Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Wiki-related videos

I know my posts are too long. With today's short-attention-span sound bytes they are possibly as relevant as a Jane Austen novel. WHAT, a 140-character limit in a web app, who the heck would ever use it! Bound to fail.

I write for myself, but to satisfy those wanting, or should I say NEEDING, a short post here it is.

Found a nice site today of Wiki-related videos, maintained by WikiAngela, at right, the co-founder of Wikia, which "is supporting the creation and development of over 3000 wiki communities in more than 70 languages. Part of the free culture movement, Wikia content is released under a free content license and operates on the Open Source MediaWiki software."

There are all kinds of interesting links in the above URLs. We also use MediaWiki ourselves, and though we only have less than 10 wikis at this time, it's nice to know we are in such good company.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The institutional layer cake

I was thinking a few days ago that the most rewarding part of my position, to me, is assisting students learning. They are, after all, the customers, without which we would not have a job. And our youth provide us with the hope and opportunity that someday the world will be a better place to live in. My second most rewarding activity, in general, is to assist faculty in using appropriate technology to meet teaching goals. I now saw two "layers" to my job:

Then, I must admit, I got a bit carried away. I started thinking of the other layers, or major aspects, of my job and came up with the idea of a "layer cake" of major forces that affect me. This provided a more interesting visual than a stack of bricks or a pie chart, and I cooked up a rudimentary cake after an hour in Illustrator:

Each layer is a major factor affecting my position. The "Icing on the cake" consists of all the little perks one might like: an office with a nice view, monthly ice cream socials, a convenient parking spot, etc.

While I was putting my cake together, I thought of adding a "Rating" scale next to each variable (from 0 for poor to 5 for great), as a prototype for an interactive Flash project. Then, as each slider is moved back and forth in its scale, the total average at the bottom would dynamically update. If one wanted to leave a scale out of the average, "Don't count" can be selected.

I'm not sure how useful this tool would be, for someone searching for a position in this line of work, to use to compare different job situations. One way to improve it may be to include a "weight" function for each attribute, say from 0 to 10. Then, if the referenced feature, say "Salary and Benefits," was considered very important, it would be assigned a 9 or 10, and this would be appropriately factored in the total average. Each scale descriptor could also be left blank, for use as a general evaluation tool, allowing one to enter their own major job factors.

When I created my illustration late at night, I put a wedding cake topper on top of the above cake! I thought if all the layers "tasted great" it was a prediction of a successful match between employer and employee.

In the cold reality of this morning, I took the topper off. It was just a bit too cute. But one can decorate their own cake. I'm sure a smart alek will ask if you can have your cake and eat it too. The answer is yes, for what good is a cake if you can't eat it.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Wikimania, FLOSSE, and Cell Phones

As we start new wikis for the Fall semester in our installation of MediaWiki, I spent more time learning about the open-source software. First, I created a better support structure in case I was not around. I had many pages of printouts on how to start and customize a wiki and condensed them into a wiki page on how to start a new wiki in our own install.

I have to refine these a bit more, and have a team member use them to start a wiki. I always receive useful feedback when others follow my initial directions, which are then improved.

I still have to come up with a better way of automating daily backups. Right now, I'm using MySQL Administrator to copy the databases, but I'm not happy with the backup procedure of the apache documents folder. We also make a mirror of the entire drive each week with NetRestore, which can be restored to a spare computer in about 10 minutes.

One of our CS students is attempting to implement math equation support, but no success yet. This seems a difficult and less-than intuitive process, without clear instructions. If we do succeed, we'd like to document the steps to help anyone else. I had spent a fruitless day attempting to "make" textvc myself, and decided it was an ineffective use of my time to go any further. I had reached my level of incompetency, the student had the misfortune to stumble in my office to return a cable for a friend, and the rest is history...

I was wondering where the upcoming Wikimania was this year, and Google gave me the FLOSSE Posse link. The conference is in Taipei, a little farther for me than the one in Boston last year. I now wish I had attended it.

FLOSSE Posse is a group blog from members of Free and Open Source Software Association (VOPE), carrying out reportage of FLOSS and Open Content in Education, there is some good info on the site.

One nugget was a reference to Knowledge Building, an activity which wikis seem to support very well. To summarize Wikipedia's entry:

"Knowledge building refers to the process of creating new cognitive artifacts as a result of common goals, group discussions, and synthesis of ideas. These pursuits should advance the current understanding of individuals within a group, at a level beyond their initial level of knowledge, and should be directed towards advancing the understanding of what is known about that topic or idea.

The teacher becomes a guide rather than a director and allows students to take over a significant portion of the responsibility for their own learning including planning, execution and evaluation.

One of the hallmarks of knowledge building is a sense of we superseding the sense of I, a feeling that the group is operating collectively and not just as an assemblage of individuals."

Another eye-opening idea I found in FLOSSE Posse is that networked communication, and the Internet, may come to third world countries via cell phones, and not the computer . Over 97% of Tanzanians have access to a mobile phone, though only one in 10 houses has electricity. These cell phones are becoming agents of social change, and are narrowing the "digital divide" more so than computers. This bodes well for technology like the iPhone, which enables one to do more than possible with a standard phone, and is closer to a computer. The cost of these technologies have to dramatically drop to make them affordable in third-world countries (and even in industrialized nations!). Google is now spending hundreds of millions on it cell phone project, there seems to be a bright future in this area.

There is an on-line community and a wiki at Shareideas on the use of mobile communications for social and environmental benefits.

The last good link I will mention found at the FLOSSE Posse was to Open Educational Resources, educational materials and resources offered freely and openly for anyone to use and under some licenses re-mix, improve and redistribute.

We live in an exciting time when it comes to rapidly developing networking and collaborative technologies. It's even more rewarding to use these, and see them used, to improve the way people live, communicate, and learn.