Tracking progress

I’ve been tracking all my intimate  doings with implementing Social Networking s/w in a spanking new and über double plus cool TiddlyWiki system at http://www.earlham.edu/markp/kate_bush/. This implements a javascript subsystem called Treeview which makes creating the side menu a proverbial piece of cake.

So, what’s cooler WordPress-MU + BuddyPress or Morris Gray’s Treeview Tiddlywiki ? That’s a hard one!

Why ‘kate_bush’? Well, everyone knows that she was the premier woman artiste of the mid 70s and a great track of hers is called Experiment IV. Since this tracks my experiments I figured I would pay homage to Kate.

Kate!

Kate Bush - the Whole Story

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NextGEN goodness

Just spent some time fooling around with the NextGEN gallery plugin for WP-MU. It has to be said that this is uber cool. I figured out how to use it with any old template. It does everything that Gallery3 does and more. Ideal for travel blogs I would say. There is one glitch however. The ‘slideshow’ feature does not render properly. This screenshot from Windows Exploder 8 shows the gaps where the slideshow ought to be placed (the gaps do not appear in Firefox or Flock browsers):

Blog with slideshow

Screenshot of blog display with NextGEN slidehow (browser: I.E v8)

I’m not actually sure whether this is a problem with WP-MU 2.9.1 or the NextGEN plugin or the template (don’t think so) or (perhaps) the imagerotator.swf. I downloaded the latest version of the JW Image Rotator (v3.17) and I know that I set the absolute path correctly in Gallery : Options : Slideshow. Having gorn back to the download and opened the accompanying demo html file (which displays a working slideshow) I’m now thinking that it’s a version discombobulation between NextGEN and the rotator.  However, even absent the slideshow this plugin is double plus super triffic!

Update

Rather embarrassing this. I’ve sussed the problem. It was the path descriptor. When I see the phrase ‘path’ I always assume that it means absolute file path, so I had /usr/local/www/apache/data/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/imagerotator.swf as the “path to imagerotator”. What it actually means is the URL, so changing this to http://blogs.sergius.earlham.edu/wp-contents/uploads/imagerotator.swf did the trick. I guess it does say (URL) in the field descriptor but the if the [Search now] button doesn’t work (which mine didn’t) then you have to trial and error it.

Correct display of slideshow

One thing that this does show is an issue with aspect ratios. I often like taking ‘portrait’ style photos and so will turn my camera onto it’s long axis to take the photo. But mixing ‘wide’ landscape orientation and tall portrait orientation within a single slideshow does not work well as the widget shows. This is because the slideshow has to have a fixed size and this can accommodate either one or the other orientation, but not both. So, I will  have to think about sorting photos before displaying in a slideshow format. Fortunately, the system of Albums – Galleries makes this easy to do. One can just have a Gallery of tall images and wide images in the same Album and then use two different slideshow settings to display.

Comments on “Web 2.0” and social software

People often use the word “energy” to mean entirely different things in different contexts. It may mean oil when used in the context of transportation, it may mean electricity when used in the context of buildings, it may mean nuclear when used in the context of ‘green’. And for “energy” we can read “web 2 point oh”.  With this in mind, let’s look at this intriguing post from Graham Attwell’s Pontydysgu (pronunciation guide for non-Welsh speakers — Pont – uh – duz – gee — at least that’s how I think it’s pronounced from my limited Welsh experience) entitled “Developing a Pedagogical Framework for Web 2.0 and social software“.

“And whilst the educational technology community has tended to espouse constructivist approaches to learning, the reality is that most Virtual Learning Environments have tended to be a barrier to such an approach to learning.”

