The reusability paradox – WTF?

WTF?

The reusability paradox.  How can reusability be bad?

When first presented with this concept last year, I must admit I really did struggle with it.  As a techhie, every fibre of my being compels me to focus on reuse.  Hence, the paradox.  After some weeks of struggling with the reusability paradox, it did start to make some sense, emphasis on some’.

I have recently revisited this concept, both in discussion with my (to be) PhD supervisor, but also in my day-to-day work as an Educational Developer/Lecturer/Educational Technologist.  My revisit has prompted this blog post as a way of recording some connections I have made to real-world examples of this phenomenon, and how this impacts my thinking about technology (re)use.  This thinking is far from crystalised.

David Wiley explains the reusability paradox in the context of reusable learning objects, and more broadly, the open content movement.  When this concept was initially presented to me, it was already positioned in terms of technology.  I find it easier to start with the original context in learning design.

What is the reusability paradox?

David explains it quite succinctly as:

A content module’s stand-alone pedagogical effectiveness is inversely proportional to its reusability.

He explains that the more contextualised a learning object is made, the more meaningful it becomes to that context.  However, it also means the learning object becomes less reusable to other contexts.  We have a trade-off situation – effectiveness (in learning) vs. efficiency (in scalability). David concludes:

It turns out that reusability and pedagogical effectiveness are completely orthogonal to each other. Therefore, pedagogical effectiveness and potential for reuse are completely at odds with one another, unless the end user is permitted to edit the learning object. The application of an open license to a learning object resolves the paradox.

I don’t think an open licence alone will resolve the paradox, but that is a discussion for another post.

The reusability paradox in the wild

So enough of abstract concepts – how does the reusability paradox play out in the wild and in other ways besides learning objects?

i-see-dead-people
“I see dead people the reusability paradox.”

I often see the reusability paradox when working with lecturers – conceptually the same as David Wiley explains, but at a higher level.  My particular experience relates to the contention of reusing units of study between different awards/degrees.  This is pretty typical in the STEM areas – in my institution we refer to them as service courses (units).  I work with a science school, and a key foundation unit of study taught from the school is anatomy and physiology.  There would be a dozen or more degrees that require students to have a sound knowledge in this area.

Conventional management wisdom seeks to reuse anatomy and physiology units for health related-degrees.  This is efficient use of resources, right?  And “why re-invent the wheel?”

But before I explore those questions, let’s first take a step back for a moment.

The key criteria for reuse is applicability to other contexts.  If there is sufficient overlap or congruence with another context, then a reusability factor could be considered high, thus worthy of reuse.  Learning is very contextual, particularly when you factor, as David does, the underpinning of constructivist learning theory.  Learners construct new knowledge, upon their own existing knowledge.  This is very individualised, and based on each learner’s past experiences, and ways of thinking.

Learning designers have some tricks to help deal with such diversity, such as researching your cohort, conducting a needs analysis, and ultimately categorising learners and focusing on the majority.  Clearly, this is flawed – but this is how massification of education works.  For instance, if you are preparing a unit of study for nursing students, then you can make some reasonable assumptions about those students motivations (i.e. they want to become a nurse); their prior formal learning (i.e. previous units studied within a structured nursing curriculum); and even down to smaller groups such as pathways to study (i.e. were they enrolled nurses – ENs or school-leavers). These assumptions of course aren’t always correct.  Nevertheless, the key point is that this unit of study is reused by all nursing students studying for the Bachelor of Nursing degree.  A more or less reasonable trade-off between effectiveness and efficiency.

So let’s return to the example of an anatomy and physiology unit of study.  In this instance, we see different discipline areas, albeit health related, attempting to reuse a unit of study.  Despite all being health related, a paramedic student’s needs aren’t the same as physiotherapy students’, or medical science students’.  And while some disciplines hail from within the same school, others disciplines are situated elsewhere within the organisational structure.  Now, consider the diversity of the cohort.

So to cope with this type of diversity, I typically see three approaches:

  1. Make the unit of study as abstract (decontextualised) as possible making no assumptions about learners or their backgrounds, and “teach the facts”.
  2. Design the unit to cope with the highest represented context (i.e. the discipline with the most students).
  3. Design the unit of study to address multiple contexts, in an attempt to make it meaningful to multiple disciplinary groups.

