Widget Bash – what a difference two days make

“I got more more done here in a day than I would have in three or four days in the office”. Just one of the comments during the wrap up session at our widget bash (#cetiswb).

And judging from other comments from the other delegates, having two days to work on developing “stuff” is one of the best ways to get actually move past the “oh, that’s interesting, I might have a play with that one day” stage to actually getting something up and running.

The widget bash was the latest in our series of “bash” events, which began many years ago with code bashes (back in the early days of IMS CP) and have evolved to cover learning design with our design bashes. This event was an opportunity to share, explore and extend practice around the use of widgets/apps/gadgets and to allow delegates to work with the Apache Wookie (Incubating) widget server which deploys widgets built to the W3C widget specification.

We started with a number of short presentations starting with presentations from most of the projects in the current JISC funded DVLE programme. Starting with the rapid innovation projects, Jen Fuller and Alex Walker gave an overview of their Examview plugin, then Stephen Green from the WIDE project, University of Teeside explained the user centred design approach they took to developing widgets. (More information on all of the rapid innovation projects is available here). We then moved to the institutionally focused projects staring with Mark Stubbs from the W2C project who took us through their “mega-mash up” plans. The DOULS project was next with Jason Platts sharing their mainly google based approached. Stephen Vickers from the ceLTIc project then outlined the work they have been doing around tools integration using the IMS LTI specification. We also had a remote presentation around LTI implementation from the EILE project. Rounding up the DVLE presentations, Karsten Lundqvist from the Develop project shared the work they have been doing primarily around building an embed video BB building block. Mark Johnson (University of Bolton) then shared some very exciting developments coming from the iTEC project where smartboard vendors have implemented wookie and have widget functionality embedded in their toolset allow teachers to literally drag and drop collaborative activities onto their smartboards at any point during a lesson. Our final presentation came from Alexander Mikroyannidis on the ROLE project which is exploring the use of widgets and developing a widget store.

After lunch we moved from “presentation” to doing “mode”. Ross Gardler took everyone through a basic widget building tutorial, despite dodgy wifi connections and issues of downloading the correct version on Ant, most people seemed to be able to complete the basic “hello world” tutorial. We then split into two groups, with Ross continuing the tutorials and moving creating geo- location widgets and Scott Wilson working with some of the more experienced widget builders in what almost become a trouble shooting surgery. However his demo of repackaging a pac-mac game as W3C widget did prove very popular.

The sun shone again on day two and with delegates more familiar with wookie and how to build widgets, and potential applications for their own contexts, the serious bashing began.

One of the great things about working with open source projects such as Apache Wookie (Incubating), is the community sharing of code and problem solving We had a couple of really nice examples of this in action, starting with the MMU drop in pc-location widget. The team had managed to work out some IE issues that the wookie team were struggling with (see their blog post), and inspired by the geo-location templates Ross showed on day 1, managed to develop their widget to include geo-location data. Now if users access the service from a geo-location aware device it will return a list of free computers nearest to their real-time location. The team were able to successfully test this on ipad, galaxy tab, iphone and android phone. For non-location aware devices the service returns an alphabetical list. You can try it out here.

Sam Rowley and colleagues from Staffordshire university decided to work on some DOM and jQuery and issues. Whilst downloading the wookie software they noticed a couple of bugs, so they fixed them and submitted a patch to the Wookie community.

Other interesting developments emerged from discussions around ways of getting data out of VLEs. The team from Strathclyde realised that by using the properties settings in wookie they could pass a lot of information fairly easily from Moodle to a widget. On day two they converted a Moodle reading list block to a wookie widget with an enhanced interface allowing users to specify parameters (such as course code etc). The team have promised to tidy up the code and submit to both the wookie and moodle communitys. Inspired by this Stephen Vickers is going to have a look at developing a powerlink for webCT/BB with similar functionality.

On a more pedagogical focus some of the members of the Coeducate project worked on developing a widget version of the the 8LEM inspired Hybrid Learning Model from the University of Ulster. By the end of the second day they were well on the way to developing a drag and drop sequencer and were also exploring multiuser collaboration opportunities through the google wave api functionality which wookie has adopted.

Overall there seemed to be a really sense of accomplishment from delegates who managed to do a huge amount despite having to fight with very temperamental wifi connections. Having two experts on hand proved really useful to delegates as they were able to ask the “stupid” and more often than not, not so stupid questions. Having the event run over two days also seemed to be very popular as it allowed delegates to actually move from the thinking about doing something to actually doing it. It also highlighted the positive side of contributing to an open-source community and hopeful the Apache Wookie community will continue to see the benefit of increased users from the UK education sector. We also hope to run another similar event later in the year, so if you have any ideas or would like to contribute please let me know.

For another view of the event, I’ve also created a storify version of selected tweets from the event.

From Design to implementation – DVLE programme Strand A Showcase

Last week the three Strand A projects from the current JISC funded DVLE programme, took part in an online showcase to share their outcomes now their six month development phase is over.

