virtual worlds in education that I don't like?

  • Firstly, I hate the whole "Google generation" thing (which is probably a sign of my age!).  I dislike it both in the general case but also specifically around virtual worlds - for me, being a 'digital native' is an attitude, not an age-based demographic.  When we were receiving bids for our virtual worlds grant call last year, several proposals said things like: "virtual worlds are where young people are, so educators need to be there as well".  Unfortunately, the Second Life demographics don't bear this out and it's not logical in any case.  As educators, we should be using virtual worlds if it makes educational sense to use virtual worlds (or if we think it might make sense and we therefore need to experiment to find out for sure).  Using them simply because that's where other people appear to be isn't a good enough reason on its own.
  • Related to this is the tendency for all of us to focus on Second Life specifically rather than virtual worlds more generically.  A comment on my ArtsPlace SL post about the panel suggests that I didn't make this point very clearly.  What I was trying to say is that experimenting with and building stuff in Second Life is absolutely fine (and very appropriate given that Second Life is by far the best mutli-user virtual environment for use in education at the moment - as I said at our symposium a year ago, in branding terms "Second Life is the Hoover of virtual worlds" and will probably remain so for some time to come).  However, it is only fine provided we try to use our experiences to learn pedagogical and other lessons that can be applied more generally to other educational virtual worlds as and when they become available.  As educators, we should be using Second Life for educational purposes because it is the best virtual world offering at the moment, not because it is Second Life per se.
  • My third point was that I sense a growing tendency by educators towards wanting to build rather more 'closed' virtual worlds than those offered by Second Life (and others) currently.  By this I mean closed to people outside their institution - a virtual world intranet if you like.  There are some good reasons for wanting to consider this as an option - a fear of the open, fairly permissive, and therefore potentially disruptive nature of Second Life for example, or a desire to have closer control over the server hardware on which the virtual world runs.  But there is a significant danger as well - that we lose the collaborative, social network effects of working within a bigger and open environment.
  • Finally, I made the point that Second Life often gets associated with the whole Web 2.0 phenomenon.  Whilst there are some similarities, notably around user-generated content for example, there are also significant differences and we need to be careful not to get mixed up by our use of simplistic labels.

OK, the next question was around what works and how we know it works:

  • Unfortunately, my sense is that there is still little methodical evidence around how, or indeed whether, virtual worlds have an impact on learning.  There are lots of compelling stories from teachers and lecturers in this area.  But these are somewhat anecdotal, and in any case, they come from people who are leaders in their field and who could probably teach successfully in the middle of a desert.
  • In our snapshot surveys of the uptake of Second Life within UK higher and further education we have tried asking questions about impact (as opposed to simply asking about activity).  But questions like, "how do you propose to measure the impact of your use of Second Life?" tend to result in more questions, such as "what do you mean by impact?", rather than direct answers.

Finally, we were asked to think about what needs fixing (by which I assume we really mean, what can policy makers, whether at corporate, institutional, national, or European levels, do to make things better):

  • I started with the mundane - virtual worlds need to somehow stop being as far ahead of the average desktop hardware capability as they are now.  This is not just an issue for institutions, many of whose teaching labs will not have kit up to the job I suspect.  It's also a problem in terms of inclusion (or exclusion depending on how you look at it) more generally.  This issue will resolve itself naturally I guess, but in the meantime those who build virtual world technologies need to make things as painless as possible for those lower down the hardware spectrum.  That needs to be done carefully.  Virtual worlds like Google Lively - which is much lighter-weight in terms of its hardware requirements - isn't really a virtual world at all.  It's a chat room with knobs on, IMHO.
  • We need to understand the pedagogic possibilities offered by virtual worlds rather better than we do now and be able to demonstrate, i.e. measure, the impact that they have on learning outcomes.  Without this, it seems to me that the use of virtual worlds will never get fully embedded into our collective learning and teaching strategies.  There are similarities, and probably lessons, here with the way the Web got adopted into learning.  At the moment we are largely in that bottom-up phase of individuals and small groups experimenting.
  • The integration of the Web with virtual worlds is very important, particularly in the context of education, but is rather poorly handled currently, particularly if we think specifically about Second Life for a moment.  Linden Lab are taking steps in the right direction but we are nowhere near there yet.  Textual documents will always be a fundamental resource within learning and teaching and the ways in which text can be handled in Second Life are currently rather poor, whether it is being used as a stand-alone resource or, more importantly, as a something underpinning a collaborative exercise.
  • Finally, we need to be able to manage access to our virtual teaching spaces rather better than we can currently.  As chair of governors at a primary school in Bath I drew an analogy here with what has happened in schools.  Until recently, we were very proud at our school about the fact that we were able to keep our playing fields and other areas open to the community.  But like many schools, and in our case as the direct result of a merger between two schools, we finally succumbed to pressure to close the school grounds.  Clearly, there are good child protection reasons for doing this and I'm not overly bemoaning the fact that we had to do it.  But suddenly our school went from being an open space to being a walled garden, surrounded by heavy fencing, with overtones of a prison camp.  It seems to me that this is a great shame - particularly in light of a government agenda that encourages the opening up of school space for use by the community.  What we need to avoid, it seems to me, is our virtual spaces going the same way and the ability to have fine-grained access control coupled with good management tools feels like an important part of that.