In other words, make it meaningful for no-one; make it meaningful to the biggest group, and nobody else; or, try to make it meaningful for everyone.

Approach 1 is obviously ineffective, especially considering constructivist thinking.  You end up with students asking “why do I need to know this?”, or “that course was so dry and boring.”

Approach 2 while not quite as flawed as approach 1, can be less than ideal.  Particularly when the highest represented group is small compared to the entire group.  In such cases, the other groups feel marginalised, “I want to be a Paramed, not a Physiotherapist.”

Approach 3 can also ineffective because you can end up with a study unit that is incredibly complex.  This group of students does this, that group does that.  As the lecturer, you have to manage the mixture.  The students too can become confused about requirements. You can also run into “equity” type policy constraints, such as “all students must do the same assessments.”  This is an important point.  If you end up with such complexity, you really have to ask the question, “why not just have separate units of study?”

But solving this challenge isn’t the focus of my blog post.

The Reusability Paradox as it Applies to Education Technology

So does the concept translate to technology?  Yes it does!  And similar issues arise as a result.

Recall the three approaches I see people use to deal with the challenges of reuse for multiple contexts?

  1. Make abstract
  2. Contextualise for the largest group
  3. Contextualise in multiple ways for multiple groups

Let’s consider Approach 1

David Wiley says of the reusability paradox:

The purpose of learning objects and their reality seem to be at odds with one another. On the one hand, the smaller designers create their learning objects, the more reusable those objects will be. On the other hand, the smaller learning objects are, the more likely it is that only humans will be able to assemble them into meaningful instruction.

I think this statement has some “translatability” to an education technology context as:

On the one hand, the smaller developers create their learning technology tools (e.g. programming libraries rather than complete systems), the more reusable those tools will be. On the other hand, the smaller learning technology tools are, the more likely it is that only developers (and not designers) will be able to assemble them into functional learning technologies.

David Wiley also says:

To make learning objects maximally reusable, learning objects should contain as little context as possible.

To remove context is to make something more abstract – to take away intrinsic meaning or specific function.  Indeed this makes things more reusable, it also requires re-contextualisation.  In the context of technology, abstraction leads to dependence on the developer.

Let’s skip to approach 3.  With this approach, we end up with technology that attempts to do everything for everyone.  These technologies become so complicated to use, that people simply don’t use them.  My favourite example of approach 3 is the Moodle Workshop activity which is a “powerful peer assessment activity”.  I consider myself to have a reasonable grasp of technology, and yet after 45 minutes of tinkering with the workshop activity in Moodle, I gave up.  I have only seen 1 person at my institution use it.  It has so many options, too many options, because it tries to account for all the different ways one might attempt to embed peer assessment into their course.

So what about approach 2?  We reuse a learning technology without change – meaning it is focused on the majority of requirements (however that might be determined).  This is typical of COTS (commercial off the shelf) solutions.  This inevitably leads to functional gaps – “the system does this, but I want to do that.”  If the gap is substantial, it can lead to workarounds.

Does technology need to be reusable?

This is where I struggled last year with the reusability paradox.  If you can’t reuse a technology, then isn’t that a serious limitation?  Management are constantly looking to replicate successes – “This worked so well, so how can we use this in other areas?”

When I am creating/adapting/augmenting technology for others, I have to demonstrate “bang for buck” in terms of my time invested.  Does what I create, at least have to pay for itself in affordances?  I normally look for economies of scale, and the obvious way is through reuse – it is usable by X number of people.  Management/decision-makers get this – easy. However, technology can offer other economies.  For instance, depending on the technology, it may instead allow a specific group of people to do something much better, quicker, cheaper, or if its very innovative, something they couldn’t do before.  But that something might be very specific, so specific that it isn’t very reusable, and limited to a small audience.  Yet, if it still yields a net gain, is that bad?

What if a technology is so specific, it’s designed for just one person – yourself?

Workarounds

At some stage in our lives, we have all had to engage with some form of workaround to get from A to B.  Not just in terms of technology but life in general.

If you create a workaround, does it need to be reusable?  Perhaps not.  But what if you want it to be?  How can you go about it?

This is where my time (and thinking) ends for now.

 

Moodle Activity Viewer – in the cloud?

So what is MAV?  An introduction to MAV written in 2013 is available.  Features have been added, but the core concept remains unchanged.

