Distributed Learning Environments Briefing paper

We have just published a new briefing paper on distributed learning environments. The briefing provides a short overview into a number of models for extending functionality of existing VLEs.

The briefing paper came about directly as a result of our work over the past year into widgets, in our widget working group, and from the sessions Wilbert Kraan and I ran at the CETIS09 conference on “Composing you learning environments”.

We’ll be discussing the models in more detail at the Distributed Learning Environments meeting next week (4th March) and there will be some demos of a number of the models. There are still a few places left for the event (which is free to attend). More information, including a link to register is available from our event webpage.

2nd Linked Data Meetup London

Co-located with the dev8D, the JISC Developer Days event, this week, I along with about 150 others gathered at UCL for a the 2nd Linked Data Meetup London.

Over the past year or so the concept and use of linked data seems to be gaining more and more traction. At CETIS we’ve been skirting around the edges of semantic technologies for some time – tying to explore realization of the vision particularly for the teaching and learning community. Most recently with our semantic technologies working group. Lorna’s blog post from the last meeting of the group summarized some potential activity areas we could be involved in.

The day started with a short presentation from Tom Heath, Talis, who set the scene by giving an overview of the linked data view of the web. He described it as a move away from the document centric view to a more exploratory one – the web of things. These “things” are commonly described, identified and shared. He outlined 10 task with potential for linked data and put forward a case for how linked data could enhance each one. E.g. locating – just now we can find a place, say Aberdeen, however using linked data allows us to begin to disambiguate the concept of Aberdeen for our own context(s). Also sharing content, with a linked data approach, we just need to be able to share and link to (persistent) identifiers and not worry about how we can move content around. According to Tom, the document centric metaphor of the web hides information in documents and limits our imagination in terms of what we could do/how we could use that information.

The next presentation was from Tom Scott, BBC who illustrated some key linked data concepts being exploited by the BBC’s Wildlife Finder website. The site allows people to make their own “wildlife journeys”, by allowing them to explore the natural world in their own context. It also allows the BBC to, in the nicest possible way, “pimp” their own progamme archives. Almost all the data on the site, comes from other sources either on the BBC or the wider web (e.g. WWF, Wikipedia). As well as using wikipedia their editorial team are feeding back into the wikipedia knowledge base – a virtuous circle of information sharing. Which worked well in this instance and subject area, but I have a feeling that it might not always be the case. I know I’ve had my run-ins with wikipedia editors over content.

They have used DBPedia as a controlled vocabulary. However as it only provides identifiers, and no structure they have built their own graph to link content and concepts together. There should be RDF available from their site now – it was going live yesterday. Their ontology is available online.

Next we had John Sheridan and Jeni Tennison from data.gov.uk. They very aptly conceptualised their presentation around a wild-west pioneer theme. They took us through how they are staking their claim, laying tracks for others to follow and outlined the civil wars they don’t want to fight. As they pointed out we’re all pioneers in this area and at early stages of development/deployment.

The data.gov.org project wants to:
* to develop social capital and improve delivery of public service
*make progress and leave legacy for the future
*use open standards
*look at approaches to publishing data in a distributed way

Like most people (and from my perspective, the teaching and learning community in particular) they are looking for, to continue with the western theme, the “Winchester ’73” for linked data. Just now they are investigating creating (simple) design patterns for linked data publishing to see what can be easily reproduced. I really liked their “brutally pragmatic and practical” approach. Particularly in terms of developing simple patterns which can be re-tooled in order to allow the “rich seams” of government data to be used e.g. tools to create linked data from Excel. Provenance and trust is recognised as being critical and they are working with the W3C provenance group. Jeni also pointed that data needs to be easy to query and process – we all neglect usability of data at our peril. There was quite a bit of discussion about trust and John emphasised that the data.gov.uk initiative was about public and not personal data.

Lin Clark then gave an overview of the RDF capabilities of the Drupal content managment system. For example it has default RDF settings and FOAF capability built in. The latest version now has an RDF mapping user interface which can be set up to offer up SPARQL end points. A nice example of the “out of the box” functionality which is needed for general uptake of linked data principles.

The morning finished with a panel session where some of key issues raised through the morning presentations were discussed in a bit more depth. In terms of technical barriers, Ian Davies (CEO, Talis) said that there needs to be a mind shift for application development from one centralised database to one where multiple apps access multiple data stores. But as Tom Scott pointed out it if if you start with things people care about and create URIs for them, then a linked approach is much more intuitive, it is “insanely easy to convert HTML into RDF “. It was generally agreed that the identifying of real world “things”, modelling and linking of data was the really hard bit. After that, publishing is relatively straightforward.

The afternoon consisted of a number of themed workshops which were mainly discussions around the issues people are grappling with just now. I think for me the human/cultural issues are crucial, particularly provenance and trust. If linked data is to gain more traction in any kind of organisation, we need to foster a “good data in, good data out” philosophy and move away from the fear of exposing data. We also need to ensure that people understand that taking a linked data approach doesn’t automatically presume that you are going to make that data available outwith your organisation. It can help with internal information sharing/knowledge building too. Of course what we need are more killer examples or winchester 73s. Hopefully over the past couple of days at Dev8 progress will have been made towards those killer apps or at least some lethal bullets.

The meet up was a great opportunity to share experiences with people from a range of sectors about their ideas and approaches to linked data. My colleague Wilbert Kraan has also blogged about his experiments with some of our data about JISC funded projects.

For an overview of the current situation in UK HE, it was timely that Paul Miller’s Linked Data Horizon Scan for JISC was published on Wednesday too.

