Thursday, 30 April 2009

e-portfolios, LMS platforms and social networking

Some time ago I voiced my concerns about LMS solution that imposed social networking without consent.

If that's true of LMS's its doubly true of e-portfolios which basically function as your profile page. The student, and to a lesser extent the institution, needs to maintain control of content and who you wish to see what material, purely because it is evidence of what you can do, in much the way that home web pages once were - you're advertising space on the web with resume versions, copies of presentations etc etc.

And of course the world is changing - more and more its digital artefacts that are important. I've seen examples of Professors of AngloSaxon putting videos of students doing presentations on Beowulf on YouTube, more generally students uploading Honours thesis powerpoints on the web, complete with video and digital images, as well as pdf's of the thesis itself.

All good. Of course there is the risk that the well made site will win over the poorly made sites, and let's face it, some things will be less sexy than others. After all you can tell a story from an analysis of land tenure charters, even if the transcription and analysis was deadly boring, if you find something it's not quite so easy where all they reveal is a lack of pattern.

The other risk is that when material is put up as part of the tutorial exercise it will take on a life of its own. And we've all stuffed presentations, interviews and the like. It happens. My university transcript doesn't show that I flunked the final first year applied maths exam despite high scores before, because I came back and redid it. It was a blip.

My point is that in traditional transcripts occasional understandable stuff ups can be glossed. If you're out there on YouTube making an arse of yourself it's not. And as universities are about learning, not just abstruse topics, but useful skills as to how to do a presentation, write a discussion paper, design an experiment, run a project etc. After all you may not be interested in the material in a presentation, but you might want to see an example to know I can structure a presentation.

And of course blogs have a role as research diaries, including jointly authored blogs for group projects.

And the thing which is nice about e-protfolios is that it presents the material in a standard format, meaning that everything is handled equally, so the induvidual who's good a layout doesn't win out over someone else who's as good if not better, but doesn't just get the presentation thing.

But of course there might be material that one wishes to restrict access. I myself have such material dating from the time when I was a research student thirty years ago (Psychophysiology if you want to know). More than happy to share with some people, less than happy to share with others because of the sensitivity of the material.

And this goes back to consent and allowing people control over their own intellectual property. And it's nice to see that at least one e-portfolio solution addresses this problem by allowing user consent and control. And given the evidence that facbook users tend to manage privacy naturally, this is something that will just happen ...

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Eee PC 701 SD - learning to love the ookygoo

Some time ago I said some fairly negative things about linux, netbooks and ookygoo user interfaces.

I still hold to these views in general, but I'm beginning to waiver since I bought myself an Eee PC 701 as a travel computer. Now a travel computer has a set of fairly simple requirements. You need to be able to surf the web, read your webmail, take notes at meetings, skype loved ones and colleagues.

It also needs to be small light and robust. Now you could just about get away with an iPhone or similar smartphone except that typing on one of these is not the best, especially when you're one of the thick fingered, and offline note taking isn't the easiest.

Over the years I've tried various solutions - an old powerbook 520 - too heavy to lug about, a handspring visor with keyboard - this nearly worked for day meetings as a note taker and email manager - an old imac G3 slow, heavy, and no wireless, and no up to date software or crucially a browser.

So now one lives on the web/in the cloud with google docs and zoho, and you need a browser to check for flight changes, advance check in and the like, a travel computer seems a necessity for an extended trip.

I settled on the Eee because it was cheap, light and had an inbuilt sd card reader plus a skype client. And for offline it has open office, perhaps overkill, but a reasonable solution.

Having an SSD struck me as good on the robustness factor. I'd also told my sister-in-law's husband to get one as a travel computer and I reckoned that if less than technical ex-lawyer could cope with it it should be pretty robust.

And being the linux machine it has an ookygoo interface - but at least one that's well thought out, and if one thinks of it as sort of more like a phone user interface. And I hate to admit it, that now I need reading/computer glasses the larger icons can be a help.

So I'm learning to love the Eee - perhaps not love at first sight - but a bit more promising than Linpus on the Aspire.

