Mashing up the PLE (Tony Hirst)

Notes from a seminar (slides) by Tony Hirst.

PLE=Personal Learning Environments.

Gilbert Ryle – notion of category mistakes (in The Concept of Mind); happens when people talk about PLEs as things – they’re not, they’re environments: you can’t point at them.  Also figure/ground illusion (vase/faces) – edges are the key.

Contrast to VLE – which is a thing (e.g. Moodle).  A PLE is not (just!) the personal version of one – but there’s a figure/ground thing, the VLE could be part of it.  A PLE is the students’ bag of stuff: literal stuff (laptop, phone, bits).

PLE is open, controllable, public; VLE is closed, private, you-can’t-edit.  [But: control/privacy to enable experimentation for learning – safe to get it wrong.]

Edges between VLEs and PLEs. OpenLearn has made a big effort to make the content portable.  Materials are stuff in a learning environment, and have alternative formats: print (single HTML file); XML; RSS feed; OU XML; IMS Content Package; IMS Common Cartridge; plain ZIP of all the html files and media assets; Moodle Backup. This export bit is the edge – can do the figure/ground swap here.

Mashups – using Glue Logic (not actual glue).  Live demo of sucking content from OpenLearn – leaving a trail of bookmarks as he goes on Delicious, tagged ‘elcple’. Copy RSS link from OpenLearn course/module.  Use in places like PageFlakes, Netvibes, iGoogle

Uncourses blog – trying to do in real time as a blogged course: ten weeks to study, so ten weeks to write. All done on WordPress at Digital Worlds. Category and tag feeds so it’s “self-disaggregating”. Link structure is emergent (in the sense that he didn’t plan it in advance).  Categories and tags are … basically confusing on WordPress.  Module coming to deliver posts (RSS items) as a drip-feed over time, starting when you want it.

(Flock and Firefox tip: can right-click on any search box on any site and ‘Add a keyword’ for that search.)

Mashups are not production systems, they’re flaky.  (Pageflakey.) – in response to having Yahoo Pipes problems in his PageFlakes setup.

Box.net is like MyStuff that works” – can share files, make them droppable, clicking in a browser will ‘just work’.

Grazr as an RSS reader on turbo – can wrap RSS feeds together in to OPML files.

Glue Logic – lives here http://ouseful.open.ac.uk/xmltools/dwCommentFeedsOPML.php (aka http://tinyurl.com/4vq4nt) – takes parameters and produces OPML feeds out of, say, all comments on posts with a particular tag. “It’s easy to use” [But not documented anywhere?]

Microsoft Live Search – you can add search results as a feed by adding &format=rss to the search URL.  E.g. orange smarties.

Autodiscoverable feeds – your browser can subscribe to it.

Tony’s OPML dashboard as a way of messing around with RSS/OPML files.

StringLE – a String-and-Glue Learning Environment.  The sample site sort-of works but is suffering from linkrot somewhat.

Pipework – Yahoo Pipes.  Live demo of taking Wikipedia data on city populations and putting them via a Googledocs spreadsheet on to a map.

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Flash to get DRMed (thanks Adobe)

The EFF point out the likely effects of Adobe introducing DRM to Flash (via Stephen Downes). Oh great. It threatens to criminalise a vast chunk of the entire video mashup culture, and, of course:

DRM doesn’t move additional product. DRM is grief for honest end-users. And there’s no reason to imagine that new DRM systems will stop copyright infringement any more effectively than previous systems.

I’m not happy. Tony Hirst and I had a discussion in the comments to his ‘No More PDF Reader Hell?‘ post about iPaper just the other day, where the annoyingness and intrusiveness of PDF (and in particular, PDF browser plugins) was a given. And just this morning Flash was intruding about wanting to upgrade itself on my work desktop.

I rather fear that since buying up Macromedia, Adobe has been determined to change the Flash experience to be more like the PDF one. So it might be less PDF Reader Hell, but it’ll be More Flash Hell.

Gadgets gadgets gadgets

It’s been a great time for gadget enthusiasts recently. By ‘recently’ I mean the last few months, but of course, the last thirty years or so have been pretty good on the gadget stakes.

Anyway – there’s the iPhone and its phoneless little sister, the iPod touch, there’s the Asus Eee (and its distant cousin the XO from the One Laptop Per Child project), and now there’s Amazon’s Kindle.

iPhone and iPod touch

I have an iPod touch and it’s absolutely marvelous. The interface is just so right. I mostly use it for wireless web browsing. It’s physically slightly smaller than a PDA, but the web experience is so much better. The finger scrolling and text resizing is a wonder.

The Wifi just works. It’s been a nightmare on every PDA I’ve ever used – endless fiddling and tweaking and unreliable. It’s not always smooth on laptops either. But everywhere I’ve tried the iPod touch, it’s been a dream. If it’s a new network, it asks if you want to connect first, and then – boom (as Steve Jobs would say) – you’re in. If it’s a network you’ve connected to before … you’re just connected. The experience is the antithesis of the configuration fiddle of Bluetooth, which was my least-loved technology until fairly recently. (It’s now Adobe’s PDF plugins for browsers.)