I think that while this assertion is generally true I do think that, for Moodle at least, the reason why this might be the case has more to do with the attitudes, approaches and fears of teachers themselves than intrinsic limitations of the particular VLE system. Teachers are afraid of openness. They don’t want their classrooms to be open. They often feel vulnerable and unsafe when trying new technologies and so they shy away from such innovation. They fear censure (quite rightly) if their experiment with technology fails or comes off half cock. Moreover, I would assert that in many people’s minds the phrase “Web 2.0 and social software” equates 1:1 with Facebook using the same argument that I introduced this piece with. And Facebook in the minds of many teachers (and especially young teachers like my daughter who is just coming into the system) conjures up images not of collaboration in learning new things but of superficial time wasting frippery.

So, to my mind, we have to start with where teachers in real classrooms are situated. It’s one thing to preach the gospel of collaborative learning; it’s quite another to make a class wiki using MediaWiki the basis of a collaborative class wide pedagogic effort. The ‘tools’ that teachers use online have to be designed for teachers and teaching whether they are Web 2.0 or Moodle/VLE based. While generalized Web 2.0 instruments may be pressed into pedagogical service by teachers who are adept with the particular tool the transient nature of much of these sites renders the process unsustainable over more than the very short term.

For a real teaching Web 2.0 site take a look at Zach Whalen’s home site at University of Mary Washington and his excellent New Media course. The guy operates his own drupal site for heaven’s sake!

To Socialize or not?

That is the question.
My mate Jon Breitenbucher has been beavering away and produced a sh*t hot system for the College of Wooster that he calls ‘Voices’. Let’s take a quick look at the home page:

screenshot of Voices site

Screenshot of Voices site

Very impressive I think you’ll agree. But there’s more. The Privacy Policy and Terms of Service are actually readble and make sense! Jon has modelled these on weblogs at Harvard Law but kudos for doing this!

Let’s have a look at How is Voices doing. Evidently Jon has got a Google Analytics plugin operational and he reports:

Would you have believed that Voices has had 15,836 visitors, from 74 countries and territories, and generating 52,957 page views since the semester started on August 24? The only state that has not visited Voices is South Dakota and we’ve had over 200 visitors from the United Kingdom.

This is impressive n’est ce pas? He concludes:

Clearly all of you are writing about things that people want to read. We just want to thank you and say keep expressing yourselves!

Earlham admissions would kill for this sort of coverage! So, nice one, Jon.

To BuddyPress or not to BuddyPress?

This site has of course raised the bar for social networking here at Earlham. Should I start with BuddyPress + WP-MU or keep things a bit simpler by doing everything through WP-MU and migrate later? I wonder how much you have to undo when moving to Buddy Press (BP)? I’d like to get a pilot up soon and so I don’t want to waste my time exploring WP-MU options if I’d be better off doing the same thing through BP. Seems like a Skype call to Jon B is on the horizon.

Questions for Jon

  1. Groups. Can any user create a Group? Or can group creation be restricted? Ideally, I’d like to institute a system whereby the group creator has to accumulate a quorum of other willing users before the group gets created. So, the way it might work is that someone proposes a new group, lists members who might like to join, and then a certain minimum number need to respond ‘yes’ before the group gets created and they are enrolled. I wonder whether this is possible? This would ameliorate the situation whereby it’s often the case in social networking systems that 90% (or thereabouts) of groups are duds which are never active.
    1. Can you have a group blog automatically created when a group is created?
  2. Privacy options. Can you have Public — Logged in users — Private options for privacy?
  3. I’m wondering what the point of ‘The Wire’ and ‘Forums’ are within Voices? I think I’d like a college wide open discussion forum where students and faculty could sound off about their concerns. This would a ‘logged in users’ only forum. But it seems to me that in general the Forum and Group Blog functionality overlaps. Ditto ‘Wire’ and blog. There’s a cool blog theme that allows twitter style comments.
  4. Twitter feeds — what’s the dope on importing Titter feeds?
  5. ‘Friending’ options. I didn’t see any friending but that’s a feature, right?

Just getting started, and this is looking good.

