Archive for June, 2007

Widgetization of OpenLearn Rolls On…

June 28, 2007

Three nice convergences underway… and a new map widget in my blog gutter, showing who is logged in to OpenLearn right now as a result:

1. Tony Hirst’s increasing deployment of scrapers, aggregators, pipes, and other tools to make OpenLearn content more suitable for Personal Learning Environments (Tony’s blog: here).

2. Stuart Brown rolls out an OpenLearn NetVibes Universe (blogged: here | universe: here | OpenLearn: here), increasing both worldwide exposure of OpenLearn and private personalization capabilities at the same time.

3. Alex Little rolls out independently-embeddable MSG Map Widgets (blogged: here). The OpenLearn Universe widget you see on the right of this blog is that exact embedded code in action.

Great going, guys! Stuart, I personally would make the ‘webpage’ tab on the NetVibes Universe 100% custom content written by you, rather than recursively embedding the entire site in a frame, since I think your own custom ‘About’ intro will be less confusing than mushing together both styles… just my two cents…..

This is disaggregation and widgetization at work… why does this matter?

  1. OpenLearn, the Open University’s boldest experiment since it began almost 40 years ago, is gaining ground, and is an important scheme in its own right.
  2. The Facebook and NetVibes steamrollers are continuing to gain ground at least partly as a result of opening up to third-party widget providers, evidence of the importance (as if we needed reminding) of both social software and ‘roll your own’ customizations.
  3. Significant experimentation is needed to understand how to leverage the best of multiple worlds, in particular the worlds of open educational resources and social software
  4. Supporting bidirectional embedding (I can embed third-party content and/or feeds in my own personal site, and conversely a third-party portal or centralised-service site can accommodate the embedding of my own personal widgets) is great source of experimentation, socialization, sharing, learning, and unforeseen consequences: let’s see where this goes!

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Buxton on 25 years of multi-touch!

June 26, 2007

If you love the iPhone and/or Jeff Han’s work on multi-touch display walls and/or the Microsoft Surface, then you ought to catch up on the definitive walkthrough, via a ‘work in progress’, of 25 years of great research on multi-touch interfaces and radical interaction technologies, from El Maestro himself, Bill Buxton:

I stumbled across Bill’s review after following some links via an (interesting) emailed product pitch I received from the MOTO development group.

Multi-touch is taking off with new product announcements like MOTO’s at an ever-increasing pace, and it’s great to step back via Bill’s well presented walkthrough of some landmark interface issues and actual systems that have been built (including many of his own).

The image at right is from, as Buxton writes:

1983: Video Place / Video Desk (Myron Krueger)

A vision based system that tracked the hands and enabled multiple fingers, hands, and people to interact using a rich set of gestures.

Implemented in a number of configurations, including table and wall.

Wonderful stuff, not only because of its smart historical perspective, but also because of Buxton’s great introduction framing some of the key design tradeoffs – check it out!

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No school at Knowsley – I don’t buy it

June 25, 2007

From The Independent, 14th May 2007, No more school as council opens ‘learning centres’ via Tony Hirst:

Knowsley Council in Merseyside, which – for years – has languished near or at the bottom of exam league tables, has abolished the use of the word [school] to describe secondary education in the borough.

It is taking the dramatic step of closing all of its eleven existing secondary schools by 2009. As part of a £150m government-backed rebuilding programme, they will reopen as seven state-of-the-art, round-the-clock, learning centres with the aid of Microsoft – which has already developed links with one school in the borough, Bowring.

The style of learning will be completely different. The new centres will open from 7am until 10pm in both term-time and what used to be known as the school holidays. At weekends, they will open from 9am to 8pm.

Youngsters will not be taught in formal classes, nor will they stick to a rigid timetable; instead they will work online at their own speeds on programmes that are tailor-made to match their interests.

Children will be able to study haircare, beauty therapy, leisure and tourism, and engineering as well as the more traditional academic subjects.

They will be given their day’s assignments in groups of 120 in the morning before dispersing to internet cafe-style zones in the learning centres to carry them out.

The 21,000 youngsters of secondary education age in Knowsley will also be able to access their learning programmes from home.