I snuck in a final point towards the end of my talk because I was surprised that no-one else had mentioned voice.  It seems to me that there is a tension in our use of virtual worlds between 'chat' and 'voice' as a means of communication.  Voice is clearly more expressive, more immediate and more interactive and therefore seems more appropriate in the context of teaching and learning.  Unfortunately, it also has a tendency to destroy the immersive quality of virtual worlds.  Does that matter in the context of education?  I don't know... but I think it might.

Those were my responses... I'm not totally happy with them but it was the best I could do in the time available.  I'd be interested to hear people's responses to them, or other thoughts in this area.

MySpace does OpenID

TechCrunch report that MySpace will become YAOP (yet another OpenID Provider), bringing the total OpenID-enabled accounts to over 500 million.

The numbers are fun and superficially impressive but don't really amount to a "hill of beans" since they fail to acknowledge the two most pressing issues around OpenID adoption.  Firstly, that there aren't enough relying parties (i.e. sites that will allow you to log in using an OpenID provided by a different service) and secondly, that the user experience needs significant improvement.  The two are related, or so it seems to me, because I think there would be significantly more (and probably better) eyes looking at solving the usability problems if the big players entered the OpenID space as relying parties rather than (or as well as) OpenID providers.

Oh well, all adoption is good adoption I suppose...

July 23, 2008

PsychoPod: conversations in cognitive psychology

At the beginning of 2007 we funded a small podcasting project called PsychoPod, undertaken jointly by Nigel Holt and Jim Crawley (Bath Spa University) and Ian Walker (University of Bath).  The intention was to develop a series of podcasts aimed at undergraduates on similar course modules in cognitive psychology at the two institutions and to undertake some survey work looking at how successful they were at augmenting a more traditional approach to course delivery.

The final report and copies of the resulting podcasts were delivered to us some time ago but I have just got round to doing something with them :-).  Four podcasts were produced, as follows:

I'm not sure how these were originally distributed to the students on the psychology courses but they were delivered to us as MP3 files on a CD-ROM.  So, what to do to make them available?  I asked around (using Twitter) for suggestions of a podcasting equivalent to Slideshare - i.e. a social network through which I could upload, host and share the podcasts.  Several people suggested Odeo, a service which turns out to be more like Technorati than Slideshare in the sense that it aggregates podcasting feeds from other sources rather than hosting the content directly itself.

So, I uploaded the MP3 files to the Eduserv Web server, created a simple RSS feed for the four podcasts and submitted it to Odeo.  I then waited a few days while the content got agreggated into an Odeo channel.  It was easy enough to do and seems to have worked fine.  I'm not sure how much 'educational' (by which I mean 'academic'... by which I mean 'university level') content there is on Odeo and it is possible that I could have made a better choice of service but the point really was to see how easy it was to make the stuff available so it doesn't matter too much.

As an alternative approach, I could also have added the content to iTunes or iTunes U I guess?  I didn't do so largely because I felt it was more appropriate for the universities concerned to do that directly themselves, rather than me doing it as a funder on their behalf (though one might make the same argument about my use of Odeo).

Suggestions for alternative (perhaps more overtly academic) podcast hosting and/or aggregating services are very welcome.

July 18, 2008

Does metadata matter?

This is a 30 minute slidecast (using 130 slides), based on a seminar I gave to Eduserv staff yesterday lunchtime.  It tries to cover a broad sweep of history from library cataloguing, thru the Dublin Core, Web search engines, IEEE LOM, the Semantic Web, arXiv, institutional repositories and more.

