The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age

Via a post by Michael Roy at the Wesleyan Academic Commons site comes mention of this interesting project that I thought for sure would get a reaction in the edublogging crowd, both for the topic and for its format.

The topic – “How do institutions–social, civic, educational–transform in response to and in order to promote new kinds of learning in the information age?” Rather than take a straight-ahead run at more conventional notions of ‘institutions’ I think they helpfully start by modifying the usual definition towards asking the question “What would it mean to start with a definition that emphasized social networks and the processes of creating those networks?”

The format – apparently a new WordPress blogging plugin (code name Comment Press) which allows commenters to add feedback on a paragraph by paragraph-basis in a form that resembles a conversational thread. Well worth the read. – SWL

Wikipatterns – Wiki Patterns

Brilliant idea. Hopefully the cogdog won’t mind me scooping this from his feed, but it was too delectable to pass up. Wikipatterns are exactly that, identified patterns of users and adoption to help guide new wiki builders towards success. Each of the patterns cites numerous illustrations from well known wikis. And…it’s a wiki, so after getting an account you can add to the patterns. I notice wikispammer seems to be missing from the oddly named ‘people anti-patterns.’ – SWL

Website Redesign as a Public Service

OK, a little off topic, but this post from the Wikinomics blog kind of caught my eye because it resonates with a situation I’ve recently come across. The post talks about a group of bloggers getting together in Toronto to redesign the unbearably unusable Toronto Transit Comission’s website. Maybe the TTC will listen and adopt some of the design, maybe not, but creating an alternate (usable) interface to a terrible public service site like the current TTC one strikes me as an example worth emulating.

In my case, the dismally designed site is my local Victoria’s school board website. Now in the pantheons of bad information architecture, this might not rank right at the top, but it’s got to be pretty close. Designed by a bureaucrat, for other bureaucrats, not for parents, students or teachers, the people who actually need to use the site. I work online all day, and consider myself a reasonably savvy web user, yet every time I need information from the School District I am left scratching my head. For instance, this week I’m trying to find out more information about what’s going on, as they just announced 2 days ago that they are closing my son’s school! (oh wait, there’s a PDF of some sort of meeting announcement in the “Media Releases” section of the site titled “School Consultative Process” – oh yeah, that makes sense -?!- and then no times or locations given for the meetings!) I wrote the school board a few weeks back, before the whole business of the school closures, and got a pretty standard response about how they had consulted stakeholders in designing the site, never had any complaints, yada yada. Pretty well “blow it out your ear.”

So, what to do. Well, maybe the above is an example to follow. Any parents from Victoria out there interested in joining forces on this? To start with, how about a real self-interested exercise – identify all of the things as parents we’re looking for, and then design an alternative interface to the site that speaks to those needs, not the school board administration’s.

Indeed, why not take this a step further (and bring it back to ed tech, a bit). Redesigning your college’s website? Your departments? Why not solicit mockups directly from your users, take user-centric design a whole step further to user-designed design (yeah, I know, how passe of me – why not deliver everything as RSS and portlets and let people organize it how they want! Or make everything a wiki! Uh huh?). With tools like Sitekreator, Google Page Creator and Synthasite, to name but a few, this isn’t even really a technical exercise anymore.

End of rant. Back to work. But would love to hear your personal targets for redesign! – SWL

PROWE (Personal Repositories Online Wiki Environment) Project

JISC-funded project that sets out to examine “in what ways could wiki and wiki-type environments be useful and useable as personal and informal repositories to support professional development within part-time tutor communities of practice?” While I think a lot of us already participating in the edublogosphere might think the answers self-evident, I am definitely looking forward to the results when they come out latter this year, especially if they come up with any useful insight into fostering adoption that isn’t to simply “wait for older faculty to retire” or “give faculty more PD time and training.” – SWL

Dynamically Wikipedia-fying Text: Drawdoc and Wikiproxy Greasemonkey script and

Both of these accomplish pretty similar things – take an existing web page, and turn proper nouns/key terms into links to wikipedia automatically.

Drawdoc is currently a web-based app (but not hard to see how it could be a service instead) that employs Yahoo’s term extraction service to identify the salient terms in a document, and then offers possible image matches from Yahoo images, and annotates those terms with links to either Wikipedia, Google or Yahoo to the selected terms.

The Wikiproxy Greasemonkey script works slightly differently, as a Greasemonkey script that appears to just look for ‘Proper Nouns’ on a page and then annotate them as the page is rendered with links to wikipedia. So works on the client side, but the effect is similar, a text automatically annotated with key words to wikipedia.