In a nutshell, it allows you to visualise student click activity within your Moodle course site using a heat map, colouring links lighter or darker according to the number of times they have been accessed.

A very early version of a home page has also been established for MAV.  This will expand in the weeks to come.

The computer source code is also available for the enterprise version, available for download from github.  This version must be installed by your IT folk onto one of their servers for you to use it on your Moodle at your institution.

So is there a ‘personal’ version available?  What would that look like?

Could anyone using Moodle (and Firefox for now) use it, without requiring your IT department to install a plug-in for your Moodle server?

Would you be interested in using MAV this way?

What are the ethical challenges to overcome?

I’d love to hear your thoughts/suggestions in the comments below.

The Moodle Activity Viewer (MAV) – Heatmaps of Student Activity

Introduction

This blog post introduces an emerging implementation of learning analytics for lecturers that offers a novel approach to the visualisation of learning analytics within the Moodle LMS called the Moodle Activity Viewer (MAV).  The motivation for its design was born from the frustration of using the standard analytics reporting functions available in Moodle 2.2 by lecturers at my institution. While there are many efforts underway to improve this functionality within the latest releases of Moodle, at least for my own institution, these improvements are likely to be years away from adoption.  One emphasis with these improvements, is a greater use of graphs over tabular lists, most common in earlier Moodle 2.x versions.

What is MAV and How Does it Help Lecturers?

MAV takes a fresh approach to representing student activity within Moodle, by using heat maps (or click heat maps) as shown in the screenshot below:

Heat map of Resources Usage by Students using MAV
Heat map of Resources Usage by Students using MAV

In the example above, MAV is representing the number of students who have accessed various resources and activities on a Moodle course site by colouring the links accordingly.  In this way, MAV is focused on assisting with teacher reflection – identifying which elements of the course were used by the most students, and those which weren’t.  On presenting the above snapshot to the lecturer,  they responded: “Aaaah that’s interesting.  I’m surprised that as many students as that used some of the links.”  After further discussion, they shared the following comments:

I do feel that [the course] is guilty of that to some degree that we baffle them with BS and overwhelm them with far too many resources till they can’t separate the forest from the trees. I was certainly in two minds about even including most of those resource links at the beginning of the semester. I can certainly understand the results in the mid-term tests…they were compulsory

This is exactly the sort of teacher reflection that was intended by its design. Another excerpt from a Moodle page rendered using MAV from a much smaller postgraduate course is illustrated below.

Heat map of Assessment Resources Usage by Students
Heat map of Assessment Resources Usage by Students

The lecturer of this course has been experimenting with MAV for a few months, and had the following to say about what changes might be made in future offerings:

… academics as students may already know and understand about the feedback resources I gave them, that is why they didn’t bother reviewing. Now I’m thinking of removing them. But in saying that, it is up to me to provide the scaffolding they require, so I’m thinking I should leave it there because it is good practice, even though I know they aren’t using it, but could potentially use it for their own students.

When asked about MAV’s ease of use:

It was very easy to use MAV to get an insight into useful resources. I
would have no idea how to get this info through normal Moodle tools and
activity reporting.

Within higher education, learning analytics is predominantly used to identify “at-risk” students with the view to prevent or limit student attrition (Chatti, Dyckhoff, Schroeder, & Thüs, 2012; Lodge & Lewis, 2012).  Identifying learners “at-risk” is only one, albeit important complex issue to act upon.  MAV in its present form is designed to assist lecturers with teacher reflection and course learning design.

Why heatmaps and How Does MAV Work?

How to turn on and off the Moodle Activity Viewer (MAV)

Norman (1993) reminds us that “We humans are spatial animals, very dependent upon perceptual information. Representations that make use of spatial and perceptual relationships allow us to make efficient use of our perceptual systems, to think experientially.” By using heat maps, it allows the lecturer to visualise student activity spatially within the real-world Moodle site itself, rather than through abstract graphs or tabular totals.  This is not to say that graphs and tables are not valuable.  The heat maps are just an alternate approach, and one that is more accessible to a broader cross-section of lecturers, as it easy to use and requires no training or guided instruction – it simply leverages our anthropological intuition.  The screenshot (left) shows how the MAV can be switched on and off in the same way that Editing mode can be turned on and off – something even the complete Moodle novice quickly masters.

