When does a book become a web platform?

During last week’s CETIS conference I ran a session that assessed how ebooks can function as an educational medium beyond the paper textbook.

After reminding ourselves that etextbooks are not yet as widespread as ebook novels, and that paper books generally are still more widely read, we examined what ebook features make a good educational experience.

Though many features could have been mentioned, the majority were still about the experience itself. Top of the bill: formative assessment at the end of a chapter. Either online or offline, it needs to be interactive, and there need to be a lot of items readily available. Other notable features in the area include a desire for contextualised discussion about a text. Global is good, but chats limited to other learners in a course is better. A way of asking for clarification of a teacher by highlighting text was another notable request.

These features were then compared to what is currently the state of the art. Colin Smythe presented the latest EDUPUB work from IMS, IDPF and the W3C which integrates both VLEs and books, as well as analytics and assessment platforms. The solution is slick, and entirely web based. This contrasts with the solution I demoed before the formal EDUPUB work started. Unlike IMS’ example, my experiment does work in most any ebook software, but it doesn’t include IMS’ Caliper analytics capability.

But then Mick Chesterman of Flossmanuals and Manchester Metropolitan University reminded us that reading features aren’t the only ones worth considering. The open source Booktype platform allows communities to quickly and easily write books collaboratively, and then clone, share or merge them in a process called ‘federated publishing’.

The editability of standard, EPUB format ebooks also introduced the core question: what is the difference between an ebook and a web site? The interactivity and media support that is now possible in ebooks is blurring the distinction, but features such as the possibility of editing could prove a key distinction.

Another distinction, but one that may not persist, is a book’s persistence itself. With more functionality living outside of the book, on servers on the wider internet, how will a book endure? While intermittent connectivity means that offline access is still desirable now, will the ever increasing ubiquity of bandwidth spell the end for self-contained media?

The opening slides.

Colin Smythe’s presentation on EDUPUB.

My own presentation on embedding QTI in EPUB3.

Mick Chesterman’s slides on Booktype.

On integrating Wave, Wookie and Twitter

Stitching together the new ‘realtime’ collaborative platforms seems an obvious thing to be doing in theory, but throws up some interesting issues in practice.

Back when Wave was first demonstrated by Google, one of the robots (participants in a Wave that represent some machine or service) that got a few minutes in the limelight was Tweety the twitterbot. Tweety showed how updates to a Wave can be piped through to Twitter, and vice versa. Great, you can follow conversations in the one, without leaving the other.

Tweety the twitterbot pipes tweets into a Wave

Tweety the twitterbot pipes tweets into a Wave

In the same vein, when Google unveiled Wave Gadgets (small applications that can be integrated into a Wave), their collaborative, multi-user, concurrent or realtime nature was so similar to Wookie, that Scott Wilson converted them to run on Wookie rather than Wave. Now that Wave is slowly opening up, what could be more natural than seeing whether a bunch of people on a Wave could be interacting with a bunch of people in Moodle via a Wookie widget?

Technically, all this is possible, and I’ve seen it work- but it does require some thinking about how the contexts fit together.

For example, Tweety relays all tweets from all followers of one account to everyone in a Wave. Worse, it relays everyone’s blips from that Wave as separate tweets via the one account. Apart from the fact that seeing other people’s contributions appear in your own name, the Wave conversation is just too noisy and fast to make any sense in a micro-blogging context. Likewise, all tweets from all followers of one person (live!) is a lot of noise when a worthwhile Wave conversation can only really be about a couple of linked tweets between a few followers.

The Wookie ‘Natter’ chat widget in Wave integration looked more of a natural fit. As integrations go, this was pretty shallow: Natter is displayed in Wave, but has no idea who is interacting with it there. Put differently, everyone in Wave is just one participant in Natter. This is potentially quite useful, as everyone else in Natter is in a wholly different environment, and therefore engaged in a different activity. They can’t see what’s going on in the linked Wave. Channelling contributions through one entity therefore makes sense; linked but separate.

The Wookie 'Natter' chat widget in Wave

The Wookie 'Natter' chat widget in Wave

A deeper integration where Wave participants showed up in a Wookie widget properly, much like Moodle or Elgg based people do now, looks technically feasible and socially doable. Unlike Twitter and Wave, the basic user interaction models of Wookie and Wave look similar enough not to jar.

Other integrations are also conceivable: you could push updates on a Wookie widget as blips to a Wave via a robot (Tweety-style) and vice versa, but that looks like a lot of effort for not much gain over a widget approach.

