Lively start for 3D mashups

Google’s tentacles have now penetrated the 3D space with this week’s launch of Lively, a 3D social environment which allows users to furnish and style their own rooms and invite their friends round to admire them.  Is that really all it is?

Well, apart from anything else, it’s Google: as Google’s Head of 3D Operations Mel Guymon says, ‘Google making a play validates the space like no one else.’  It’s straightforward to install, runs via a plugin in Internet Explorer and FireFox (but, significantly, not yet on the Mac OS or Linux), and like Vivaty, it provides a 3D context in which to view 2D user generated content like YouTube videos.  Every room comes with HTML code to allow users to embed them into a web page or, in Guymon’s ‘standard use case’, their Facebook page. 

The obvious comparison is with Second Life, but they’re really very different creatures.  Reuben Steiger, CEO of one of Lively’s two preferred content developers, says:

I think you’re going to see a lot of blowback at first from people that don’t matter.  The Second Life cognoscenti.  They’ll be pissed because they can’t build stuff and blah, blah, blah.  The real test is whether other people like it.  If they do, that’s when it gets interesting. 

To be honest, I think it’s a pretty superficial comparison.  SL offers a fantastic space for those with the skills and inclination to build content – but at a price.  If you don’t own or rent land, you can’t really build anything.  If you can’t afford land, you can’t afford to be creative, and your in-world experience is reduced to passively consuming other people’s creations. 

Lively, by contrast, is currently completely free for the end user, but provides them with no content creation tools whatsoever at the moment.  Users create rooms by selecting a room name, and can then choose from around seventy shells or bare environments (both indoor environments such as two, three and five room apartments, a coffee shop and a dungeon and outdoor environments such as treetop windmills, a graveyard and a winter scene).  These can then be furnished from an extensive catalogue of furniture, toys and other goodies.  Avatar choice and customisation are pretty limited but movement and camera use are very easy to get to grips with (and infinitely easier than Second Life at its worst).  There’s text chat but no voice, and you can stream music or embed videos from YouTube; further integration with Google Gadgets is planned for the future which is where things could get really interesting for educators.  On the downside, it’s pretty laggy: popular rooms such as World of Warcraft (how could I resist?) and presumably also the inevitable sex rooms that keep springing up despite regular weeding-out took a while to fully rez, although you can start to move around and interact with content fairly quickly.  There’s a limit of 20 avatars per room at the moment, with additional users becoming passive observers.

I don’t really think there’s any need for the SL community to feel threatened by Lively – in fact, just the opposite.  Lively really isn’t trying to compete with SL in terms of direct content creation, although its potential as a 3D environment for mashups is very exciting.  Where SL could really benefit from Lively is in familiarising reluctant users with 3D environments: it’s so user friendly and so easy to quickly create your own little space without learning sophisticated and intimidating building techniques and without financial investment that it could create a whole new audience for virtual worlds, with SL providing a natural next stage for those who become frustrated with the limitations of Lively.

Death of the author

This Sydney Morning Herald article on Philip Parker’s prolific publication record popped up on a couple of mailing lists this morning and is certainly worth a read (it’s also worth noting that, since the article was written, Amazon have added a further 127 titles under Parker’s name, taking his current total to an eye-watering 85,864).

Using patented technology to source, compile and distribute works on some phenomenally obscure subjects, Parker is able to make it economically viable to produce titles which may sell to just a handful of readers.  These are strange, Frankenstein books, not worth anyone writing but worth someone reading – a genuine ‘birth of the reader‘, perhaps.  There does seem to be something empowering about such bespoke reference works, and even a vague post-structuralist appeal to Parker’s forays into poetry and romantic fiction, although there’s still an unshakeably forlorn aspect to these parentless little books.

This technology is also of interest given the increasing emphasis on personalisation in education and lifelong learning.  The ability to automatically collate, summarise and deliver content that is directly relevant to very specialised interests has definite applicability, particularly for assessment in vocational training courses where general principles taught in a course can be supplemented with assessments that are narrowly focused on learners’ particular requirements in a way that would otherwise be impractical and prohibitively expensive.

SQA licence BTL’s Surpass Suite

BTL Group Ltd have just announced that the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) have licenced their Surpass Suite for authoring, storing and delivering eassessments across a range of qualifications and subject areas.  This follows shortly after news that the SQA worked with BTL to convert a range of English for Speakers of Other Languages materials into interactive electronic versions available both on CD and as SCORM packages.