The tool presently has a modest list of configurable options, which it is planned to expand over time.  This expansion will be balanced with the value of keeping the tool simple and focused on the tasks that lecturers wish to perform.  At present, the options are largely focused on teacher reflection where lecturers are able to change the following properties of the representation:

  • display count of clicks versus count of distinct students
  • select specific weeks of the term for activity (incomplete)
  • select specific groups within the class
  • select either a heat map visualisation or a font size (think wordle or tag cloud) visualisation (for those with colour-blindness)

These options are changeable through the dialog (below) that is presented in the browser page, when the lecturer clicks on the Activity Viewer Settings option immediately beneath the on/off option in the settings menu (shown above).

MAV Settings Dialog within Moodle Page - Display Mode
MAV Settings Dialog within Moodle Page – Display Mode

How is MAV Implemented?

In its present form, MAV has limited affordance for action.  It like many other existing analytics tools focuses heavily on information, and not enough on supporting action.  For MAV however, this is surmountable due to its technical architectural design, which is somewhat unusual. MAV is not implemented as a Moodle plugin on the Moodle server, but rather as a browser addon on the lecturer’s computer.

Student activity in Postgrad Course Moodle Book Table of Contents, using MAV

This browser driven approach is not new.  SNAPP, a tool for conducting social network analysis within Moodle uses what’s called browser bookmarklets and has gained considerable popularity.  Another approach more closely resembling MAV was taken by Leony, D. Pardo, L. et al. (2012) who created a browser addon that “talks” to a related server component sitting along side Moodle from which it retrieves analytics data, and is then “drawn” into the Moodle page as a graph in a custom block.  To the viewer, the graphing block appears as a seamless part of the Moodle page, but in reality, the information has been synthesised between the analytics server and Moodle. MAV too has a server component that “talks” to a copy of the Moodle database and extracts statistics for display by the browser addon.  Where MAV diverges from the approach of Leony, D. Pardo, L. et al. (2012) is that it is not focused on the conventional approach of using a Moodle course block to display information.  Instead MAV treats the entire Moodle page as a canvas for conveying information, and in a way that is contextual to the canvas itself.

The problem with traditional Moodle plugin development is that “the LMS is commonly managed at an institutional level and it must support several courses, [and so] installing a customised module becomes a complicated procedure both technically and administratively.” (Leony, D. Pardo, L. et al., 2012) By using a browser addon and matching analytics server, “we simplify the task of providing visualizations to participants of the course, valuable for the execution pilot studies or the evaluation of visualizations.” (Leony, D. Pardo, L. et al., 2012)

This approach makes it easy to be agile and innovative without disturbing critical high-availability environments such as Moodle.  If the browser addon breaks in someway, it is easily disabled in the browser settings restoring the default Moodle functionality.  It is of course not without drawbacks.  To name a couple, changes in Moodle are likely to break the Browser addon and there are sure to be variations to consider between Moodle versions.  It is believed on the whole, that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.  This thinking will be tested over time.

MAV and Open Source

MAV is licenced under the GPL, and will be made available in the coming weeks via github.  It is hoped that other educational institutions using Moodle may be interested in collaborating with the technology and the approach to refine and improve on the concept, and implement new ideas.  Research is planned around its design and use.  An announcement will be made when the source code is available and how people can get involved.

Heatmap of Undergraduate Course Home Page using MAV
Heatmap of Undergraduate Course Home Page using MAV

MAV in the Future

The following outlines a sample of ideas for MAV in the future.

Allow the lecturer to visualise the activity of individual students

As a scenario, consider an assignment extension request from a distance student.  In evaluating the request, one of the things lecturers often consider is the amount of work the student has done leading up to the due date, offset by any mitigating circumstances that may have prevented such work.  Using MAV, the lecturer could select this student through the MAV settings, and see how often the student has accessed relevant aspects of the course, when, and perhaps in what sequence.  This would assist the lecturer in making an informed decision about the validity of the student’s extension request claims.