Changing the way we look at course content

Imagine for a moment that you’re at the optician. There your eyesight gets tested by comparing vision through different lenses; “how does this look? now this?”. So let’s take a quick look at the way that courses can be presented. So, quickly now, what is this course about?

Screenshot of course display in blog format

Screenshot of course display in blog format

and now this one?

Screenshot of course display in Moodle

Screenshot of course display in Moodle

They are both about the same thing. In fact, the Blog site has merely sucked in the open content from the Moodle course.  The interesting aspect to this is that the content of the courses is exactly the same. It’s just that the presentation and peripheral stuff is different. Which is the more effective site in delivering this course content? Personally, I’m not sure. More to the point, which is the more effective site for eliciting voluntary student responses? I think it has to be the blog site. I will return to this theme in a later posting but suffice it to say that it’s all fuel for an articulation of why teaching faculty should think about using a course blog in addition to Moodle.

Changing the way we look at information

As a Russophile it’s always great to have an excuse to use a quote from an author from Mother Russia. So it was Count Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoi who said somewhere, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself. ”

This quote occurred to me in the context of a blog posting by Cardiff native, Martin Weller, entitled “What the Digital Britain report should have said“. In and of itself this is an interesting post, but the reason that I draw attention to it in the context of the Tolstoi quote is the link to an alternative presentation of the report on a site, aptly named Writeto Reply. Here the report is broken down into chapters and paragraphs and presented in such a way that the public can comment on either the whole page or individual paragraphs. A simple concept and stunningly effectively delivered using the CommentPress theme for WordPress. Thus it seems to me that by empowering commenting on a scale this granular the authors of the report on WritetoReply are indeed changing the world so to speak by changing the presentation of this important report.

Taps and plumbing

“If the taps (faucets, in usa english) look good, why bother about the plumbing?”

I seem to  remember this approximate quote in a comment from way back about Windows Server comparing it to Linux. It surfaced in my consciousness recently after I read a pretty damming indictment of the BuddyPress codebase at Frumph.com in The exodus of BuddyPress the arrival of SocialPress. Can you judge the value, worth, or usefulness of a system from its user interface or how it seems to work? Do taps (faucets) matter more than plumbing? And how can one judge the quality of  plumbing which is hidden from plain view? It seems to me that systems that are founded on spaghetti code can provide a deceptive appearance and user interaction but in the longer term are “doomed to impending ruin” (from Vergil’s Aeneid).  An example that comes to mind is the Workshop module in Moodle which has been spaghetti code for so long that the core developers are now having to do a complete rewrite for version 2.0 of Moodle.

This is germane to where I find myself at present in the Quest for the Ultimate Open Source Pedagogically Powerful Blogging / Social Networking System. Before I read this posting I was somewhat gung ho about employing BuddyPress but now I’m super reticent. The problem for someone like myself who is more of an administrator / implementor of Open Source systems than a developer, and who knows just enough to be dangerous,  is making a good judgement call about directions that projects are heading. Case in point: I spent a year or so trying out Elgg in beta and it looked like it was really going places. When a number of universities in the UK jumped on board I decided to go with this too and brought up version 0.92 which I hacked a theme to. Six months later the developers completely changed the system architecture, produced a radically different system for 1.0 and offered no upgrade path. And that’s why I’m currently looking at alternatives.

Assessing the quality of the codebase is frankly not a task which I consider myself qualified to do, and therefore I have to rely on the opinions of  code developers (which may be, and usually are, biased). It’s a conundrum and, like life, one has to make a choice,  carry it through, and if it’s a mistake pick yourself up and start again. At Earlham we avoided the pit that others got into with Blackboard by running with Moodle from version 1.3, but it was not obvious in 2004 that Moodle would become as successful as it has been. And as I describe here, I looked at WP-MU in 2006 and decided to go with Elgg. Perhaps I would have been better not doing this, but who can tell.  But one immediate thing that strikes me about WP-MU is the file size of the core code. It’s tiny. This is encouraging  in and of itself.