Wednesday, December 19, 2007

eduspaces back from the dead

With the decline of eduspaces (and a mini-rush of various people trying to offer their products as an alternative) there has been a fair bit of disquiet and soul-searching about how OSS might relate to education when we start to rely on it.
Well, that was all so yesterday. Josie Fraser's just twittered that eduspaces (the name? the franchise? the whole shebang - looks like the latter) is going to be taken over by a Canadian not-for-profit TakingITGlobal . See the announcement on the eduspaces site and read an interesting article by Brian Kelly of UKOLN which raises issues around whether we should plan for free services to disappear, rather than just assuming they'll go on for ever. Ben Werdmuller's post on The Open Source Misconception is gone from his Elgg blog, but it's still available (for now) in Google's cache. I've saved it just in case... here it is quoted:

The open source misconception
November 22, 2007, 1:39 pm
Some of the most curious responses we've had to the open source Elgg project have centred on the conceit that being open source means that it is somehow like a natural resource that belongs to everybody. This is not the case. It means that the code is viewable and that you can modify it to meet your needs.
Open source is a process by which, in theory, better software can be produced. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't; actually, the most prominent open source projects, the ones that everybody knows and can reel off by heart, tend to be commercially funded and supported, and the core developers employed full-time. That's not to undermine open source itself - it just means that the almost socialist, distributed process by which everyone thinks it works isn't always the case.
In all cases, software is not developed by magical elves. It doesn't appear like water, for free. People have to put time and hard work into creating it. They'll do this for different reasons; some for the love of it, others because it forms the basis of another part of their business, yet more to disrupt markets - and so on. What we've found is that, even though you're giving the software away for free with no commercial return, people will very often treat you like they've paid for the service. Elgg in particular has no funding beyond Curverider, despite a common misconception that it's the recipient of public grants or affiliations.
In reality, the group behind the project, whether it's a group of individuals linked by a common purpose or a commercial company, should be treated no differently to a standard firm. (Think Red Hat.) The model by which the software is produced is different, but the processes that allow it to exist are not. They may well have different approaches, but the assumption that the software is a public service - presumably inferred from the fact that open source projects are usually free to download - needs to be squashed for the good of the whole community. That goes for both producers and users: the software needs to survive.

Monday, December 17, 2007

BBC iPlayer in unintentional Spinal Tap tribute

As a follow-up to the previous post on the iPlayer, the "403 - Not Available" screenshots were taken as the service was being upgraded. The post-upgrade "new" version contains a couple of extra features - the Listen Again BBC Radio feature is now held in the iPlayer and a couple of the "sharing" features I'd wished for are included. A "share" button now includes a "Link to this" button which opens your usual gamut of social bookmarking tools and "Send to a friend" which is a replication of the same feature which has been around on the News site for ever.
These buttons are attached to an online player for each programme - which means that you don't have to wait to download programmes into the Library before watching them and some programmes which (probably for licensing reasons) can't be downloaded can now be streamed. This is more akin to what's offered by the 4oD service.

But wait. What's that?
Look closer and you might see that in either a deliberate or accidental tribute to This Is Spinal Tap the volume control on the online player goes up to 11. Have a closer look, then relive the source material in its glory.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

BBC iPlayer - not quite Web 2.0

I received my BBC iPlayer beta invitation in the summer but didn't really use it much - then it wouldn't work on Vista so that was another delay. Anyway, it's now arrived on my machine and it's an interesting experiment which embraces elements of Web 2.0 in terms of technology without necessarily embracing it in terms of the ways in which people use the internet.
For an exhaustive explanation of what's installed when you invite the iPlayer into your digital life, you'll need to look elsewhere. Suffice to say that the iPlayer uses the same Kontiki technology which powers Channel 4's 4oD service and Sky's Anytime.
On loading up you're presented with menus from the last 7 days of transmissions across BBC1-4, plus a series of recommended programmes in the main splash screen. Obviously you can search, plus programmes are categorised into, er, categories.
Selecting a programme downloads it to your computer, where it's stored in the iPlayer Library for 28 days or 7 days after you start to watch it. Everything is done using DRM, hence it only works in Windows Media Player, however a Flash-based version is arriving after an agreement between the Beeb and Adobe.
The iPlayer is a P2P application, which means it (optionally) can load when your computer starts and then sits in the system tray, sharing what you've downloaded through your internet connection in a Torrent-like way. That (at the moment) is about the limit of anything approaching Web 2.0 uses.
For anyone who's used the internet in the last, ooh, three years, there are immediately several things which just feel like they're missing.