Longer term, though, the best way to integrate realtime platforms seems to be via something like the Wave protocol. That way, people can pick and choose the environment and/or user interface that suits them, independent of the social context or network they’re interacting with. Fortunately, that’s what Google is aiming for with some more releases of open source client and server code and updates to the Wave protocol.

For a wider overview of Wave and its potential for teaching and learning, see my earlier post

Blackboard pledges open standard support.

Ray Henderson, President of Blackboard’s Teaching and Learning division, formerly of Angel learning, made a very public commitment to supporting standards yesterday.

Although even Ray admits that the final proof will be in the software if and when it arrives, the public statement alone is something that I genuinely thought would never happen. From its inception, Blackboard, and most of the rest of the closed source educational technology community, have followed a predictable US technology market path: to be the last competitor standing was the goal, and everyone would betray every stakeholder they had before they’d be betrayed by them. As with other applications of Game theory in the wild, though, there seems to be at least a suggestion that people are willing to cooperate, and break the logic of naked self-interest.

What’s on offer from Ray is, first and foremost, implementation of IMS’ Common Cartridge, followed by other IMS specifications such as Learning Tool Interoperability (LTI) and Learner Information Services (LIS). SCORM and the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) also get a mention.

On the CC front, the most interesting aspect by far is a pledge to support not just import of cartridges, but also export. In a letter to customers, Ray explicitly mentions content authored by faculty on the system, which suggests that it wouldn’t just mean re-export of canned content. You’d almost think that this could be the end of the content “Blackhole”


The one immediate catch is this:

creators of learning content and tools will of course still need to have formal partnerships (for example in our case participating in the Blackboard Building Blocks program or the Blackboard Content Provider network) with platform providers like us in order to connect their standards-compliant tool or content to eLearning platforms through supported interfaces.

This doesn’t strike me as at all obvious, and the given reasons – to ensure stability and accountability – not entirely convincing. That customers are on their own if they wish to connect a random tool that claims to exercise most of IMS LTI 2.0, I can understand. But I don’t quite understand why a formal relationship is required to upload some content, nor how that would work for content authors who don’t normally enter into such formal relations with vendors. It’s also not easy to see how such a business requirement would be enforced without breaking the standard.

The other potential catch is that Blackboard’s political heft, combined with its platform’s technical heft, means that the standards that it wants to lead on end up with high barriers to entry. That is, interfaces that are easy to add to Blackboard, may not be so easy to add to anything else. And given Blackboard’s market position, it’s their preferences that might well trump others.

Still, the very public commitment is to the open standards, and the promise is that the code will vindicate that commitment. Even a partial return on that promise will make a big difference to interoperability in the classic VLE area.

Google Wave and teaching & learning

The announcement of Google’s new Wave technology seems to be causing equal parts excitement and bafflement. For education, it’s worth getting through the bafflement, because the potential is quite exciting.

What is Google Wave?

There’s many aspects, and the combination of features is rather innovative, so a degree of blind-people-describing-an-elephant will probably persist. For me, though, Google Wave exists on two levels: one is as a particular social networking tool, not unlike facebook, twitter etc. The other is as a whole new technology, on the same level as email, instant messaging or the web itself.

As a social networking tool, Wave’s brain, erm, ‘wave’ is that it focusses on the conversation as the most important organising principle. Unlike most existing social software, communication is not between everyone on your friends/buddies/followers list, but between everyone invited to a particular conversation. That sounds like good old email, but unlike email, a wave is a constantly updated, living document. You can invite new people to it, watch them add stuff as they type, and replay the whole conversation from the beginning.

As a new technology, then, Google Wave turns every conversation (or ‘wave’ in Google speak) into a live object on the internet, that you can invite people and other machine services (‘robots’) to. The wave need not be textual, you can also collaborate on resources or interact with simple tools (‘gadgets’). Between them, gadgets and robots allow developers to bring in all kinds of information and functionality into the conversation.

The fact that waves are live objects on the internet points to the potential depth of the new technology. Where email is all about stored messages, and the web about linked resources, Wave is about collaborative events. As such, it builds on the shift to a ‘realtime stream’ approach to social interaction that is being brought about by twitter in particular.

The really exciting bit about Wave, though, is the promise that – like email and the web, and unlike most social network tools – anyone can play. It doesn’t rely on a single organisation; anyone with access to a server should be able to set up a wave instance, and communicate with other wave instances. The wave interoperability specifications look open, and the code that Google uses will be open sourced too.

Why does Wave matter for teaching and learning?

A lot of educational technology centres around activity and resource management. If you take a social constructivist approach to learning, the activity type that’s most interesting is likely to be group collaboration, and the most interesting resources are those that can be constructed, annotated or modified collaboratively.