The web experience is so wonderful you can even use the execrable Outlook Web Access on it without it being too painful.
The text entry is way better than I expected. In my own personal and highly unreliable testing, I scored 26 wpm on it, versus 31 wpm using predictive text on my phone, and I expect the difference will reduce as I build up practice on the iPod touch. (For comparison, my legible handwriting is 35 wpm, illegible scrawl is 50 wpm, a PDA fold-out keyboard rates 86 wpm, and a full-size keyboard is 104 wpm. Worst score ever was 6.4 wpm for handwriting recognition.)

The down side is mainly stuff it simply doesn’t do. The Calendar is next to useless since you can’t add entries (and I can’t sync it with my work calendar, but that’s true of anything ever, and I can at least see it via the web). You can’t sync or suck down fresh data by wireless. Except, of course, if you want to pay money to iTunes for a fresh tune.

This is part of the secret of Apple’s success with hardware, though: if they can’t do it well, they simply don’t do it, which makes the total experience so much nicer.
Sitting around the house, reading the very latest news, watching silly YouTube videos, catching up on what friends and interesting people are up to via their blogs … all via a tiny thing that sits in one hand … it feels like I’m living in the future.

Mini-laptops (Eee, XO)

These are very impressive at first glance, and lots of fun. It’s clearly a new form factor niche between PDA/smartphones and more full-function small laptops/tablet PCs. It’ll be interesting to see if that is a big zone outside of us initial technical enthusiasts.

Personally, the form factor is out of a sweet spot for me. They’re too big to fit neatly in to a jacket pocket (like a PDA/fold-out keyboard combo, or my iPod touch), but if I’m going to have to carry something in my hand or bag anyway, I’d rather have a larger tablet PC.

The price point is extremely attractive, but I hear that Dell has slashed prices on its Vostro range of full-function laptops to $400, so that reason for them is less compelling too.

Amazon Kindle

This is the newest device here – announced officially yesterday. It remains to be seen whether it’ll ever be available outside the US.

The form factor seems just right: close to a paperback book. But the interface and design! It’s just so ugly and clunky, particularly by comparison with the iPhone and iPod touch. I read somewhere that the intention was to make it seem more serious than most gadgets, to appeal to less techie, more bookish people. I think that’s a mistake (lots of techie people are heavy readers too, and they are surely the main market for this), but even if it isn’t, nobody actively wants something that’s hard to use. I’ve not actually played with one yet, so I could be wrong in my extrapolations from the demos, but it certainly doesn’t look pretty and easy-to-use.

The eInk display looks good, and is definitely the Right Thing if you’re trying to replace books. I really hope eInk technology moves on even further – it seems so much better than LCDs.

Not requiring a monthly contract is a very smart move as well. And it doesn’t need cables to get fresh content! You pay to download a book (via One-click, which I always worry about enabling, but then I’m paranoid about accidentally spending money) and it’s beamed to your Kindle via a 3G mobile network.

(It’s a US-only version of 3G, with patchy coverage, which is a potential big problem. I think wifi would’ve been a better choice – at least with wifi, you can set up connectivity yourself at home or at work for fifty quid or so. With 3G phone networks, you have to wait for the network provider to set it up.)

But having said it doesn’t require an ongoing contract, you have to pay a subscription to get a newspaper downloaded. Eh? When I can see newspapers’ websites for free on my iPod? I don’t think so.

And the pricing gets more surreal. You have to pay to get access to blogs. I’m sorry? Pay, to read a blog? You must be joking. And it offers access to ‘the top 250 blogs’, which misses the entire point of blogs. Most of the blogs people will want are way out there in the long tail (like this one!) – hardly anyone reads them, but the few who do are often personally connected.

And yet more questionable. You can read your own documents (Word, PDFs, images) on the device … if you pay to have them converted and downloaded. I have to pay … to read content that I actually wrote and own myself? No.

It offers free wireless access to Wikipedia, which is great … but not the rest of the Internet. Because you might visit the newspapers’ websites, or blogs, instead of paying! This is an extreme walled garden, and, like all walled gardens, doomed ultimately. (Although ‘ultimately’ can be an awfully long time coming – see e.g. Facebook.)

Content is king, and they seem to have the right content initially – plenty of bestselling novels. Unlike every other eBook, including Sony Reader. The price point looks clever too – $10 rather than $25+ for hardbacks.

But the DRM! Oh, the DRM. Electronic books offer the potential for you to do so much more with a book than the traditional paper-based format – to search, annotate, share, edit, comment, cut-and-paste or even, dare I say it, mash up. But the DRM stops you doing anything but a cut-down crap version of the first two in that list. I can lend a book I’ve enjoyed to a friend, scrawl marginal notes on it and give it to a colleague or student, release it in to the wild with a BookCrossing sticker, donate it to a charity shop, or even sell it second-hand – perhaps on Amazon (!). I can’t do any of that with a Kindle eBook.