I don’t buy it. There are only two possibilities, IMHO:

(a) neo-Summerhill, way too unstructured… I don’t like Hi-Tech Summerhills any more than I liked the original… but of course ‘it depends’: for some (rare) kids it is great, and they can thrive

(b) assembly-line Computer Assisted Instruction… I like this route even less. I know Microsoft Research, which must be partly behind this, has no intention of fostering either (a) or (b), since they have some great ideas about radical new learning environments.

So again, ‘it depends’. They might get lucky, but I doubt it. I predict that within 5 years of the scheme launching there will be a backlash against it and it will be dismantled. Naturally, I should be more positive and try to make some constructive suggestions rather than just whining about it. So that’s what I’ll aim to do in an upcoming posting.

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Compendium mashup of YouTube Prez debate?

June 15, 2007

CNN, YouTube to co-sponsor presidential debate | Politics | Reuters

Time Warner Inc.’s CNN and Google Inc.’s YouTube said on Wednesday they will co-sponsor upcoming Democratic and Republican presidential debates, enabling people to submit questions to candidates via videos sent through the YouTube online video community.

There will be loads of citizen-journalist ‘excerpts’ floating around the web, and it seems to me this is a phenomenal testbed for Compendium and especially if Compendium made it possible to embed YouTube clips directly ‘in situ’ at the ‘point of location of the node’ (why not)????

IMHO it would be fantastic to do some just-in-time Compendium analyses, at least within a day of each event… have just alerted the Compenium team… resource-intensive, I know, but hey… only for a few days 😉

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Thanks, Dimitris

June 14, 2007

Heh – a few days ago I posted a plea… a problem with a clumsy interaction among different tools that prevented me from having painless spam comment interception (I already use Akismet – I love it, but I need even more pre-emptive obstacles, i.e. a captcha form). A lot of search and experimenting had failed to get me the solution, so I shouted out for help, and a random (to me) reader came to the rescue: Dimitris of posted a comment about ReCAPTCHA that led directly to a working solution. Thank you!

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Tony’s Institutional Dashboard

June 7, 2007

Tony Hirst’s institutional dashboard in Pageflakes is a double-win: it’s useful in its own right, and, even better, he also blogs about how he did it

I’ve experimented with similar dashboard setups (inspired by Tony pointing me to the technology in the first place) at and, including a behind-the-scenes explanation of how I did it (heh – inspired by a question from Tony!) … but the extra (secret) tabs that I have for other ‘families’ of activities are not ‘exposed’ in the same way (I can see them when I log in, but I would have to publish each tab separately in the Yourminis environment in order to make them accessible to the outside world. With Pageflakes, you can apparently publish the entire family of tabs, which is just what Tony has done – this makes it an immediate winner. Even though Yourminis scores for great look-and-feel because of its Flash underpinnings, the Pageflakes ‘publish all tabs’ approach is much more scalable for the kind of activities that Tony is describing.

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Need captcha tip – WordPress 2 / Steam / Akismet interaction?

June 6, 2007

I give up. I am simply too {overwhelmed | tired | lazy | ignorant} to keep digging for the solution – so if some patient reader wants to shout out, I’ll be forever grateful.

There are loads of cool captcha plugins for wordpress, to help filter out spambots. I already use the Akismet plugin for weeding out comment spam, and it is great, but not great enough – I still have to wade through junk, and can only be bothered to do it every so often.

Captcha plugins to the rescue! What could be simpler? Grab the plugin, drop it into the ../../plugins folder, enable it from the WordPress management plugins management page – prestomundo!

Whoa, not so fast… . There are exceptions. There are interactions with existing plugins. There are graphics library implications. There are WordPress version implications. Oh, and there’s a comments.php file that needs a little manual editing. “Easy peasy.” I’m normally halfway decent at this stuff, but have failed to solve this in an acceptable amount of time, hence this plea for help. I am not complaining: software changes, shift happens – no big deal – I like WordPress and understand the tradeoffs of having custom tools – I have just run out of energy on this one.