It's not comprehensive - so it will probably be easy to pick holes in if you so choose - but how could it be in 30 minutes?!

The focus is ultimately on why Eduserv should be interested in 'metadata' (and surrounding areas), to a certain extent trying to justify why the Foundation continues to have a significant interest in this area.  To be honest, it's probably weakest in its conclusions about whether, or why, Eduserv should retain that interest in the context of the charitable services that we might offer to the higher education community.

Nonetheless, I hope it is of interest (and value) to people.  I'd be interested to know what you think.

As an aside, I found that the Slideshare slidecast editing facility was mostly pretty good (this is the first time I've used it), but that it seemed to struggle a little with the very large number of slides and the quickness of some of the transitions.

AtomPub Video Tutorial

From Joe Gregorio of Google, a short video introduction to the Atom Publishing Protocol (RFC 5023):

Which, following Tim Bray's exhortation, I shall henceforth refer to only as "AtomPub".

Vapour Linked Data Validator

Spotted via an announcement to the W3C Linked Open Data mailing list, Vapour is a validation/checking service for "linked data", produced by the research team at the CTIC Foundation (Center for the Development of Information and Communication Technologies)  in Asturias, Spain. Given the URI of a resource it tests whether interactions follow the conventions recommended by Tim Berners-Lee's Linked Data principles, the Best Practice Recipes for Publishing RDF Vocabularies from the W3C Semantic Web Deployment Working Group, and Cool URIs for the Semantic Web from the W3C Semantic Web Education and Outreach (SWEO) Interest Group. The tool is also available as open source software.

Vapour bundles together nicely a set of functions which until now probably required using a few different tools and then applying a certain degree of manual sifting and interpretation; the human-readable reports produced are very clear and nicely designed (e.g. the HTTP interactions are represented in graphics similar in style to those used in the Best Practice Recipes... document). A neat, useful package.

July 17, 2008

OpenID and usability

Hot on the heels of my own post about the unsatisfactory nature of usability within Shibboleth-based federations, Mike Ellis has a nice post about the usability problems with OpenID.

Overall, I pretty much agree with where Mike is coming from on this.  My own experience of trying to use OpenID tends to one of confusion (possibly because my use of Sxipper makes the situation worse?).  As I said in a comment on Mike's post:

Something needs doing. Browser plugins might help - but I’m generally sceptical about such things because requiring a browser plugin for what is essentially ‘core’ Web functionality indicates a serious mis-match somewhere.

I’m still hopeful that things will get better.

In general, I tend to recommend Sxipper rather than OpenID for people who want help managing multiple usernames/passwords - but Sxipper is no way perfect either. I wouldn’t recommend it to my mum for example.

Information cards anyone - yes, I’m probably clutching at straws.

July 10, 2008


Anyone planning on attending ALT-C in Leeds this September might be interested in the F-ALT fringe event which includes various "WTF?" sessions on e-portfolios, learning objects, Second Life and eduPunk (though the organisers appear to be open to other suggestions):

Format: each session is a round-table brainstorm of problems, issues. Short quick quick fire format, say 20 to 30 minutes, with the aim of gathering of thoughts. Each topic identifies the questions that need to be answered to make some of these socio-technical educational interventions actually work.

Rules for participation
No long winded waffle. Participants must be short and sharp and to the point. More twitter than paper presentation.

What's the f2f meeting equivalent of Twitter?  A 30 second guillotine on speakers? :-)

Register your interest via the F-ALT wiki.

July 08, 2008

Stop the Web, I want to get off...

I used to be happy with Facebook and Twitter and regularly updated my statuses in both... for a while at least!

Then Facebook got a bit stale, started suffering application spam, and I sensed people moving on.  I still use it, but only really as a place to share stuff with friends and family - and as the home of my Second Friends Facebook application.

Then Twitter began struggling under the weight of its own success and people have started talking about identi.ca and Pownce and various other alternatives.

Good grief!

Now I seem to need Ping.fm, just to let me post to all the places that people might be listening.

I'm suffering social network overload and I need help.  Is there some kind of f2f group I can go along to?  "Hello, my name is Andy and I've just accidentally pinged the wrong tweet to my ning network".