The three projects are quite diverse both in scale, approach and outputs. As I’ve written about before, the WIDE project from Teesside University took a very user centred approach. The team have created a range of widgets including a ruler to help with reading on-screen which the user can control size, colour and transparency. Teesside took the W3C approach to development using the Wookie widget server. Although Elaine Pearson (Project Director) did highlight that they did decided to make some of their widgets desktop based due to the accessibility features they need to utilise. Code for their widgets is available from the project website and Jorum.

Examview, from Glasgow City College looked at “integrating key student systems with the VLE”. Focusing on linking their VLE (moodle) with their exam records system the team have created an interface which gives students access to accurate and consistent information about their grades. Now when students log into the VLE, they can click on an ExamView link on their home page and they are taken to a personalized page which displays all their current results. So far, feedback from students has been very positive and is encouraging staff to input results regularly into the records system.

The team considered a number of approaches to their technical development, and the most effective way to get results from their record system into the VLE. Initially they developed a direct back-end query to the Unit E (their exam record system) Oracle database. They have also developed a MySQL database query which other institutions could utilise to create a scheduled export of data. All the code (with extensive comments) is available for download from the project website. The team have also released code into the Moodle community it has already been picked up and is being used by the University of Bejaia in Algeria.

Finally the Framework for Rich Interactive Quizzes for Mathematical Sciences project at Glasgow University, developed a very specific application to “extend the functionality of the quiz facility of a VLE by providing a framework for widgets displaying interactive graphics.” Current systems tend only to display static graphics and/or have limited interactive features. The team have developed in javascript to give them the level of functionality and integration they require with their VLE. However they do plan to make a wookie version of the widget available and add IMS simple outcomes functionality for recording scores.

Copies of the presentations (which include more details on technical choices etc) from the session are available from the CETIS website. For an insight into what is happening in the year long Strand B projects, this recent blog post from w2c project at MMU gives an comprehensive overview of the systems and possible integration routes they are exploring.

DVLE phase 1 online showcase – 25 January

We are holding an online meeting next Tuesday, 25 January showcasing the three rapid development projects in the current JISC DVLE (distributed virtual learning environments). If you are interested in widget development and how to extend the functionality of learning environments then do join us at 2pm next Tuesday.

The three projects are:
* Rich Interactive Questions for Quizzes, University of Glasgow
* Exam View, Glasgow Metropolitan College
* WIDE (Widgets for Inclusive Distributed Environments), Teeside University

The meeting will start at 2pm and last approximately two hours. As ever there is no charge for attending. Registration and log-in details are available here.

Widget creation and learning design templates – re-use in action

Sustainability and re-use of project outputs is a perennial issue. However I was really heartened this week to see a great example of a project using and building on previously funded work from the WIDE project.

WIDE is part of the current JISC funded DVLE programme. It is one of three six month rapid development projects. “WIDE is a joint project between the Accessibility Research Centre at Teesside University, JISC TechDis and Portland College that aims to make online learning more accessible and inclusive for disabled students/learners. Our objective is to develop open educational resources that will improve or support the learning experience and can be shared and adapted by the community.”

The project has been developing widgets through a series of user engagement workshops. The workshops have adapted the learning design templates created the the RLO CETL a couple of years ago as part of their Sharing the Load project which was part of the JISC funded Design for Learning Programme. They’ve also created a widget storyboard template building from the original learning design templates.. Having been involved in the support of that programme as well as the DVLE programme, it is heartening to see re-use and progression of project outputs.

The WIDE project website has more information on the workshops as well as links to the widgets that have been built so far (28 and counting!), a tutorial “creating a calendar widget”, APIs, and lots of other great stuff. It’s well worth spending half an hour browsing resources – who knows you maybe inspired for some re-use too.

Webinar on (IMS) Simple Outcomes available online

Chuck Severance joined us this afternoon to give an update on developments with simple outcomes and LTI.

Simple Outcomes is currently to quote Chuck an “IMS experiment”. It’s not a formal specification, but is part of more lite touch, open development approach that Chuck has been pioneering within IMS. Taking this approach it is possible to develop more robust code, get early vendor buy-in and adoption and (hopefully) speed up the formal specification process. Chuck gave us a demo of grades being passed between Sakai, Wimba and Moodle. A recent demo at Educase included a number of other vendors. A recording of the presentation is available online by following this link and lasts approximately an hour.

Snapshots of standards and technologies in use in the DVLE programme

The JISC DVLE programme is well underway now, and as part of our support role for the programme we have been discussing with the projects, the different approaches, technologies and standards they are hoping to use. A record of the discussions is stored in our PROD project database. We find these discussions a really useful way for us to get a clear idea of what projects are actually doing – as opposed to what they say they are going to do in a project plan.

PROD is also growing into a substantial record of the technological approaches from a growing number of JISC programmes, almost a collective memory if you like. Over the past few months my colleague David Sherlock has been developing some easier ways to get information out of PROD and provide some visualisations of the data we are recording, you can read more in his blog. So, in relation to the DVLE programme here are a couple of snapshot views of the data we’ve been recording.