Provide affordances for action based on the analysed data within MAV and Moodle

As previously mentioned, MAV presently offers little in terms of affordance for action on the visualised student activity.  One useful function supportive of teacher reflection would be to assist lecturers in capturing their reflections on their course sites while they view the heat maps.  In the examples given at the start of this post, the lecturers were analysing the student activity and making decisions about how they might change their course in the next offering.  What if lecturers could click on a resource that they wish to change in the future, and make notes within the Moodle site itself using MAV.  The change and their thinking is captured immediately as they reflect, without having to venture somewhere outside of the Moodle site and thus breaking the natural flow of their reflective activity (Villachica, Stone & Endicott, 2006).  A small icon could be attached to the resource or activity as a reminder that a change is to be made.  Then when they need to update the course for the next offering, sometimes in a years time, the information is readily available and still in context of their course site.

Integrate contextual information in Moodle pages in other ways besides heatmaps

As an example, wherever a student name of number is displayed on a Moodle page, provide a hover menu or visual that provides additional information about the student.  This could be things like their contact details and other info from their profile page.  But it could also be a range of information from other sources (see next point).  This also marks a shift from the low hanging fruit that is clickstream data to information that embodies more depth.  As a contextual menu to each heatmap link, options could be provided to see a list of students who haven’t, and perhaps just as importantly have accessed a given resource.  These students could then be contacted via mail merge either encouraging them to engage with the resource or activity, or praising them for doing so.

Using the browser addon architecture to integrate and aggregate other information services and data

The browser addons need not be limited to aggregating/synthesising information from only the server analytics component and Moodle.  Opportunities exist to integrate MAV with other initiatives at my institution such as the Student Support Indicators Project (SSI).  This integration can work in both directions.  Identify using MAV which students have not made use of critical resources or participated in activities, and then look up their student success factors through the SSI.  Similarly, on identifying a student within the SSI who is showing lower engagement with their course, redirect the lecturer to the Moodle course site with MAV switched on, and only showing the elements of the course used by the student, giving further detail to their behaviour.

References

Chatti, M. A., Dyckhoff, A. L., Schroeder, U., & Thüs, H. (2012). A reference model for learning analytics. International Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning, 4(5/6), 318. Retrieved from http://www.inderscience.com/link.php?id=51815

Leony, D., Pardo, A., Valentın, L. de la F., Quinones, I., & Kloos, C. D. (2012). Learning analytics in the LMS: Using browser extensions to embed visualizations into a Learning Management System. In R. Vatrapu, W. Halb, & S. Bull (Eds.), TaPTA. Saarbrucken: CEUR-WS.org. Retrieved May 25, 2013, from http://ceur-ws.org/Vol-894/paper6.pdf

Norman, D. A. (1993). Things that make us smart: defending human attributes in the age of the machine. Cambridge, Mass: Perseus. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Villachica, S., Stone, D., & Endicott, J. (2006). Performance Support Systems. In J. Pershing (Ed.), Handbook of Human Performance Technology (Third Edit., pp. 539–566). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Learning Theories and Context

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11.  Over the past couple of years, and more feverishly in the past month, I have been banging on about learning theories and the importance of context.

This afternoon, I watched a you tube video (below) by Ian Robertson titled “An Introduction to Learning Theories“.  While it was a high-level introduction, it carried an underlying message of how I feel about learning theories.

Ian provides a definition or brief explanation for a number of learning theories, backed with examples of when they are most effective. It is this point that I have been trying to communicate through my previous blog posts on the topic of context.  There is no learning theory to rule them all.  They are all largely valid and meaningful – for a given context.

What I believe to be misguided is the purist approach to learning theory – (ie. theory X is right and theory Y is wrong), or that you have to decide which one you use, and discard the others. In fact after reading a forum post by George Siemens, I believe he has similar perspectives on this.  George says:

We use ideas and apply them based not only on their merits, but on the context – where we’re at…where our learners are at…tools available, etc. So, sometimes, sloppiness works. Misapplication still teaches. Our theory is pure in thought, messy in application. And, few things are refuted in their entirety. Many aspects of constructivism, cognitivism have value beyond the language construct we have created to house the ideals. Most ideas are messy, run across domains, and even revolutions bear the characteristics of the system they are attempting to replace.

In Week 4, George Siemens has specifically asked the question “… what are the unique ideas in connectivism?”  A very pertinent question.  I shall frame my response in terms of which contexts suit the connectivist learning theory, which will in itself, differentiate it from others.  Well maybe. 🙂

George said of Constructivism:

Constructivism made sense in that it rode on the cultural trends and philosophical viewpoints of the day … it combined existing ideas into a framework that resonated with the needs and trends of the current era.