The SQA has taken an interest in the possibilities of online assessment for some time, with the first Standard Grade assessed online in a 2006 pilot and online access to results available to candidates.  Linn van der Zanden and Bobby Elliott have both presented on some of the SQA’s more innovative work at recent SIG meetings.

IMS release QTI v2.1 public draft 2 Addendum

IMS Question and Test Interoperability v2.1 public draft 2 was released almost two years ago.  Since then there have been a number of implementation activities, including the JISC Capital Programme projects demonstrated to the community last February.  Insights and lessons learned from these development activities have contributed to the QTI v2.1 public draft 2 Addendum now available through the specification webpage.  The Addendum incorporates ‘bug fixes and updates to some of the examples, the specification documents, and the XML schema’ and now offers the best version yet of the specification.

Feedback can as always be submitted through the ‘specification problem and suggestion reporting’ section of the IMS website (registration is required so I can’t link to it directly in this blog) or through CETIS.


Capital investment

How do we nurture and sustain our open source projects?  That’s one of the key questions that emerged from a workshop showcasing three JISC Capital Programme projects working on eassessment held recently at the University of Cambridge.  The projects – AQuRate, Minibix and ASDEL – demonstrated the end-to-end assessment process which interoperability can support, with items authored in AQuRate, uploaded to and extracted from the Minibix item bank and successfully delivered in ASDEL.  All three tools implement the QTI v2.1 specification, building where possible on earlier open source work funded by JISC.  Code will be added to the projects’ SourceForge space, and it’s hoped that the quality of these tools combined with the collaborative tools provided by SourceForge will help to sustain them after the end of the funding period in March.

It’s that funding period that raises issues around the survival of so many of these tools.  Both Sheila MacNeill and René Meijer offer thoughtful analyses of the workshop and discussion sessions, and both highlight the fact that even open source communities need and can be motivated by funding.  There’s a real desire to move from such projects being little more than proof of concept to the focus of a strong, self-sustaining community of developers and, ultimately, educators, but developing and supporting such a community is not a simple task.  If you build it, they may well come; but you might need to pay their train fare first.

Assessment and Educational Content joint meeting review

Slideshows and mp3s from last week’s joint JISC CETIS Assessment and Educational Content SIGs meeting are now available on the wiki.  It was a lively and interesting day, covering a wide range of topics of relevance to both communities.

Steve Lay of CARET, University of Cambridge, who had kindly offered to host the event, provided an update on the IMS QTI specification.  Steve is co-chair of the IMS Assessment SIG which is responsible for the development of the QTI specification, and provided attendees with background information and an update on the current position of QTI v2.1.  The specification was released in public draft form in July 2006, and it was hoped that the final version would be released in early 2008.  Delays to the interoperability demonstration required before the specification can be released have set back release to later this year, with an addendum to the public draft scheduled to appear earlier.

Steve also described some of the issues around profiling specifications and the role of IMS’s Application Profile Management Group, particularly in relation to the IMS Common Cartridge specification which currently includes a profile of QTI v1.2.1.  His examination of the pressures put on the scope of the specification is particularly useful.

Wilbert Kraan from CETIS complemented this with an update on content packaging specifications, covering OAI Object Reuse and Exchange (ORE), Content Packaging v1.2, IEEE RAMLET and a proposed packaging transcoding service.  CP v1.2 is still in draft stage and will, like QTI v2.1, be released to the public once IMS members have developed implementations and shown them in interoperability demonstrations.  There is quite a lot of updated material in the new version but the lack of current implementations mean that it’s immediate future is uncertain. 

RAMLET is an ontology which enables mapping between IMS Content Packaging, METS, MP21 DID and Atom.  Wilbert raised the particularly interesting question of the applicability of this approach to question and test materials, not just in QTI but also other formats, potentially including html.  Steve confirmed the ease with which content should be able to be transformed to QTI, as well as highlighting the potential value for enhancing accessibility.

CETIS’s Deputy Director Adam Cooper presented a postcard from the IMS Quarterly meeting in Long Beach held the week before.  This was an extremely useful update on recent developments within IMS and current work in progress, which includes Enterprise Web Services v2.0, Learning Tools Interoperability v2.0, Common Cartridge and Common Cartridge Schools (CCK12), Digital Interactive Content Exchange and various ‘odds and sods’ including QTI v2.1.