I'll write further on how I go with the Eee as a travel machine ...

Sunday, 26 April 2009

marmite de lapin

It's ANZAC day weekend, which in Canberra not only means acts of solemn remebrance and outbreaks of jingoism masquerading as national unity, but is traditionally the first real weekend of winter. Like all such traditions sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. This weekend it most certainly was, and while on Friday we made it down to Pebbly Beach for a walk through the bush followed by a surprisingly warm paddle, it was starting to rain when we stopped off in Batemans's Bay for flake and chips at the Boatshed - possibly one of the best fish and chip restaurants on the south coast - and the drive back was through rain and sleet. Yesterday was cold and windy, reaching a maximum of 11C with sleet showers, and only now on Sunday afternoon has the sleet stopped and blue sky appeared.

So what does this to do with rabbit casserole?

Well Judi went to Fyshwick market on Thursday and bought a rabbit, as well as the usual other supplies. This is because we've had this long running argument that I'm not so keen on rabbit (nasty stringy field shot stuff) which is countered with the 'well you never let me cook it' argument.

So presented with a fait accompli one gives in gracefully, and when asked to find a web recipe to cross check the details of half remembered newspaper cutting leaps off to help. And certainly this is a warming casserole weekend. We're even seriously considering lighting the wood fire, something we didn't have to do to June last year.

Now the web is a wonderful source of recipes for cassoulet, stifado, jamaican goat curry and the rest, so you'd think there would be a similar plethora of rabbit recipes on the web.

Nope. All very basic, most of them Australian, and the same recipe repeated with a slight variation. So if the anglophone world seems against rabbit, let's try french. Nope, again a few recipes but nothing spectacular, all the more strange given that French supermarkets are heaving with the stuff - most odd.

You'd almost believe that it was a conspiracy. (Incidentally I even checked a couple of medieval cooking sites and they were similarly coneyless).

So, this is what we ended up with:

Rabbit Casserole Regionale

prep time 30 mins :: cooking time 2 hours or so

1 x 1kg rabbit

100g flour seasoned with salt and black pepper

50-60 ml olive oil

1 brown onion chopped

2-3 carrots sliced

2 parsnips sliced(or a small turnip - basically you're making a country casserole)

1 small tart apple peeled, cored and chopped (actually we skipped this, but it might work with cider)

1/2 leek

2-3 brown mushrooms

200ml dry white wine (I've seen versions with cider, or beer, but without the apple)

1 tablespoon good quality dijon mustard

2 teaspoons seasoning

1/2 teaspoon rosemary

1/2 teaspoon thyme

1 bay leaf


Preheat the oven to 200C cut the rabbit into pieces and coat with seasoned flour.

Add and heat the olive oil in a flame proof casserole dish. Brown the rabbit on both sides and remove from casserole.

Place the onion, carrots, parsnips and apple in the casserole.

Fry until lightly coloured then pour in the wine. Stir in the mustard and seasoning.

Heat gently, stirring continuously until simmering.

Return the rabbit to the casserole add the bay leaf and the thyme.

Cover and place in the oven cook for 1½ to 2 hours until the rabbit is tender.

Check periodically and add the leek and mushrooms about 30 minutes before it's ready to serve

Adjust seasoning, remove the bay leaf and serve. Drink with a decent pinot noir or shiraz.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

geocities to disappear down the yahoo

well it's irritating that yahoo is about to close geocities - principally because I have a bunch of pages hosted there like my cv and so on that I like to have online that I'll have to find a new home for.

But then I looked at the pages. Some like some presentations were useful at the time and would be worth archiving. The rest is basically just links, resume and some backgrounders, the sort of stuff you would put in an e-portfolio - all the rage these days in the learning world.

But no one really seems to provide free hosting for that sort of thing - principally because it probably doesn't make money, and free ad supported web hosting is so 1999 - doesn't fit well with the hip new web 2.0 image that we all have to show these days, except, well it does show that one can write raw html with a text editor, put together one's own web pages etc etc - shows some basic familiarity with web tools.

Same with the presentations - shows what you can do and what you can say.