Oddly, Spike Milligan predicted much of this chaos and confusion as long ago as 1968 (I still remember getting a copy of Silly Verse for Kids in my Christmas stocking that year):

On the Ning Nang Nong

On the Ning Nang Nong
Where the Cows go Bong!
And the Monkeys all say Boo!
There's a Nong Nang Ning
Where the trees go Ping!
And the tea pots Jibber Jabber Joo.
On the Nong Ning Nang
All the mice go Clang!
And you just can't catch 'em when they do!
So it's Ning Nang Nong!
Cows go Bong!
Nong Nang Ning!
Trees go Ping!
Nong Ning Nang!
The mice go Clang!

What a noisy place to belong,
Is the Ning Nang Ning Nang Nong!!

Spike Milligan in Silly verse for kids, 1968

July 04, 2008

Cory Doctorow on open licences

The Guardian's Tech Weekly podcast from Wednesday this week contains a brief but interesting interview with Cory Doctorow (about 21 minutes into the podcast if you want to jump straight to it).  In it he talks about his 3 key reasons for adopting open licences for his books.  Speaking about the work he produces he says:

  • Firstly, artistically it doesn't seem like a plausible 21st century piece of art if it is not intended to be copied.  There's something anachronistic in doing otherwise - "it's like making horse shoes or something".
  • Secondly, morally we are not going to be able to stop people copying and remixing work anyway, and our attempts at doing so to date have resulted in horrible things happening like spying on people, kicking them off the Internet, or suing old ladies or very young people for all their money.  Further, like most of us, he was a avid copier when he was part of the "time rich, cash poor" demographic - "I never would have had a single romantic episode if it wasn't for the mix tape".  If he was 17 again he'd be copying and remixing stuff it so it seems hypocritical to try to stop it happening to his own stuff.
  • Finally, financially the fundamental problem isn't piracy, it's obscurity.  The people who don't buy his books, do so because they've never heard of them, not because the books are openly available online.

He then goes on to talk about his desire to give practical help to those people who "get" the open access argument but need help in making it happen effectively.  And towards the end he touches on the people illegally selling CC licenced Flickr images on eBay issue that I blogged about a while back.

Worth a listen if you have time.

July 03, 2008

Catch you on the flip side later - improving the federated user experience

My colleague, David Orrell, gave a presentation to the JISC Federated Access: Future Directions day in Birmingham earlier this week.  Here are his slides:

David's presentation covered the user experience of both federated and user-centric approaches to identity management (i.e. the UK Access Management Federation and OpenID), the associated trust issues, and the potential impact that Information Cards might have on this space.

This blog entry focuses primarily on the first of these - the potential lack of consistency of the user experience in federated identity management environments such as that offered by the UK Access Management Federation.  There are two aspects to this: firstly the different experiences that different users see of the same service (by virtue of the fact that the authentication part of that experience is offered by their home institution rather than by the service itself) and secondly the different experiences that the same user sees of different services within the federation.

By way of example, let's consider two users, Janet and John (each from different universities, let's say Bath and Bristol) and two services, Service A and Service B.

When Janet and John access Service A they will each have a slightly different experience because the authentication part of the process will be provided by Bath in one case and Bristol in the other.  That makes it difficult for Service A to completely document its interface because at some point it will have to resort to saying something like: "you will then be re-directed to your institutional login page, we'll catch you on the flip side once you've been authenticated".

Conversely, when Janet (or John) accesses Service A followed by Service B she (or he) will have a different user experience of each in terms of how she (or he) is authenticated because the two services will probably present the login form differently and at a different place on the page, one may point to the federation WAYF service while the other embeds a pull-down list of universities, they may use different language to describe what is happening, and so on.

Ukamfexamples_2 Don't believe me?  Just look down the list of UK Access Management Federation services and try it for yourself.  David has put some images of the way in which different services in the UK Federation present the login process to their users on slide 26 of his presentation but it is a little hard to read in the Slideshare version (above) so I'm embedding a bigger version here (click on the image to see it full size).

Look at the differing forms of language being used - "Shibboleth" vs. "UK Federation" vs. "institutional" vs. "organisational" login.  Look at the differing ways of selecting the user's home institution - "search" vs. "pull-down list" vs. "multiple pull-down lists" vs. ...