A technology like Google Wave has the potential to impact this area significantly, because it is built around the idea of real time document collaboration as the fundamental organising concept. More than that, it allows the participants to determine who is involved with any particular learning activity; it’s not limited to those that have been signed up for a whole course, or even to those who where involved in earlier stages of the collaboration. In that sense, Google Wave strongly resembles pioneering collaborative, participant-run, activity focussed VLEs such as Colloquia (disclosure: my colleagues built Colloquia).

In order to allow learning activities to become independent of a given VLE or web application, and in order to bring new functionality to such web applications, Widgets have become a strong trend in educational technology. Unlike all these educational widget platforms (bar one: wookieserver), however, Wave’s widgets are realtime, multi-user and therefore collaborative (disclosure: my colleagues are building wookieserver).

That also points to the learning design aspect of Wave. Like IMS Learning Design tools (or LD inspired tools such as LAMS), Wave takes the collaborative activity as the central concept. Some concepts, therefore, map straight across: a Unit of Learning is a Wave, an Act a Wavelet, there are resources, services and more. The main thing that Wave seems to be missing natively is the concept of role, though it looks like you can define them specifically for a wave and any gadgets and robots running on them.

In short, with a couple of extensions to integrate learning specific gadgets, and interact with institutional systems, Waves could be a powerful pedagogic tool.

But isn’t Google evil?

Well, like other big corporations, Google has done some less than friendly acts. Particularly in markets where it dominates. Social networking, though, isn’t one of those markets, and therefore, like all companies that need to catch up, it needs to play nice and open.

There might still be some devils in the details, and there’s an awful lot that’s still not clear. But it does seem that Google is treating this as a rising platform/wave that will float all boats. Much as they do with the general web.

Will Wave roll?

I don’t think anyone knows. But the signs look promising: it synthesises a number of things that are happening anyway, particularly the trend towards the realtime stream. As with new technology platforms such as BBSs and the web in the past, we seem to be heading towards the end of a phase of rapid innovation and fragmentation in the social software field. Something like Wave could standardise it, and provide a stable platform for other cool stuff to happen on top of it.

It could well be that Google Wave will not be that catalyst. It certainly seems announced very early in the game, with lots of loose ends, and a user interface that looks fairly unattractive. The concept behind it is also a big conceptual leap that could be too far ahead of its time. But I’m sure something very much like Wave will take hold eventually.


Google’s Wave site

Wave developer API guide. This is easily the clearest introduction to Wave’s concepts- short and not especially technical

Very comprehensive article on the ins and outs at Techcrunch

A test in learning widgets

In order to explore how widgets can work in teaching and learning practice, I’ve been blue-petering a one-off formative assessment widget. That little exercise uncovers a couple of interesting issues to do with usability, security and pedagogy.



  • Google docs account
  • Sproutbuilder.com account
  • Mediawiki account with friendly administrator
  • Moodle installation with administrator access
  • (optional) iGoogle account, plain html site, Apple Dashboard, Windows Vista Sidebar, etc.

Take the Google docs account, and create a new spreadsheet. Rustle up a form from the toolbar; you have a choice between simple text, paragraph text, multiple choice, checkboxes, choose from a list and a scale. The questions will be added as columns to the first sheet. To calculate marks from the returns, use sheet 2 (the answers from the form will brutally overwrite anything on sheet 1). Refer to the cells in sheet 1 from the formulae in sheet 2. Finish with inserting widgets or charts that sum up your calculations. Send out the form via email, and let the sheet stew.

Google widget

In the mean time, soften up your mediawiki instance by asking your friendly administrator to allow img and object tags in pages. Make sure that the wiki isn’t very public, or you might get burned. To embed the form, go to sproutbuilder.com, and create a widget with the google form as content. Publish the sprout, and copy the object tag code, and trim off the single pixel image code on the end. Stick the object tag in the wiki, et voila.

To display the results, go to the chart in the google spreadsheet you prepared earlier, and publish it. Stir the resulting img tag you will be presented with into the wiki, and enjoy.

The outline for a Moodle instance is fairly similar, but allows greater freedom in what gets mixed in, where- provided you have administrator privileges. The form widget, for example, can be called directly in the iframe Google provides, which can be put into a Moodle html block. Likewise, results gadgets can be stuck in an Moodle html block as the javascript concoction Google dispenses.

