Saturday, July 15, 2006

News from Diane, with some sidebars

One of our fellow workers, Diane Creede, was at a WebCT conference this week, and emailed me some interesting URLs I had not heard about.

First was Radford University's Opus X project. This is a "Digtial Music Library" that will enable their Music Department to distribute copyrighted music to student's iPods, and meet copyright guidelines and laws. We'll be looking at this closely, as we have two classes this fall where students will be provided with free iPods, for the purpose of curriculum support. Along with Duke, of course, one of the big iPod schools is Georgia College and State University, so we'll be looking there for ideas also. The distribution and control of copyrighted music, especially purchased from the iTMS, will be one of our bigger challenges.

Diane also sent along, a hosted Blogger-like service for educators, running on WordPress. There seems to be a nice sense of community about it. My concern is that the day I used it, networking activity was pretty slow, hopefully this was an anomaly. I know PBwiki was down for a few hours last week, one of the downsides of hosted services. When you open an edublog account, you also automatically get a Wikispaces account, and it's displayed on your blog. Wikispaces seems to be based on WikiMedia, but I have to confirm this.

A big advantage to using the above hosted sites is that we usually don't have the time to learn how to tweak the appearance of our blogs and wikis, so often they all look similar, or "canned". Content is of course more important, but faculty sometimes want some diversity in appearance, or a wiki to "look like a real web site". Controlling the appearance of MediaWiki and WordPress is not easy to learn. With edublogs and Wikispaces, many templates are pre-made and easily implemented. Some of us like to "get under the hood". I am not sure the hosted solutions allow the gearheads enough satisfaction, not that this would be enough justification for an institution to host their own wikis and blogs.

With an edublogs account, you also get an on-line Yacapaca testing/evaluation solution. So, the combination of the three is starting to look like a Content Management System for courses! All for free, or minimal costs for more extensive use. Speaking of CMS, I have been following D'Arcy Norman's Blog , and noticed a few weeks ago that he switched from WordPress to Drupal, and is very happy with it. Drupal is a true CMS, which can support blogging. Interestingly enough, IBM has just evaluated several open source tools for deploying a collaborative web site, and decided that Drupal best met their needs . Top link is here .

This brings up the amount and diversity of the Cambrian Sea of open source software that is rapidly evolving, and the question of who will survive and how will it evolve, if it is to survive. Some former Microsoft employees have opened ohloh , a beta site that is very incomplete for now, to try and keep track of this, over 3,600 projects are listed.

While few of the above are CMS/wiki/blog tools, the same "survivability" issues arise. Dries Buytaert, lead of the Drupal project, anticipates they have a lot of work to do to remain competitive in the future, as does anyone else that intends to still be around in 10 years. No-one wants hundreds of hours of work in a system that will turn into the equivalent of 8-track audio tape.

How will educators now using the server-driven, expensive, 20th century technologies of WebCT combine its use with these new 21st century hosted inexpensive tools? It will be interesting to get Diane's feedback regarding WebCT's "official" position, and how the educators at the WebCT conference are actually handling this.

If there was a way to standardize how all these software tools communicate, with a common API, you could "snap" different modules togther (WebCT and non-WebCT), depending on what you needed, and have them all work together, orchestrated by some type of "snap-on" manager. I think we are also waiting for a good hosted image database solution, suitable for educational purposes. Flickr is great, but some institutions and educators want a more "serious" appearance and customizable interface.

Finally, Diane learned an easy way to put RSS feeds, and have them rendered as web pages, within WebCT. Not sure I fully understand how this will handle feeds with images and media (audio, video), but Diane is going to show us next week, when we start our 10-day Tempel Summer Institute, a WebCT training session for 9 faculty.

We are still unsure how to best handle the promotion of blogs, RSS, podcasts, wikis, social software, for the purpose of use by faculty in direct curriculum support. My feeling is that we should have a general philosophy and direction, but each case should be evaluated on its own merits, and needs to be justified and supportable. The issue of sustainability also comes up in the ephemeral nature of the web. How long should a student's blog, created for the purpose of a class assignment, be made available?

But, I'm sure, it will all get sorted out, things always do.