But no it's not trendy, facebooky or super hip, so in the meantime I'm off looking for a new home and a bit of fun with wget ...

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Digitisation, wikipedia, and the ease of erudition

Being an utter geek I've been watching Michael Wood's Story of India on the ABC. This week's episode covered the development of the silk road and the rise of the Kushan Empire, and in it he discusses the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea - essentially a Greaco Roman Lonely Planet to the ports accessible via the sea crossing to India from Egypt.

It's a short book, and has only really been translated once, in 1912. I, being a Roman history geek, at once thought it would be worth a read. Before widespread digitsation this would have meant either trying to track down a copy in a second hand shop or in a library, itself no mean feat in the days before google. Phone calls, telnet sessions to catalogue machines with radically different interfaces, and fruitless journeys to wet and windy university campuses on the edge of nowhere.

Today it's simple. Google it, find two online versions - one at Fordham - one in South Africa - decide which one to download and print and you're done. yes, you still need the background, the knowledge, the interest, but given those access is easy - well for some sources as my essay on Adam of Usk testifies, but it's getting easier.

The other thing is wikipedia as on online resource. Whatever the accuracy of wikipedia it is probably no less accurate than other sources due to its crowd sourced nature. People who write about the Kushan empire probably know something about it and are interested in knowing more. So towards the end of the show, Michael Wood is in Mathura and is asking directions from a stall holder to a hill where archaeologists uncovered a set of statues of the Kushan kings early in 20th century. There's scene where Wood asks directions in broken Urdu and the stall holder replies clearly saying "ah tokar...", and Wood then makes a comment to camera about how the name carries a memory of the language.

Being a geek, I immediately think of Tokharian, the supposed language spoken by the people famous for the Urumchi mummies , and yes, quick wikipedia search, and yes, there is a presumed link.

Now it could be argued that all I'm doing is showing myself to be a pretentious geek. I'm not. I'm showing how easy it is to become an erudite and pretentious geek. The ease of availability of information makes it easy to track down facts. Yes one needs the background, the inclination, and the rest of it, but provided one is interested in acquiring knowledge it's easy. Real understanding though is something different ...

Monday, 13 April 2009

Aboriginal rock art Namadigi National Park

Went for a walk up to the rock art in the Aboriginal shelter at Yankee Hat in Namadgi National Park. The line across the rock shelter above the smoke stain is a line of silicon gel added as a drip strip to prevent the rain and wet running down and washing away the ochre and clay paintings:
most of which represent prey animals such as kangaroos plus some human forms. The paintings are in the care of Ngunnawal people and wnership resides with them.

The walk itself is an easy 6km across oven land infested with kangaroos and up into the edge of the eucalypt forest on the fringe of the brindabellas. Takes about 2h plus the time to drive out there.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

O3spaces, icloud, hosted apps and collaboration

Part of the email outsourcing carrot is that if you outsource to Microsoft and Google your client base also gets access to the vendor's online applications suite. As I've written elsewhere , this is a plus for either third world universities unable to provide enough resources for their students and the overwhelmed public universities in parts of Europe that have grappled to provide enough facilities and reliable email to students leading students to vote with their feet and go elsewhere.

The value of this carrot in a university with good infrastructure where all students have easy access to a competent office suite is somewhat less. Providing remote printing , document upload to central filestore via webdav provides much of the required functionality. Add access to something like open office via a thin client style solution, and a sakai powered collaboration service to allow people to upload documents to sites, and we can have editing and review and all the rest of it. We could even graft on access to a blog server and submission into the LMS

The only thing it is it's not seamless, but it does ensure that the intellectual capital stays in one place.

Google, to name but one, gives seamless integration with blogs, apps, mail, calendar making sahring and collaboration that wee bit easier, that wee bit more seamless. What we are looking for is to put everything behind a front end, perhaps a webtop like icloud that fronts all the services.

The trouble, of course, is that icloud is proprietary and one can't simply run up one's own implementation.