Largely, a central tenet of Connectivism is the application of network principles to define both knowledge and the process of learning.  Something possible in modern society through our advancements in technology.  George asks in his seminal work Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age:

Some questions to explore in relation to learning theories and the impact of technology and new sciences (chaos and networks) on learning:

  • How are learning theories impacted when knowledge is no longer acquired in the linear manner?
  • What adjustments need to made with learning theories when technology performs many of the cognitive operations previously performed by learners (information storage and retrieval).
  • How can we continue to stay current in a rapidly evolving information ecology?
  • How do learning theories address moments where performance is needed in the absence of complete understanding?
  • What is the impact of networks and complexity theories on learning?
  • What is the impact of chaos as a complex pattern recognition process on learning?
  • With increased recognition of interconnections in differing fields of knowledge, how are systems and ecology theories perceived in light of learning tasks?

Naturally, George positions Connectivism to respond to these modern day sciences and challenges, and herein lay Connectivisms effective context. A response to learning in the era of the 21st century – the information age.

But this context is far from global.  What of contexts where such networks are unavailable or difficult to access?  There are many developing countries for example where such technological advancement is beyond reach.  Even in first-world countries, there is not ubiquitous access to technological services generating the types of challenges and environments questioned by George above.  We look at students at our University and many still do not have access to broadband Internet.  Our institution has many students who work full-time in the mining sector as another example – many of which are located in remote areas of Australia (ie. Western Queensland, and Western Australia). Try obtaining reliable and affordable broadband Internet in remote areas of Australia, such as Western Queensland.  How can they consistently engage in a learning network?  Even in urban areas of Australia, there are the haves and have nots for high-speed Internet.

So it would be interesting to see whether Ian considers Connectivism as a learning theory in its own right, and add examples of the appropriate context in which to use it.

If infants and animals can do it, does that make it simple?

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11 and is in response to a statement made by Stephen Downes in his blog post entitled What Connectivism Is.  The statement by Stephen in response to a criticism of Connectivism by Tony Forster:

Tony continues, “Connectivism should still address the hard struggle within of deep thinking, of creating understanding. This is more than the process of making connections.”

[Stephen responds] No, it is not more than the process of making connections. That’s why learning is at once so simple it seems it should be easily explained and so complex that it seems to defy explanation (cf. Hume on this). How can learning – something so basic that infants and animals can do it – defy explanation? As soon as you make learning an intentional process (that is, a process that involves the deliberate creation of a representation) you have made these simple cases difficult, if not impossible, to understand.

I have had a reasonably long held belief that teaching is incredibly complex, a view also held by Richard F. Elmore (sorry I don’t have the original source, but I do trust the citation in this link).

If you consider that the network and connections between nodes in a network is what important for learning, then learning is part of a system.  I consider a network to be a system – “System is a set of interacting or interdependent system components forming an integrated whole.”  An integrated whole through connectivism in terms of scholarship could be the “body of knowledge”.  Inherently, systems become more complex – the larger and more interrelated they become.  Think of the butterfly effect.

However, there is a distinction between teaching and learning.  The original quote was with regard to teaching.  Stephen also made this comment:  “As soon as you make learning an intentional process (that is, a process that involves the deliberate creation of a representation) you have made these simple cases difficult, if not impossible, to understand.”

So when we allow learning to occur spontaneously, without man-made structures/frameworks/objectives, do we see a simple act occur?  Do we make it more difficult when we put constraints around the learning process?

When I first started writing this blog post, I was still attached to my view of learning being complex.  I am now not so sure.

Perhaps we do make it more complicated than it need be.  Society however is very outcome driven – means to an end, and to ensure the ends are being met, we develop these structures.

Perhaps if you consider learning on a continuum of purely spontaneous organic learning situations, to those that are highly structured and planned, the answer is somewhere round the middle in terms of meeting societal needs, while retaining simple effective learning?

Installing netatalk 2.1.1 on CentOS 5.4

I had the need to install netatalk on CentOS 5.4.  Sadly there were no easily found precompiled packages of netatalk, so I googled to find some guidance on the best way to do this.

I found a great article on www.linuxquestions.org which gave plenty of hints as to what was required, and to compile from source wasn’t going to be too arduous.

So here is what I did…

Downloaded and installed Oracle (is there anything they don’t yet own?) Berkeley DB

You can find Oracle Berkeley DB through a simple google search.  I used version 4.8.30.NC.  I found that 5.x didn’t work.