  • Did you like an episode of something (Blue Peter, The Mighty Boosh, Coast) and want to automatically download the rest the next time they're available? Sorry, no can do.
  • Did you think something was good and wanted to:
    • recommend it to a friend?
    • comment on it?
    • rate it? Sorry, not possible.
  • Did you fancy getting a feed of programmes which matched a keyword or some other criteria so you could link to them from elsewhere? Nope.
  • How about finding out what other people who watched the programme you've just seen watched as well? I don't think so.

Well, those all seem like quite trivial things, but they're not to those who use any media rich social networking site, whether it's based around video, audio, images or text. Maybe the iPlayer is intended for people of a certain age, who it's perceived would control a computer or media centre in a household. As for younger people with TVs in their rooms and teachers trying to encourage the consumption of media to support learning, they'll (for the moment) have to look elsewhere if they want to embed resources in their learning and teaching. Especially if this happens a lot:
I would imagine that with a project like this the "beta"aspect - a term clearly perpetuated and changed in recent years - would apply more to the technological logistics of making sure the P2P network works, rather than the user interface, so maybe things won't improve in subsequent versions. Overall it feels like the iPlayer wants to embrace the benefits of Web 2.0 (P2P and the reduced bandwidth required by the BBC) and avoid any potential pifalls (users commenting unfavourably on programmes, or not rating the expensive ones well enough? It'd be like a geuinely democratic Points Of View).
In the meantime, here's something for your gifted and talented students - originally broadcast on the BBC but naturally hosted elsewhere and, to my mind, completely appropriate. It was shown to a group of "young people" and compared with Channel 4's Skins and the idiotic Whatever as part of Charlie Brooker's Screen Wipe on BBC4. I'd link to the video on the iPlayer so you could watch it but, er... Anyway, alongside Skins it was the most engaging for those involved:

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

SALTIS vs. SIFA vs. the learner?

Today I'm at Atomwide in Orpington for the Local Authority Services Meeting. One of the issues this afternoon is around SIF and what might become of things. Phil C from Atomwide is describing how it's Atomwide's intention to host a ZIS and write a SIF Agent for the Atomwide USO system. Rupert Hay-Campbell from Barking & Dagenham LA shared information about meetings of SIFA and how this relates to further developments in this area.
In the meantime, SALTIS is a group of software vendors (deep breath - Suppliers Association for Learning Technology and Interoperability in Schools) who have decided to club together and set a series of standards so that their applications and services talk to one another. There is also a list of partners, which includes Becta. This appears to be in response to the move towards SIF, but bizarrely the list of Saltis members includes a wide range of companies and organisations who are members of SIFA - including Capita, RM and Becta...
So, what's going on? Are a band of brothers of suppliers breaking away in a valiant attempt to bring freedom to schools who are under the cosh of the not-very-accountable SIFA - or is it to ensure that "if you're in the club, then you get to play ball with other members of the club"? Presumably it will only take one or two key players (RM, Capita, a few others) to come down squarely on either side and that will be a signal to schools that whichever side that it is is the "correct" side - and the other is a road to nowhere.
Hang on though, Capita is a member of both, so is it just hedging its bets? Its Parternship XChange product is a tool to share data across institutions delivering the 14-19 diplomas (anyone care to bet that it only shares data between Capita tools, or is it truly open?) and the Capita press release for BETT says that this product is based on SIF ("which is backed by Becta"), so what's Capita's point with SALTIS? Interestingly, the SALTIS site states that anyone can apply, but their application has to be considered by existing members.
Crispin Weston (of Alpha Learning, mentioned in previous posts here) mailed the Naacetalk list with information about SALTIS, which he said is a working group of BESA. The only mention of SIF on the SALTIS site is on the Transfer of Student Records project page:

...SALTIS does not believe that a solution for this urgent requirement can wait, possibly many years, for these complex issues to be resolved. We are therefore bringing forwards a proposal based on bilateral interoperability using the IMS Enterprise protocol. However, we recognise the long-term merits of the case for SIF and shall work with SIFA to ensure that reliable and open solutions are available in all circumstances...
This sounds laudable, but wait a moment. The area of ePortfolios is currently notoriously vague - the specifications (such as they are) given out by Becta are perhaps deliberately so, and what this does is effectively to allow any vendor of anything to come along and say (to schools, local authorities, whoever) "Look at our product! This is an ePortfolio! It's what you need!" and schools have no external and independent definition to compare it with and question its functionality and form intelligently. SALTIS's approach to integrating the data from ePortfolios is:
SALTIS will draw on the practical experience of its members to develop an incremental programme, prioritising those types of e-portfolio for which a clear demand exists, from teachers, exam boards, consumers of assessment data, or central government agencies; and for which clear support exists in the industry.
There's a glaring omission there, and it's the learner. The final part also makes interesting reading - if "the industry" (education's an industry now) deems that a sort of portfolio isn't worth supporting, then it won't be, at least not in the first instance. Let's face it, once schools have been offered a few portfolio tools, all of which are based around the same assumption of what an ePortfolio is, they won't have the time or inclination to research or desire any other types. Well, at least the industry gets what it wants, even if the learners don't. SALTIS asserts that "the efficacy of [various types of ePortfolios] is in many cases still unproven" and hence it will turn to its members to decide which types are valid. Remember that these members have interests in promoting a particular view of what an ePortfolio is, and unsurprisingly this normally aligns closely with whatever they're currently marketing.
In some ways SALTIS reminds me of something I've previously mentioned, when a suppliers' body and software vendors decided that the BBC Digital Curriculum wasn't something they approved of and, at that year's Naace conference, launched a campaign to offer "choice for schools". I guess the fact that SALTIS doesn't rule out SIF completely means there's hope, but some people would surmise that the whole BBC Jam issue had its roots in this move, and I wonder what the outcomes of SALTIS might be.
Personally, I'd say that the efficacy of most ePortfolios currently being pushed to schools and LAs is still unproven - most case studies are based in the "unreal world" - a school gets chosen to be a pilot ("you lucky school!"), has an inordinate amount of support, training and resources and then this is sold to other schools as "You can have this in your school too!". Anyone who stops to think probably knows that the schools featured as "case studies" in the glossy brochures and DVDs littering BETT have had atypical support and resources, but most of us are still blinded by the gloss as we shuffle round Olympia looking for somewhere to sit. This is one of the reasons that, when we're training schools on Moodle, we don't show the resources to which we've given direct support to - a school which has developed something itself, operating within its own capacity and in The Real World, is something that I can share with a clean conscience, rather than illustrating the results of an unsustainable model which pretends that schools were doing this anyway. At least by sharing that I know that what we're sharing there is replicable.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The return of BBC Jam - or not

I've had some interesting comment passed to me from Neil Livesey, who used to work on BBC Jam. Rather than reword it into the third person, I'll just quote it, then maybe say what I think.
(If you want a little background to this, then I've posted previously about what happened with BBC Jam). First of all, here's the official current state of play with BBC Jam, according to the BBC Trust:

In developing its proposals the BBC Trust has asked BBC management to draw on the successes of BBC Jam; to consider how a fresh proposition can best meet the eeds of 5 to 16 year olds; and to take account of changes in the market and new developments since BBC Jam was approved in 2003. The Trust expects management to build on its existing investment and to consider the value for money aspects of any proposal. The Trust has asked management to deliver its proposal within three months.
BBC Trust Statement
The Trust's priority is to ensure the needs of the children and young people who use and value the service are not neglected during this process.
Chitra Bharucha, Acting BBC Chairman
We regret that for the BBC, all staff involved in the service, our external production partners and the many people who have enjoyed using BBC Jam over recent months – children, their parents and teachers alike – the decision to suspend the service will come as a real disappointment.
BBC Management statement
Here's what someone who's worked on it says:
What has become of BBC Jam?
In March 2007 I, like over 200 others, was employed by the BBC on the BBC Jam project. At that time we had been told that the service was going to be suspended and that a review of the service would be undertaken which should last between 6 and 9 months. Well it’s December 2007 and there has been nothing forthcoming from the BBC. Why, you might ask yourselves?
At the outset when the BBC proposed the Digital Curriculum it was a grandiose project (£150m) to provide a learning platform for all school, educational content and assessments. No wonder the commercial sector was up in arms. However BBC Jam was a scaled down version of this proposal, limited by years of regulation, government, industry and European intervention. BBC Jam was aiming its content at learners not teachers and was covering content that the commercial sector wouldn’t undertaken eg minority languages and learners with specific educational requirements. It supported a variety of innovative software companies producing this content and was changing the view of what learning content looked like.
From what I’ve heard 9 months down the line there is no one employed on BBC Jam, not even at a senior management level. What does this tell you? They want us to forget about it (and the £100m they’ve spent) because they don’t know what to do. When I left they were scrambling about trying to find an angle that differentiated then from the rest of the market to ensure that the industry wouldn’t object to BBC Jam V2. What content does exist is archived in some vault within the BBC, a bit like most of their TV programmes – never to be seen again.
So what of the industry that objected to BBC jam? In August 2008 eLCs will cease to be available and the ring-fenced monies that have kept the growth in the industry artificially inflated will disappear. Many small companies will go out of business and the larger ones will need to downsize. Rather than allowing the BBC to stimulate the market and create opportunities for the commercial sector they’ve killed off BBC Jam, limited funding and only postponed the inevitable downsize in the industry.The BBC should have continued with BBC Jam. It would have stimulated the industry, supported learners and benefited everyone concerned. Now the BBC has nowhere to turn and £100m of licence payers' money has been poured down the drain.
The biggest losers are the learners in the UK.
Neil Livesey
December 2007
So, a few thoughts...

  • Who holds the copyright on all this material? Does the copyright last for a long time and, if it expires soon, will we then see the content being sold by the individual production companies? As this would be individual companies making money from products which were funded with £100m of licence payers' money, would this be an even bigger skewing of the market than the original Jam would have achieved?
  • I would anticipate that if any of this content will resurface at all, it will be in BBC Bitesize and Blast. What will commercial developers make of these services then, especially if the market for their services is contracting as eLCs begin to disappear?
  • What will BETT 2009 look like without eLCs? Fewer large stands, I'd imagine... I'll be very interested to see what the BBC are left with at BETT in under a month's time.
  • Seriously though, what about all the content that was being used? I would imagine that (since commercial providers objected to schools getting it for free) that if it could be packaged in a way which meant schools couldn't get at it, then it could be used by individual learners... but wouldn't this lead to objections from those who sell services to home-schooled and EOTAS students?

In Buckinghamshire soon I'm assisting in looking at resources for children who for (a variety of reasons) can't or don't go to school. Many of these resources would have been perfect for them, but they're kicking around on a server gathering metaphorical dust somewhere, so... now what?