OU course materials would render much more nicely on this than – to take a random example! – on Open Learn. Students could transfer the PDFs of course materials to their Kindle – for the appropriate fee, naturally – and take a whole stack of units with them everywhere. There’s plenty of bookmarking, but it doesn’t appear to offer much in the way of annotation, which many students find invaluable in studying.

Long-term something like Kindle will overtake books, and generations of readers will form the same attachment to eBooks that the Baby Boomer generation has with print books and Gen X has with the Internet. But it won’t be Kindle that does it. I can see, using a version of Martin Weller’s VLE succession model, that this is another step along the line to a rosy future.

I still think there’s a big window for local print-on-demand for books, though. Amazon’s ability to corral vast quantities of quality content in to electronic format shows that it can be done, and if the deals can be done for an eBook reader, they can surely be done for a proprietary print-on-demand system.

Update: Apparently it can’t read PDFs, at all, even via the paid-for conversion system.  Another nail in the coffin.

Location, location, location

Have just been to one of our regular Technology Coffee Mornings, where people take turns to explain/demo some technology. I did one myself a while ago about RSS. Today’s was by Patrick McAndrew, and his topic was Geocaching.

He made it look easier than I thought – although he was at pains to explain that the technology is all still very flaky, doesn’t work a lot of the time, and needs a lot of technologist glue to get it working well. He’d even written his own Google Maps mash-up to help out with getting data from a PC to his GPS-equipped HP PDA. His mash-up makes it easy to capture an image from Google Maps with two positions marked, and export the locations of those positions in a format the PDA software understood. Transfer those two to the PDA, match the marks on the image with the locations, and bingo – the image is synchronised with the GPS data and he can get a live position on a real map. (Later: He’s already blogged in more detail about how it works.)

He also mentioned that more and more phones have a GPS chip on them, even if they don’t have any software to make use of it soon.

It’s not a new observation, but I was very struck that location-based stuff is going to be very, very big in the next five years. If you have a GPS chip on your phone, you can know where you are. Connecting that up to a central database, you can know what interesting things are nearby – for whatever your current value of “interesting” is. And if your mates also have a GPS chip on their phone, you can know where your mates are. I predict that the social networking possibilities that affords will take off massively. (Unless the networks kill it with silly walled-garden approaches, or absurdly expensive offerings, which they might. But that should only delay it a few years until the chips become even cheaper and widely available as a standalone device.)

There are services that sort-of do this already, but you have to all be signed up to the same service – none yet have anything like critical mass – and uploading where you are now isn’t as automatic as it’d need to be. Twitter’s success at SXSW was – I reckon – an example of this. (Of course, it didn’t have the precise GPS data, but it worked fine as a physical social networking tool there because it was a restricted domain so you could easily and unambiguously specify where you were within a tiny bit of human-generated text.)

But where’s the learning?!

Harder to answer. On MOBIlearn – a large EU-funded mobile learning project I worked on a short while ago – we found “lazy planning” of learning activities one of the things you could do with the technology that you couldn’t do otherwise. (Traditionally, you schedule a learning activity in advance and let everyone know the time and place it’s happening; with lazy planning, you text/phone them at some arbitrary time and get them together that way. It’s just a learning version of what people do these days when going out – instead of agreeing “7.30 in the Red Lion” in advance, at around 7.30 you text each other saying “I’m in Red Lion where RU?”.) This sort of location-based stuff would sit very well with that.

It might also link up with the new university model/’Open Universities’/skunkworks idea that Martin Weller’s been working on. He’s blogged about it being a very long-tail operation: a way of getting the small number of people with very niche learning interests together. I think the location-based stuff could also help with more popular learning interests: you’d be able to get the small number of people with the popular learning interest who happen to be nearby together.

Thinking about it, that’s pretty much what we do as the OU with our tutorial system. For a small-population course, we might have a handful of tutorial groups spread all over the place. (E.g. our online MA, where a tutor group might have students in Thurso, Margate, Lille, Abu Dhabi and Wellington.) For a large-population course, we can arrage many more tutorial groups so that for most students there’s one in their part of the city or the nearest market town.

But that’s very slow turnover stuff: the groups form for the whole course, which is typically 9 months. I’d imagine the location-based social networking stuff would be more about groups forming for an hour or two.

I’m now starting to think about how Reed’s Law of group-forming networks reckons that the value of a group-forming network grows more like O(2^N) than the O(N^2) that Metcalfe’s Law says a telecoms network does, and how enhancing the group-forming aspect of a given network – say of OU students – will therefore dramatically enhance its value … but this post is already too long and I need to head off to the next thing.

(And I’ve not put in the links here, sorry – but it’s a real content post!)