O3spaces , the collaboration service based around open office may be a more valid solution with the ability to push documents and share documents from inside of OpenOffice. One, of course has to ensure that every potential user of the service has OpenOffice installed with the appropriate extensions.

Providing one had control over the machines, this is no great deal, but if we're expecting colaaborees to increasingly use their own machines we cannot reliably second guess their operating system, or cpu architecture. All we could probably mandate are a range of supported browsers, which pushes us back towards hosting the solution in a thin client environment of some sort that will play nice with XP, Vista, OS X (10.4 ppc, 10.4, 10.5 intel) Ubuntu i386 and Suse. Support for other linux distros, ed red Hat, Fedora, Debian, would be nice but not essential as would support for Linux on non i386 architecture cpu's. (I feel the same way about Open Solaris).

But of course, as we're using the thin client environent as an easy access platform there would be nothing to stop users gaining access to the collaboration backend by installing and configuring Open Office and the extensions themselves if they find the thin client environment didn't work for them. Being Machiavellian, limiting the number of concurrent logins to the thin client service might actually be a sensible strategy, as it will force heavy users to the system to configure up their own hosts appropriately to guarantee access - occasional users will be happy with the thin client system - and also help move the infrastructure costs out into the user space ...

Friday, 3 April 2009

Social Network Systems 2009

late to the party as always, what looks to have been a very interesting meeting on social network systems took place in Germany last Monday.

Not all the papers are online but one that's especially intersting is on reconstructing social networks out of the information publicly available in facebook.

This has also has obvious applicability for the privacy issues around LMS systems that enforce social networking.

More once I've tracked down the other papers

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The great email outsourcing dilemma

One of the current memes in university computing is that of outsourcing email, or more accurately outsourcing your communications and calendaring platform.

There are various variations on the proposition but this is one version:

We need an integrated email and calendaring solution for all members of the university to both schedule meetings within the professoriat efficiently, and to communicate timetables and tutorial schedules to students, including late changes. We also need a viable and robust way of communicating by email, and an instant messaging solution would be nice for presence information. Oh and it has to be web accessible.

Well, you could do it all with Microsoft Exchange. That suggestion lasts just about as long as it takes for someone to work out the licensing costs. Usually about 10 minutes. There is also the problem that exchange only really supports Microsoft email clients running on Microsoft desktop operating systems (Entourage aside) so we need to invest in web infrastructure to ensure ease of access for non users of Microsoft operating systems.

Entourage would provide a solution for OS X users assuming that the have Microsoft Office, and have bought into the whole Microsoft ecology. Which given that they have Macs, may not be the case.

So, given that we're not email virgins and already have a solution someone will then suggest continuing to run an in house alternative that gives the same functionality. There's only really two possibilities - Zimbra or Sun Java Communications Express.

Both do the same things, provide a nice web client with integrated calendaring and instant messaging, and becasuse they are basically imap servers allow you to carry on using the desktop thick clients you know and love - yes you can still use pine. More seriously there are connectors for outlook to allow syncing and by extension syncing to your mobile phone.

The iGeneration doesn't care about any of this as they think of email as a web application , and quite often have sexy phones with built in browsers.

Doing it in house means you need to provide infrastructure, disk space, mail system administrators and the rest. It also looks like a contained system, ie one you can draw boundaries around which makes it easy to both identify the costs and to outsource.

And when you look at Zimbra or Sun JCS, what they do looks a lot like Gmail Plus Google Calendar, or indeed Windows Live! (aka Hotmail).

Interestingly Yahoo! who now own Zimbra offer a hosted version for a fee - ie you use Zimbra running on Yahoo servers rather than your own for a fixed cost. This fixed cost at least makes the costs predictable and constrained. Equally interestingly almost no university has gone down this route.

Universities who have outsourced have outsourced to either Google or Microsoft, and without being snarky, most universities you might have heard of have gone Google. The major exception that comes to mind is the University of Queensland which has gone Microsoft.

So, what do Microsoft offer?