The point here is not to suggest that any one of these approaches is better or worse than the others (though I happen to think that putting form boxes labelled "User Name" and "Password" next to text saying "Athens/Other Institution Login" when in fact the username/password pair being requested is the service-specific (i.e. non-federated) one, as one service has done, doesn't exactly represent best-practice and is presumably resulting in large numbers of institutional username/password pairs being seen by the service in question!).  Rather, the point is that there is currently a very wide range of practice out there across UK Federation service providers (including that adopted by Eduserv in our own services), ultimately leading to confusion for the end-user.

Now... inconsistency of experience isn't bad just because it confuses people - though of course that is a very real problem.  Inconsistency also represents an opportunity for phishing to take place because users have less of a handle on what step comes next in the authentication process.  We probably haven't seen any phishing taking place in the context of the UK Federation to date, and maybe the controlled nature of the environment means that we won't.  But it is certainly something to beware of - and certainly something that has troubled the rather more open environment within which OpenID has to operate.

Lack of consistency also represents a significant (and in the case of the UK Federation probably insurmountable) hurdle to overcome for browser-based plug-ins that might otherwise help smooth the federated authentication process.

Consider a tool like Sxipper, a Firefox plug-in that manages your usernames and passwords for you (including your OpenIDs) and that can recognise when and where to present them to services as part of their Web registration and/or login pages.  Sxipper works because, despite some superficial differences across services, most logins revolve around two text boxes and a submit button (though actually, Sxipper can deal with much more than this).  Furthermore, in the case of OpenID at least, there are well-adopted conventions for how these XHTML form items should be named.  Heck... in most cases, even in the absence of a tool like Sxipper, the browser will do a pretty good job of remembering what needs to go where.

Contrast this with services in the UK Federation.  The lack of consistency in the way information is presented and requested and the widespread use of drop-down lists to navigate to the user's home institution means that browsers and plug-ins like Sxipper stand very little (probably zero) chance of helping to smooth the process.

We can and should do better.  In the short term I think we need the help of some usability designers to streamline the UK Federation user experience and to issue guidelines for service providers so that a more coherent and consistent experience is offered overall.  And in the longer term... well, readers of this blog will know that I have views on institutional vs. user-centric approaches to identity management.  But setting those views to one side for the moment, I suspect we are still not mainstream enough in our approaches to access and identity management.  For example, can anyone point to a single mainstream Web 2.0 service that has adopted Shibboleth?  The move from Athens to Shibboleth has been a step in the right direction for the UK education community (at least in my opinion) since it represents a move to open standards. But does it go far enough? Shibboleth still feels like a community-specific solution to me. Whilst I accept that the community is now significantly bigger than was the case with Athens and that the solution is based on open standards I think we will only see real community benefits (in terms of the widespread adoption and development of tools and services) if we become part of a much bigger community - a truly global community.

I think it will be interesting to see what comes of the information card work, and in particular whether the ability to embed our identity management toolkits more firmly into the desktop improves the user experience whilst stengthening security and thus improving trust models.  I certainly hope so...

July 02, 2008

Snatching success from the jaws of failure

Failwhalemug What is Twitter's most notable presence on the Web right now?  The Fail Whale of course!  The Fail Whale is the graphic that appears every time the service falls over (well, except those times that it falls over so badly that they can't even serve the Fail Whale page! :-) ).

It strikes me as vaguely amusing that the artist behind the Fail Whale, Yiying Lu, who originally posted the image on iStockPhoto (though it has since been removed), has recently set up shop, offering mugs, mousemats and t-shirts based on her creation.

Good luck to her - according to Wikipedia, Twitter probably only paid around $10(US) for the image in the first place.  At least there's one person who's happy to see Twitter, and the rest of us twitterholics, suffering!

Can you show them a better way?

I don't know... you wait ages for a competition and then two come along at once :-)

Hot on the heels of Elsevier's Article 2.0, the Show us a better way competition asks people to come up with ideas that improve health, education, justice or society at large through the innovative re-use of existing public information:

The UK Government wants to hear your ideas for new products that could improve the way public information is communicated. The Power of Information Taskforce is running a competition on the Government's behalf, and we have a £20,000 prize fund to develop the best ideas to the next level. You can see the type of thing we are are looking for here.

To support the competition,a range of public data sources are being made available (though many require a free Click-Use PSI Licence to re-use Crown copyright information) including crime statistics, information about schools and health care services, map data from the Ordnance Survey and so on.

To help show the kinds of things they are looking for (and possibly to prevent the wheel being re-invented too much!) a list of examples is provided.



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