After downloading and extracting Berkeley DB, I compiled with command:

cd db-4.8.30.NC/build_unix

../dist/configure –prefix=/usr/local/db-4.8.30 && make -j 2 && make install

Then downloaded netatalk 2.1.1 and compiled and installed with command:

cd netatalk-2.1.1

./configure –enable-redhat –with-bdb=/usr/local/db-4.8.30 –prefix=/usr/local/netatalk-2.1.1 –with-mutex=x86/gcc-assembly && make -j 2 && make install

Then configured the software from /usr/local/netatalk-2.1.1/etc/netatalk and started the server

chkconfig atalk on

service atalk start

Hope someone finds this useful.

Blogging in an Educational Context

As part of my studies, I am required to produce a presentation about how I use blogging in my work practice.  My presentation is hosted as a voicethread.

Voicethread Presentation

Following is a more in-depth reflection on the use of my blog in my work practice.

What is a Weblog?

Essentially a weblog or blog is a web site that is easy to create and update without requiring any technical or programming skills such as HTML.  This makes it an accessible web publishing technology to a wide audience.  This means virtually anyone can be a publisher.  It is a great tool for facilitating conversations.  These conversations can be between publishers and readers, but also between publishers and other publishers generating a powerful mesh of interactions.  This is achieved by the ability of readers to comment on articles written by publishers.  In fact, a publisher’s article on their blog can be a comment to another publisher’s article.  This is called a pingback where one article links to another.

The format of a blog is typically a chronicle of articles organised by the date in which they are posted, much like a diary only typically sorted in reverse order (most recent to least recent articles).  It is this structure that has given the weblog its name – a web log or journal.  However, many blogs also support web pages that do not conform to this chronicle structure and can be arbitrarily published and linked like a typical website.

Organising and cataloguing of information within blog articles (or more commonly known as blog posts) is achieved using keywords known as tags.  These tags are unstructured and can be arbitrarily selected by the blogger to represent the contents or topic of each post.  Posts in a blog, and even between blogs can then be arranged and categorised based on these tags to generate listings of articles that are all related.  It makes organising the contents of blogs easier so that readers can identify posts that are interesting to them.  The collective label for blogs is the blogosphere.

The computer language that allows the sharing and re-use of information in blogs and other social network media is called RSS or Really Simple Syndication.  RSS allows a publisher to syndicate their blog posts and comments on their blog posts to the public.  This functionality has enabled a transition from the “go out and get” web to the “come to me” web.  Readers can subscribe to RSS feeds from their favourite blogs and other online social services, and have the information come to them in one application known as an RSS reader.  This allows the reader to aggregate information from many different sources to one location.  Using filtering technologies such as Yahoo Pipes, a reader can also limit syndicated data only to specific topics of interest.  Tags can assist with this approach.

Using these technologies readers (or consumers) are able to personalise content to their specific desires – a revolution from the days of tradition mass media where professional writers and editors decided what arrangement of content is published.

What software exists?

There are many different blog services on the Internet.  They all pretty much perform the same functions, although some have little niches and tricks over others to distinguish themselves.  For example, WordPress has a spam filtering technology known as Askmet, which is incredibly effective at blocking spam on blog sites.  Yes sadly, spammers attempt to deposit their Viagra advertisements as comments on blogs too.

The most popular blogging services include:

  • WordPress
  • Blogger
  • Twitter (microblogging)

Twitter is a quite unique blogging service in that it limits all posts to 140 characters, hence the label “microblogging”.  It means that your posts must be very succinct and typically limited to fairly high level ideas.

What are blogs used for?

Blogging means different things to different people.  Bloggers range from individuals, organisations to political parties.  Each have a particular focus for using a blog.

Individuals use blogs as a tool for reflection, to connect with peers, and as a way of thinking out loud.  An individual may use their blog for their personal lives, or for their professional lives (or even both).

For a personal blog, it may be an opportunity to express themselves and their beliefs, ideals and challenges in life – reflecting on one’s own personal life.  Peers in this context would likely be family and friends.  For example, sharing the highs and lows of a recent holiday trip with family and friends can be communicated via a personal blog.