Moving away from the more abstract topic of specification development to their real world uses, Ross Mackenzie and Sarah Wood of the Open University discussed their experiences with creating Common Cartridges for the OU’s Open Learn, releasing free content under a Creative Commons licence for use worldwide.  Content, largely drawn from OU archives, was transformed into XML, an approach which allows the subsequent rerendering of material in multiple formats.  After hand crafting a small number of cartridges, an automated process was developed which has so far produced around 400 cartridges for download; assessment material has not yet been covered but is of obvious interest.  Issues around certification and validation were highlighted, with proposals by some Common Cartridge Alliance members that costs of up to several hundred dollars would be appropriate for cartridge testing being inappropriate for an initiative which aims to give content away for free.

Cartridge creation tools mentioned included OU Publisher (which it’s hoped will be made available in Moodle at some point), eXe and Microsoft Grava; desktop players include UCompass based on Adobe AIR and a Microsoft development based on Silverlight; it’ll be interesting to see how this particular battle works out.

Assessment SIG regulars will be familiar with the work Niall Barr of NB Software has done around assessment and QTI, including some valuable developer resources.  He’s now moved into the area of working on the IMS Common Cartridge and Tools Interoperability specifications with particular reference to assessment and the QTI specification, and presented some of his work to the meeting.  An mp3 recording of his talk is available and we hope to have the slides available shortly.

Linn van der Zanden of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) closed the meeting with a fascinating look at some of the more innovative assessment activities the SQA have been piloting in recent months.  This particular project, led by Mhairi McAlpine, has introduced blogs and wikis to support assessment of a PBNC in Health and Safety.  This course places heavy emphasis on collaborative work which raises difficulties in assessing individual contributions.  The use of a team wiki enables assessors to evaluate individuals through the use of the history function, with discussion pages providing evidence of debate and dissent.  This approach also helps to identify ‘freeloaders’ who contribute little, and stronger personalities within the group which may take over activities.  Personal blogs support reflective learning, while traditional eassessment facilities support the submission of project plans.  Login requirements provide a degree of authentication of contributions, and students have responded positively to the approach.  The current small scale project involving fifty students in two colleges is likely to be scaled up for rollout on a wider scale over the next few years.

Our thanks go to our friendly and helpful hosts at CARET and to all our speakers who helped to make this such a useful and interesting event, and my thanks go to Sheila, our Educational Content SIG coordinator, for collaborating on the event and chairing the meeting so effectively on the day.  You can read Sheila’s discussion of some of the issues raised by the meeting on her blog.

REAPing the benefits of transformation

Attendees at last September’s SIG meeting will remember Martin Hawksey’s lively presentation on the Re-Engineering Assessment Practices in Scottish Higher Education (REAP) project.  Funded by the Scottish Funding Council and supported by JISC, the project explored ways in which technology can be used to enhance and transform assessment practice in large first year university classes, resulting in enhanced learner skills, greater achievement rates, and deeper engagement.

A final report on the project is available, discussing a range of topics such as project achievements and lessons learned, preparing for, managing and coping with large scale organisational changes, the pedagogic principles underlying transformation and a study on the use of electronic voting systems (EVS) and the surprising impact they can make on learning and achievement.

The figures reported are impressive: one course saw mean pass marks rise from 51.1% to 57.4%, another’s examination failure rate dropped from 24% to 4.6%, while a third saw a 10.4% gain in mean examination marks; hundreds of hours of staff time were saved through reductions in lectures, tutorials and the use of online assessments while students actually spent more time ‘on task’, and the nature of staff-student contact became more supportive and facilitative.  Self-assessment and peer assessment gave students more responsibility for and ownership of their learning, to which students generally responded positively.

As the report suggests, ‘these findings suggest that these processes of transformation are a plausible prospect more generally in the HE sector’.

The Horizon Report 2008

The 2008 Horizon Report, fifth in the annual series, is now available online.  A collaboration between the New Media Consortium (NMC) and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, the report examines six emerging technologies that the authors predict ‘will likely enter mainstream use in learning-focused organizations … over the next one to five years’.

The report focuses on six technologies or practices in particular: grassroots video and collaboration webs, predicted to enter the mainstream over the next year; mobile broadband and data mashups (two to three years); and collective intelligence and social operating systems (four to five years).  The emphasis is on educational applications of these technologies, with a range of example projects and products illustrating them in action.

Earlier Horizon reports and other publications can also be freely downloaded from the NMC site.