Friday, December 07, 2007

The artist not in residence

Last week, with my AEL hat on, I gave a brief presentation (four minutes plus questions) at the BFI in London as part of a launch event for the Diploma in Creative and Media run by Skillset. It was an odd evening for your author, the running order was British Music Rights, Channel 4, ITV Local, the BFI, Adobe (er, that would be me...) and BBC Blast - for an audience taken from employers, HE & FE and some schools. My presentation was about how Connect could be used to support the new Diploma - by bringing experts from the world of work into the world of the students, enabling them to collaborate, share ideas, work & experience. As things overran I didn't get a chance to mention what for me is the major example of what we've got, which Greg from Chalfonts describes as

...the artist not in residence...
Clare McEwan is an artist who, last year, had studio space in Waddesdon Upper School and did work with other schools in the Aylesbury Vale area. We started to experiment with ideas of how she might start to work with pupils in an online environment - with activity on Winslow's Moodle site and some basic activities on the Breeze server.
Well, this term things are moving on quickly, not least due to the fact that Clare is now based in Kent, where her studio is in a rented garage - have a quick tour here!
Clare's writing a blog about how it's going as well - which is well worth a read if you're interested in how a project like this works, or just looking at the use of ICT in Art. She's meeting regularly over Breeze (live - from a garage in Kent...) with staff and pupils from Chalfonts Community College, Waddesdon CofE Upper, The Grange Upper and Winslow Combined schools and (importantly) recording these sessions so that they can be viewed later. She's entitled this a virtual residency and for me it's a fascinating exploration of what's possible - and has obvous implications for how working creatively with practitioners (artists, poets, musicians, anyone really) could take place in both primary and as part of a Diploma at secondary. Clare has explored the use of the tools - but not before writing an excellent introduction of how the project came about - and even uses Breeze to create demonstrations of how and why she does what she does - such as the use of Photoshop within her work. It's also made the front page of the London Schools' Art Service. Woo-hoo!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Dealing with large volumes of content

First things first: if you're using Moodle, please take a couple of seconds to cast your vote over on the right-hand side near the top of the page - I'm interested to know what versions people are running. We're currently using 1.6.5 for our school sites but are planning on upgrading to 1.8.something during the Spring half-term break. Atomwide are currently running a testing server of their 1.8 build for us and I'm hoping that we'll be able to give our Buckinghamshire Moodle admins access to such a server soon, so they can start to get their heads around the more complex (but much more flexible and powerful) roles system. We're skipping version 1.7 which, by Martin Dougiamas's own admission, was a rushed release and not really up to scratch. Still, with 1.6.5 being stable we can stay as we are for a while in case any issues come out of the woodwork with 1.8.n. If it ain't broke then... etc..
One thing I'm trying to write at the moment is the definitive guide for Bucks users on how to effectively utilise our Breeze server (soon to be upgraded to Adobe Connect) to remove the large payloads of files which they might include in their Moodle courses. Our Moodles have a file size upload limit of 30Mb, which means that after a few large PowerPoints, audio files and (especially) video files it becomes a pain to move them around. Also, if a course is shared by one school and becomes really popular - downloaded and used by many many other schools on their Moodle sites - we'll soon have multiple versions of that large content on our schools' Moodles, taking up lots of space with duplicates of the same information.
It's with this in mind that we can start to use Breeze Connect as a content repository - hosting MP3s, videos, PowerPoints, PDFs, Flash files, etc. etc. in a centralised location where (with permission) they could be shared within and between schools. It’s all like a local version of YouTube - mentioned in a case study of how we might use Connect which has come out somewhere else.
A natural process for us would be to host our Moodle training and support resources centrally (on the Connect server), create a "How to Moodle" course which linked directly to them, and then share that Moodle course with our schools (or ensure that it was installed in their Moodles when they were created). That way, we can easily keep all of the training videos (made in Captivate and streamed from the Connect server) up to date in all of the "How To..." courses in all of our schools' Moodles simply by republishing the Captivate movies on the central server. A really nice feature is the "rerecording" option - which means if I record a "how to do something in Moodle" demonstration of a site and the site then changes (e.g. colour or version), then Captivate can go back and re-record the demonstration automatically, without my having to click through the whole process again. I think this is what I'm going to cover at BETT2008 as part of my role as an AEL, unless you've got any better ideas...