The honest answer is I don't know. What I can say is what they were offering a few months ago was interesting but not persuasive. Essentially it was Windows Live! logo'd with your University id and the promise of future integration with Exchange . The model being that you give the students the webmail client, staff Exchange, and that this integration layer allows tutors to put sync tutorial calendars with individual student calendars. It also gets rid of the task of having to provsion thousands of new undergradauate accounts at the start of the year and delete them once the individuals concerned have graduated.

Sounds good, except that the student calendars might be better provided via the learning management sytems, and that universities are not hotbeds of pro microsoft orthodoxy. However the model gets round one of the real problems with outsourcing email - which is where is it stored.

This is important as much of the business of a university is conducted by email and there is a need to retain this information within the jurisdiction required, plus arguments about the intellectual property contained in emails. If the staff email is kept inhouse these problems go away. We probably don't care about student email, all we care is that they have an account somewhere and read it regularly as it provides a means of communication. Providing an email account gets round the problem of ensuring that they have their own. We could just as well require them to get an account from one of the free providers.

It also assumes that there is a clear dichotomy between staff and students. In a teaching based institution this is probably the case. There are a large number of students, relatively few staff and not that many postgraduates. Most students arrive, do their four years, and go, and if they're promising go to graduate school somewhere else. The overhead of providing exchange accounts for post graduates is probably not that great in this scenario.

In a research based institution it's different. There are a lot more staff, be they lecturers, researchers or whatever, and a lot more postgraduates. There are also a lot fewer undergraduates as a proportion of the community and it's a reasonable guess that we'd see quite a few moving on to do graduate school /research on the basis of a promising honours degree. Ie there's a continuum, not a dichotomy - and this is the reason that Oxford , for one decided not to outsource.

So what about Google?

Again they offer a solution that works for outsourcing student email with easy web access and a calendar. It's intersting that most universities that have outsourced email have basically only outsourced student email to Google keeping staff email inhouse. Again this is a model that works in a teaching institution, and has the advantage of not assuming (or precluding) the use of proprietary technology for the staff email solution. Given the antipathy to Microsoft in some quarters this is important and probably contributes to the acceptance of the solution.

And GoogleApps?

For third world universities, having Google Apps in the bundle would be a plus given that students may not own their own computer and may instead be accessing resources from internet cafes etc, while the university can not afford to provide enough in the way of public access labs. Being able to ensure access to a solution that will work witholder devices, or lowcost computing devices, but not having to invest in infrastructure would be a definite plus.

Non third world universities probably are working in a environment where students have a computing device of their own which supports a text processing application and a spreadsheet application - open office is more than acceptable these days.

Collaboration, as I have written elsewhere, is a chimera . Collaboration and sharing can be enabled in a number of different ways. If people require shared editing they will find and use a suitable tool outside of any formal availability - for example the zoho suite can be wrapped up inside of facebook - just as they will for a blogging platform etc etc.

And everything I've just said about Google Apps would equally apply to the Microsoft offerings in the Windows Live! or any other bundled applications offering.

So, if you have a distinct student population with relatively little transition to staff and graduate status you can outsource email with relative ease. Its a constrained problem. It gives students a web based experience similar to that which they are used to and removes the costs of provisioning these accounts and may produce a cost saving. Due to students being handled as if they were only consumers of resource we are assuming little continuation after their four years undergraduate study, and that as email accounts are only provided to enable a guaranteed communication channel we can assume that we do not care about any intellectual capital stored in their email messages. Outsourced email is basically an enhanced version of asking them to provide their own account.

Under such a model staff email can remain in house. These costs will continue to be required to be met by the university, but assuming the use of non propiretarry technologies, or ones without onerous licensing conditions te costs should be less and the disk costs should also be less - smaller is cheaper.

The moment we start to see a high degree of transition between undergraduate, graduate and staff status, and a high proprotion of individuals who contribute to the intellectual capital of the organisation the model begins to break down. Of course one could be radical and imagine that if the university was truly a community of free scholars one need provide nothing and they find it from their own resources.

Atractive as it is intellectually, in practical terms this is a step too far as universities need to hold and provide records, which predicates the provision of central services to some extent, and the need to conserve intellectual capital reinforces that.