Joint CETIS Assessment and Educational Content SIGs meeting announced

Registrations are now open for our next Assessment SIG meeting, and you’re warmly invited to book your place for this event hosted by the University of Cambridge.  It’s a joint meeting with the CETIS Educational Content SIG, something we’ve been planning to do for some time, looking in particular at two standards of interest to assessment: IMS Common Cartridge and IMS Tools Interoperability.

Common Cartridge hasn’t even been released yet, but has already generated significant interest amongst content vendors and publishers and has been heavily promoted by IMS.  It combines profiles of a number of different standards, including IMS Content Packaging v1.1.4, IMS Question and Test Interoperability v1.2.1, IMS Tools Interoperability Guidelines v1.0, IEEE LOM v1.0 and SCORM v1.2 and 2004.  The resultant learning object package or ‘cartridge’ is intended to be fully interoperable across any compliant system allowing content to be delivered to any authorised individual.

The appeal of Common Cartridge coupled with authentication and digital rights management systems to content publishers is clear, and the specification is particularly suited to the American educational system where there is a closer relationship between content vendor and courses than in UK Higher Education; in the UK, its primary impact may be in the schools and Further Education sectors where there is more of a history of buying content from publishers than HE.  The inclination of many UK HE lecturers to produce their own content and the bespoke nature of many higher level courses are issues we’ve already encountered when looking at topics such as open content and item banking, but there is some interest within UK education, in particular from the Open University.  As a major content producer whose resources are used far beyond their own courses, Common Cartridge has clear potential, and Ross McKenzie and Sarah Wood of OU OpenLearn will offer an insight into their experiences of implementing the specification and developing cartridges.  There has been very little work to date on the delivery of assessment material through Common Cartridge, a topic which will be addressed by Niall Barr of NB Software.  Our own Wilbert Kraan and Adam Cooper will update delegates on the current position of Common Cartridge.

IMS Tools Interoperability has received rather less fanfare, but is a valuable specification which takes a web services approach to seamlessly integrating different tools.  It allows specialist tools to be ‘plugged in’ to a learning management system, such as integrating a sophisticated assessment management system with a VLE which only provides limited native support for assessment, or discipline-specific tools such as simulators.  It also supports accessibility requirements through the (optional) incorporation of the user’s IMS Accessibility Learner Information Package profile to allow silent interface configuration.  Warwick Bailey of Icodeon will be discussing his experiences with the specification.

In the morning, Steve Lay of CARET, University of Cambridge, will be providing an update on the current state of IMS QTI v2.1.  Steve is co-chair of the IMS QTI working group (with Pierre Gorissen of SURF and Fontys University).

The afternoon will feature a presentation by Linn van der Zanden of the Scottish Qualifications Authority on the use of wikis and blogs in education and assessment, picking up on an increasing interest in the use and potential of Web 2.0 technologies in this domain.

The meeting is colocated with a workshop by the three JISC Capital Programme projects focusing on assessment to which you are also invited

Capital Programme dissemination workshop announced

The three JISC Capital Programme projects working on assessment will be hosting a dissemination workshop at the University of Cambridge the day before the joint CETIS Assessment and Educational Content SIGs meeting at the same venue.  The workshop will feature demonstrations of the tools, discussion on future directions for the programme and explore ways of building an open source development community to support it.

In the morning, participants will have a chance to see the tools demonstrated and the role of web services in delivering an end-to-end assessment process. The afternoon session will split into two tracks.  Track I, Building an Open Source Community to support QTI-based tools, will have a technical focus, incorporating discussion on implementation issues and introducing participants to the projects’ open source development support.  Track II, Innovation and Interoperability in Assessment, will look at some of the issues around assessment and evaluation software within the community together with more innovative and imaginative uses of QTI.

The projects on display will be of considerable interest.  Offering the first implementations of IMS Question and Test Interoperability v2.1 freely available to the community, they provide functionality to support assessment from authoring to delivery.  AQuRate, based at Kingston University, supports item authoring, with one particularly notable feature being its attractive and friendly user interface.  Minibix, based at the University of Cambridge, provides item banking functionality suitable for both high stakes private item banks for summative assessment and low stakes item banks for resource sharing and formative assessment.  The trio is completed by AsDel, based at the University of Southampton, which provides a range of small web-based tools for test delivery, test validation, test management and basic test construction.

As with the SIG meeting, registration is free and open to all.