Sharing great ideas – LAMS 2010 Conference and Design Bash

This year’s European LAMS and Learning Design conference will be held on 15 July at the University of Oxford. Following the success of last year’s back to back events, CETIS will be holding a Design Bash on 16th July, again at the University of Oxford

“The focus of 2010 European Conference is “Sharing Great Ideas”. We will look at technologies, applications and approaches that support sharing, collaboration and open access to knowledge and resources. What are the differing implications for individuals and organisations? Importantly, we wanted to capture the experience of those who have used LAMS & Learning Design and share some of the lessons learnt about Open Education in higher education, the K-12 sector, vocational and professional education.”

Submission to the conference is now open and the deadline for papers is 26 March, full details are available from the conference website.

The design bash will again be taking a more informal, hands on approach looking at ways to share systems, designs and design approaches. For more of an insight into the design bash an overview of last year’s event is available here and you can also explore the cloudscape of the day including designs and related resources.

Blackboard moving towards IMS standards integration

Via Downes this morning, I came across Ray Henderson’s Blackboard’s Open Standards Commitments: Progess made blog post. Ray gives a summary of the work being done with IMS Common Cartridge and IMS LTI.

Having BB onboard in developments to truly “free the content” (as is the promise of such standards as IMS CC) is a major plus for implementation and adoption. From a UK perspective it’s good to see that implementation is being driven by one of our own – Stephen Vickers from the University of Edinburgh who has been developing powerlinks for BB and basic LTI. See the OSCELOT website for more information.

There are a number of models now emerging which show how learning environments can become more distributed. If you are interested in this area, we are holding a meeting in Birmingham on 4th March to discuss the notion of the distributed learning environment. There will be demos of a number of systems and we’ll also be launching a briefing paper new approaches to composing learning environments. More information including a link to register for the event is available here.

SHEEN Sharing – getting the web 2.0 habit

Sometimes I forget how integral web 2 technologies are to my working life. I blog, facebook, twitter, bookmark, aggregate RSS feed, do a bit of ‘waving’, you know all the usual suspects. And I’m always up for trying any new shiny service or widgety type thing that comes along. There are certain services that have helped to revolutionize the way I interact with my colleagues, peers and that whole “t’internet” thang. They’re a habit, part of my daily working life. So, last week I was fascinated to hear about the journey the SHEEN Sharing project has been on over the last year exploring the use of web2.0 tools for a group of practitioners that have barely got into the web 1 habit.

SHEEN, the Scottish Higher Education Employability Network, was set up in 2005. Employability is one of the SFC’s enhancement themes and almost £4million was made available to Scottish HE institutions towards developments in this area. This led to a network of professionals – the ECN (employabilty co-ordinators network) who had some fairly common needs. They all wanted to reduce duplication of effort in finding resources, share and comment on resources being used and to work collaboratively on creating new resources. As actual posts were on fixed term contracts, there was the additional need to capture developing expertise in the field. So, they started the way most networks do with an email list. Which worked to a point, but had more than a few issues particularly when it came to effectively managing resource sharing and collaboration.

One of the members of this network, Cherie Woolmer, is based in the same department as a number of us Scottish Cetisians. So in true chats that happen when making coffee style, we had a few discussions around what they were trying to do. They did have a small amount of funding and one early idea was to look at building their own repository. However we were able to give an alternative view where they didn’t actually need a full blown repository and that there were probably quite a few freely available services that could more than adequately meet their needs. So, the funding was used to conduct a study (SHEEN Sharing) into the potential of web2.0 tools for sharing.

Sarah Currier was hired as a consultant and her overview presentation of the project is available here. Over a period on just about a year (there was a extension of funding to allow some training at the end of last year/early this) without any budget for technology Sarah, along with a number of volunteers from the network explored what web tools/services would actually work for this community.

It was quite a journey summarized in the presentation linked to above. Sarah used videos (hosted on Jing) of the volunteers to illustrate some of the issues they were dealing with. However I think a lot of it boiled down to habit and getting people to be confident in use tools such as bookmarking, shared document spaces, rss feeds etc. It was also interesting to see tension between professional/formal use of technology and informal use. Web 2 does blur boundaries, but for some people, that blurring can be an uncomfortable space. One thing that came through strongly was the need for face to face training and support to help (and maybe very gently force!) people use or at least try new technologies and more importantly for them to see themselves how they could use it in their daily working lives. In effect how they could get into the habit of using some technologies.

The project explored a number of technologies including scribd (for public sharing documents), google docs (for collaborative working)twitter (which actually ended up being more effective at a project level in terms of extending connections /raising awareness) and diigo for bookmarking and sharing resources. Diigo has ended up being a core tool for the community, as well as providing bookmarking services the group and privacy functions it offers gave the flexibility that this group needed. Issues of online identity were key to members of the network – not everyone wants to have an online presence.

I hadn’t really explored diigo before this and I was really taken with the facility to create webslides widgets of bookmarked lists which could be embedded into other sites. A great way to share resources and something I’m playing around with now myself.

I think the SHEEN Sharing journey is a great example of the importance of supporting people in using technology. Yes, there is “loads of stuff” out there ready to be used, but to actually make choices and create effective sharing and use, we rely on human participation. Supporting people is just, if not more, important if we want to really exploit technology to its fullest potential. It also shows the growing need to share expertise in use of web2.0 technologies. You don’t need a developer to create a website/space to share resources – but you do need experience in how to use these technologies effectively to allow groups like SHEEN to exploit their potential. I was struck by how many tools I could see Sarah had used throughout the evaluation phase. Only a couple of years ago it would have been almost impossible for one person to easily (and freely) capture, edited and replayed video for example. A good example to highlight the changing balance of funding from software to “peopleware” perhaps?

More information about SHEEN sharing can be found on their recently launched web resources site – a great example of a community based learning environment.