Firstly a wordle of the standards and technologies. Quite interesting surface overview, but doesn’t give much detailed information.

DVLE standards and technologies wordle
DVLE standards and technologies wordle

A mindmap showing each project entry, you can click through to moved down from project name to standards/technologies and then comments. I think this provides a useful, digestible summary of the programme. We’d like to develop this more to include links to project home pages, date stamps for comments etc.

And yes, we will be creating a wookie mindmap widget but it was just quicker to use this existing google one for proof of concept.

A manyeyes view of the numbers of each standard/technology. This allows us to show the numbers of projects using each standard/technology. I think this could be increasingly useful to use across programmes to allow us to start building richer pictures of emerging trends.

We will be developing more of these visualisations over the coming months so watch this space and you can of course view the complete entries directly in PROD.</p

Getting down to the business of building distributed virtual learning environments

Over the past few years we have been following and developing the notion of distributed learning environments. This culminated earlier this year with the publication of the CETIS briefing paper on Distributed Learning Environments and the JISC DVLE programme.

Yesterday all eight of the funded projects made their way (well, actually the level of rain made it feel a bit like swimming) to Bolton for their first meet-up. The programme is divided into two strands, with the first comprising of three projects of six months duration, finishing in December this year. Glasgow Metropolitan College and Glasgow University and concentrating development of a specific widget/VLE plug-in each. Teesside University is taking a more user centric approach by running a number of workshops and then developing widgets from ideas that emerge from them. The other strand is made up of the remaining five projects (MMU, University of Reading, the Open University, University of Edinburgh and Southampton University). These projects are funded for a year, and are investigating the larger issues of integrating more flexible and interoperable approaches to institutional learning environments. More information about the projects is available from the JISC website.

The main technologies in use across the programme are W3C widgets (mainly through using Apache Wookie incubating), Open Social and IMS LTI and Basic LTI and their new Basic Outcomes. To help bring everyone up to speed on each of these a large part of the morning was given our to presentations on each. Ross Gardler (OSS Watch) did the honours for Open Social, Scott Wilson (CETIS) for Wookie and Wilbert Kraan (CETIS) for IMS. Copies of the presentations will be available via the CETIS programme support page over the next day or so. These set the scene for a round of breakout discussions. Mark Stubbs has already blogged about some of the specific security/ authentication/wookie issues the W2C project is grabbling with.

I sat in on the Open Social group where the security issue also came up. Ross argued quite strongly that the technical issues around security have to a large extend been solved outside the education sector and we just need to trust the technology. However, the group did agree that there were cultural issues with education (particularly HE) around knowledge and understanding of identity and authentication which needed to be broken down. We also discussed the possibilities of using open social in a portfolio context. The University of Reading are looking to extend the functionality and interoperability of their in-house developed portfolio tool. The group discussing the IMS options spent quite a bit of time musing over the time/cost implications of developing full LTI integrations over using Basic LTI and the limitations of both – from the wider when will the spec be finalised issue to smaller I can build it but how long will it last, and in the long run does that actually matter?

In the afternoon we had more discussion particularly around wookie implementation. One concern around wookie for a number of projects was its sustainability. As with any (relatively) new technology, sustainability of external systems is a key concern for anyone looking to deploy it in a significant context. However, as Ross pointed out more than once, the fact that wookie in now in part of the Apache foundation, the chances of sustainability are greatly increased. The University of Bolton are also committed to its development and again as with anything, the more use it gets the stronger it becomes.

Along side the more technical discussion there was a concurrent discussion around user-engagement. As explained earlier the Teesside project is very much focussed on gathering real user needs and has designed face to face work shops (adapting templates creating by the RLO CETL and the Sharing the Load project). We discussed many approaches to “paper design” including having print outs of various mobile devices to remind people of the actually size of the finished app/widget. The group all agreed that scope creep, nicely illustrated by Scott Wilson from some recent workshop experience where they found delegates trying to design a whole VLE instead of a specific “thing”, was something that teams needed to be mindful of.

W2C is taking a different approach towards user engagement. They are using an external company to build their first official iphone app (due out sometime next week), followed later in the year by blackberry, android and widget versions. The team are going to use this initial app with students and staff to get feedback and inform future developments. The cost of external development they feel is offset by time savings for the team and gives them something tangible to test with. There also seemed to be a general consensus that actually seeing “the app for that” was incredibly powerful in terms of user engagement – particularly for VCs 🙂

There is a great deal of synergy between the projects and I hope that yesterday provided an opportunity to forge stronger relationships across the programme and beyond. It looks like there will be a number of apps/widgets to share with the community by the end of the year.

CETIS is providing support to the programme and we will be organising a number of open meetings over the next year for other to engage with the projects. So watch the space for more updates and information and if you are involved with similar work, please let us know.