My constraints: it must work with this exact setup (please):

Version = WordPress 2.0 (OK, it’s old)
Theme = Steam, with personal modifications to the styles, but only modest ones
Graphics libraries = don’t go there
Existing key plugin I won’t remove: Akismet

If it’s self-evident that I need to change my setup, I can probably be convinced.

How do you reach me? Try commenting and I’ll see if it gets through my existing filters!!

Many thanks!

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Reuse / Remix Competition for Educational Resources

June 6, 2007

Hot off the presses, via Laura Dewis and Stuart Brown and their rapidly expanding and increasingly cool Open Air blog:

The Open University’s OpenLearn project is setting a challenge to educators worldwide to reuse and remix their study materials. The OpenLearn website – at – was launched last year and gives free access to thousands of hours of materials from OU courses. Supported by an open-source virtual learning environment (Moodle), the materials are already a rich resource for current and aspiring higher education students; their real potential lies in their innovative use by course developers however. Published under a Creative Commons license, all materials can be downloaded, amended and reused – with the aim to inspire creativity, collaboration and cost reduction in course production to enable wider access to education for all.

The competition aims to create a showcase for innovative approaches in online education. Everyone entering has the chance to win some smart technology. More details can be found at:

Contact: Laura Dewis. Communications Manager, L [dot] dewis [at] open [dot] ac [dot] uk

This is a great idea! Check it out. Tell your friends. Blog it! Tweet it!

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Memory failure, folksonomy failure, musical genomics and auditory debugging

June 4, 2007

Ex-KMi-er and current Harvard/MIT Biomedical Informatics supremo Marco Ramoni recently sent me a link to a cool paper from his group on Musical Gene Expression: A 4-D Exhibition of Interaction and Expression

Neat stuff… and I wrote back

a very powerful concept… there are a lot of stories about old time hackers debugging compiler output according the rhythmic sound made by the line printer.. you could tell when and where the errors were from the sound … actually in a 10-year old paper of mine you can get here:

But then I decided to actually have a look inside that paper to double-check, and found that the story I had in mind was not there, in my own paper.

Damn! Now let’s see… must have been in the old logs or raw data, but I can’t be bothered searching for it (even with the whizzy X1 desktop search I’ve blogged about before). Let’s try Google… lemme see:

“line printer dance” hairiest bug

Zilch. Nada. Zero hits. Well, that’s consistent with the fact that it was not in my published paper. Let’s see if I can find an earlier draft or even the raw data…

“line printer” dance eisenstadt

Bingo! Number 1 hit is…

EisenBlog – Marc Eisenstadt’s Home Page Blog at The Open …
line printer in a peculiarly compelling rythymic pattern. The operators and I had a little dance to go with this pattern, which became known as …

Yikes… that is… an entry of my own, in this blog, about the same subject, with an extended quote from the very story I’ve been hunting for. Damn! Shouldn’t I have remembered it? Shouldn’t I have tagged it better for later retrieval? Wait a minute, I did tag it: auditory+debugging. Those are my Technorati tag entries for that article. Bah. So Google search has trumped
a) X1 desktop search
b) my own memory
c) my own blog search
d) my own folksonomic tagging of my own content

because ‘just enough’ of the right words/phrases were enough to retrieve the right thing.

What does it mean? I’m not entirely sure… if you’re a smart driver behind the wheel of a powerful search engine, you can tweak it enough to get the results you need. This we already knew, but folksonomic tagging for one’s own future use is really a dismal failure in comparison. For social tagging, of course it still has payoffs: at the very least you discover other people blogging about or digging up similar stuff.

How should I tag this entry? Why should I tag this entry? Oh yeah, discovery by others… ok, I’m a good citizen…

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Tributes to Jerzy ‘Jez’ Grzeda

June 4, 2007

Please see the permanent tribute page at for our dear colleague Jez who passed away on 23rd May, and for whom funeral services were held in Gainsborough last Friday. We all remember him fondly, and he will be greatly missed. He was an inspiration to us all, and I feel privileged to have known and worked with Jez for many happy and (thanks to Jez) somewhat riotous years in the mid-to-late 90’s. Have a look at that tribute page for many other great memories.