In a professional context, a blog is a tool to facilitate the sharing of ideas and concepts, and challenges in the given profession.  It also allows professionals to connect with one another and form communities online.  For example, an acting professional may share their challenges for certain roles and scenes on their blog, and provide feedback and suggestions to fellow actors in their challenges.

Another class of bloggers is known as a professional blogger.  Not to be confused with professions blogging, a professional blogger using blogging as a source of income – it is their profession to blog.  Income is typically derived from advertising displayed on the blog site, and is only really possible with very high readerships.  To be a professional blogger, you need to be able to draw consistent readership such that the advertising displayed on your blog site receives attention from visitors, thus generating revenue for the advertisers and commissions to the professional blogger.  Being a professional blogger can be very challenging as blogging is a very competitive space – many many blogs competing for attention from readers.

For an organisation, a blog is an effective and inexpensive tool for external communication with partners, clients/customers, and the general public.  An organisation can use a blog to publicly advocate a point of view, draw attention to organisational achievements, and respond to critics rapidly.  It can be a very powerful public relations tool.

Likewise for political parties and politicians, a blog can be a very powerful public relations tool.  It can be used to advocate policies and direction showcase politicians, quickly respond to critics and provide communicate engagement.

What do I use blogging for in my context?

I almost exclusively use blogging in a professional capacity relating to my work as a curriculum designer.  For privacy reasons, I do not blog personally.  However, as a professional, I blog for a variety of reasons and purposes, which includes personal reflection, sharing ideas, discussing professional challenges, collaboration, publishing workshop notes and discussion, and team advocacy and corporate public relations.

Professional reflection

I find blogging a very powerful tool for reflection.  I am generally a reflective learner and so blogging allows me to think things through and write about it.  It also makes it easier for me to return to my thoughts at a later stage to remind myself what I was thinking previously and compare that thought with current ideas.  As an example, I have used my blog to reflect on previous courses I have completed as part of my study program at the University of Manitoba.

Publishing/Collaborating on ideas

My blog is a great place to put ideas out into the world.  I use it to link to ideas of others, building an argument for my own ideas – standing on the shoulders of giants.  It is also a great tool for discussing and debating ideas.  An example is a blog post I made where I referred to my frustrations with “eduspeak”.  What ensued was a discussion with my colleague over the value of “eduspeak” and its relevance to higher education.  While I don’t believe a consensus was reached, it was a valuable conversation from my perspective.  I also share information with colleagues using my blog such as my reflections on conferences I have attended.

Publishing Challenges in my profession and employment (ie. Minors & SL)

Being able to share one’s own struggles professionally or personally can be a very positive step.  A problem shared is a problem halved is an adage that illustrates the power of people and problem solving. I have used my blog to publish challenges in my role as a curriculum designer and have received feedback from others in how they have addressed such problems.  One example is a blog post relating to the challenges of working in higher education when school leavers entering their first year of study are often of minority age (<18).  There is a legal responsibility for these minors and it can add barriers to pedagogy.  For example, the use of Second Life as a learning technology is limited to users of majority age, which precludes minors from participating.

Facilitating a face-to-face and distance workshop introducing SL.

Publishing websites is another function of many blog services.  I use wordpress.com and have published web pages for a workshop introducing Second Life to new residents. The workshop was facilitated in a classroom setting, but the workshop web pages were designed to allow self-paced exploration of Second Life.

BIM – Feed Aggregation Management & Marking

A colleague has invested some time in trying to build management automation around the use of blogs for student assessment in formal learning environments such as higher education.  In particular, BIM allows students to register their blog with their course instructor.  The students can then use their blog to post responses to questions posed by the instructor of the course.  Using BIM, the instructor can then aggregate the posts of the students into a management framework that allows the instructor to access the posts, mark them, and return a grade and feedback to the student.  In essence, BIM assists instructors with managing the laborious tasks associated with assessing student work published via a blog.

So why focus on students blogging in assessment?  It has been well established that blogs are an effective tool for reflection.  Student reflection is an important element of learning as evidenced by the following articles:

http://sites.google.com/site/startusingtech/tools-for-student-reflections

http://spanishandillinois.blogspot.com/2009/12/student-reflection_21.html

http://www.edutopia.org/student-reflection-blogs-journals-technology

Team blog – cddu.wordpress.com

As part of my work team, we have a collective blog that we use to represent the team.  The blog is used to publish team related content to our clients (teaching academics), and facilitate a conversation with them.