In both cases what seems lacking is a connection to wikipedia that actually confirms there is something to link to before creating the link. Not surprising. That’s not how they are intended to work, they are lightweight mashups. But the IDEA here is important – start thinking about collections you have on your campus that are pedagogically significant to your students – how tough would it be to code a greasemonkey script that then rendered key terms in your online course as a link to that collection.. of anatomical images? of learning objects? …you get the idea. Why do this? Well, in the case of an approach like drawdoc, it could become an automated annotator for your CMS-based courses, saving time and effort. With a greasemonkey-type approach, it could potentially become a tool that augmented the students experience of materials you didn’t create and don’t control with links to content in collections you trust.

Mashups are here. They’re even commonplace, almost. But just wait until they start invading the academy. You can already get a list of the available ‘web 2.0 APIs’ (that is almost inevitably incomplete) – do you know what’s available inside your own institution? …you’re either on the bus, or it’s running over you… exciting times indeed. – SWL

Hieraki – Hierarchical Wiki Software

Just one of those things that I stumbled across through a dedicated Google search feed; Hieraki is an open source, Ruby-based (hence the reason you’ve probably never heard of it; many who try Ruby seem to rave about it but it never seems to gain traction versus its competitors) wiki-like system that structures pages by ‘Chapters’ and sub-sections to assist with collaborative book authoring. Someone has even tried building a ‘learning object repository’ named Noc on top of it. Not an endorsement, just a pointer to an interesting experiment. – SWL

EdTechPost Wiki bites the dust, partially resurrected

After a stressful week last week where I had my hosting company threaten to pull the plug on EdTechPost if the MT Comments script didn’t stop hammering their servers (due to comments spammers and my not having upgraded to 3.12 yet) today I had a somewhat contrite (though not nearly enough in my book) help desk worker explain to me that they had a fatal error on one of their primary file servers that corrupted some of the data on *the secondary backup* server as well, and that, yes it was true, a yards-worth of directories on my site had made their way to data-Valhalla, never to be seen again.

I’m still waiting to see what sort of recompense they will offer me, and it better be good consider the crap they gave me about a simple script consuming too many server resources. Boo Hoo. I’ll give you something to complain about – wiping out a year’s worth of my work!!!

Fortunately, somewhere deep in the reptilian IT-administrators part of my brain (yes, I was one at one point in the past) something prompted me early this year to make a backup of the EdTechPost wiki site, even though I thought that was what I was paying the #@!#$%^$ hosting company for. So all is not completely lost, only about a year’s worth of my own wiki notes and planning. Sheesh! The hosting company shall remain nameless for now, until I see how they handle this. – SWL

WikiSpam and Passwords

A few fellow edtech bloggers who have taken up wikis have of late been inundated by wiki spam. I too was pelted almost continuously with wikispam from China from around June through to September when I finally screamed enough!

But instead of just chucking my wiki out, I enabled the write password on it. I run my wiki mostly for my own purposes, and for some collaborative editing with a few colleagues. It’s mostly open to the public to read, but ultimately I want it as a real quick and dirty online notepad, webpage builder, URL collector and brainstorming tool.

I run PMWiki, and it has a handy feature that lets you add read, write or administration passwords. Adding a password to the wiki as a whole or a single page is dead simple, and the beauty in my mind is that there can be just a single write password, which works with whatever username you use.

As soon as I enabled this, the wikispam dropped to zero. Clearly, if you want a totally publicly editable wiki, this technique is likely not that useful. But if you’re like me and run one for yourself or a select few folks, or if you are running one in the context of a class, this is maybe something to think about. Consider, start of class a simply announcement like – “if you want to edit the wiki pages, use whatever username you like, and the password is ‘edit’,” or ‘english101’ or ‘speakfriendandenter’ or whatever easily memorable phrase you like.

Some would argue this goes against the original open spirit of wikis. Maybe so. Who cares. I just know that I was unwilling to spend any more of my life deleting wiki spam, and this was a way to eliminate it while retaining many (not all) of the original reasons I took one up, while not also incurring the heavy overhead of username and password maintenance. – SWL

Wiki use to support English class at Texas A&M

Another example of innovative uses of wikis to support online education, this one from Dr. Susan Lodermilk of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. In this particular example she uses the wiki both to post all of the class information and to provide the students each a personal portfolio wiki space; but as can be seen here, she actually uses the wiki for a variety of classes and purposes. I stumbled on to this because the software she uses, PmWiki, is the same PHP-based wiki software I am using to run the EdTechPost wiki. The developer, Patrick Michaud was also previously at TAMUCC, though I think he has moved on. – SWL