Usability and security

As the recipe indicates, the deployment of widgets could be much easier. Getting rid of the copying and pasting of gnarly bits of code is only a minor aspect of this issue; security is the much bigger aspect. The hacking of the mediawiki instance is a tad questionable from that point of view, even if the wiki isn’t open to all miscreants on the web. There is a mediawiki extension that takes care of the trusting and embedding of widgets, but it doesn’t look particularly easy to use.

Much the same goes for deploying widgets in a Moodle instance, even if Moodle’s more fine-grained controls over who has which privileges over what, makes things rather easier. I had a quick look at a web platform like Facebook, and couldn’t find a way in there for my gadgets at all. A lame list of my Google documents was as far as it went.

What’s required here, IMHO, is plug-ins to these web apps that allow administrators to set trusted domains of origin for widgets. That way, regular users can stick in homebrew and pre-packaged widgets from these trusted domains into their favourite platforms without stuffing up security.

When inserting the assessment widget into the VLE, it also struck me that it wasn’t offering a whole lot more functionality than was already there in Moodle. I can imagine that using the Moodle question forms is easier for some people than wrangling spreadsheet formulae too. Still, there are important advantages of using a web app like Google docs or Zoho. Most importantly, the fact that it allows learners and teachers to pick their favourite tools to a common environment. But that does presuppose that deploying the various channels in and out of the docs web app is easy.


As is usual with a newly found hammer, you start looking for nails that may or may not be there. My first effort (Gadgets and mashups 101, log in as guest) therefore resulted in the shiniest widgets piled on top of each other. There is no indication of the right answer on submission, and the fact that the scores of everyone is plain to see, may not have been the best way to approach the learning activity, though.

The second effort was better, I feel (Gadgets and mashups 102, log in as guest). In this version, there is at least some feedback on submission, and an indication of which questions people struggled with, on average. Even so, using email or a link directly to the form on Google may be better still, with just the average score on each question as a gadget, and a list of respondents just for the teacher.

The spreadsheet can be viewed on Google docs.

You can see what the widgets look like in mediawiki on the CETIS wiki.

Recycling webcontent with DITA

Lots of places and even people have a pile of potentially useful content sitting in a retired CMS or VLE. Or have content that needs to work on a site as much as a pdf or a booklet. Or want to use that great open stuff from the OU, but with a tweak in that paragraph and in the college’s colours, please.

The problem is as old as the hills, of course, and the traditional answer in e-learning land has been to use one of the flavours of IMS Content Packaging. Which works well enough, but only at a level above the actual content itself. That is, it’ll happily zip up webcontent, provide a navigation structure to it and allow the content to be exchanged between one VLE and another. But it won’t say anything about what the webcontent itself looks like. Nor does packaging really help with systems that were never designed to be compliant with IMS Content Packaging (or METS, or MPEG 21 DID, or IETF Atom etc, etc.).

In other sectors and some learning content vendors, another answer has been the use of single source authoring. The big idea behind that one is to separate content from presentation: if every system knows what all parts of a document mean, than the form could be varied at will. Compare the use of styles in MS Word. If you religiously mark everything as either one of three heading levels or one type of text, changing the appearance of even a book length document is a matter of seconds. In single source content systems that can be scaled up to include not just appearance, but complete information types such as brochures, online help, e-learning courses etc.

The problem with the approach is that you need to agree on the meaning of parts. Beyond a simple core of a handful of elements such as ‘paragraph’ and ‘title’, that quickly leads to heaps of elements with no obvious relevance to what you want to do, but still lacking the two or three elements that you really need. What people think are meaningful content parts simply differs per purpose and community. Hence the fact that a single source mark-up language such as the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) currently has 125 classes with 487 elements.

The spec

The Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) specification comes out of the same tradition and has a similar application area, but with a twist: it uses specialisation. That means that it starts with a very simple core element set, but stops there. If you need to have any more elements, you can define your own specialisations of existing elements. So if the ‘task’ that you associate with a ‘topic’ is of a particular kind, you can define the particularity relative to the existing ‘task’ and incorporate it into your content.

Normally, just adding an element of your own devising is only useful for your own applications. Anyone else’s applications will at best ignore such an element, or, more likely, reject your document. Not so in DITA land. Even if my application has never heard of your specialised ‘task’, it at least knows about the more general ‘task’, and will happily treat your ‘task’ in those more general terms.

Though DITA is an open OASIS specification, it was developed in IBM as a solution for their pretty vast software documentation needs. They’ve also contributed the useful open source toolkit for processing content into and out of DITA (Sourceforge), with comprehensive documentation, of course.

That toolkit demonstrates the immediate advantage of specialisation: it saves an awful lot of time, because you can re-use as much code as possible. This works both in the input and output stage. For example, a number of transforms already exist in the toolkit to take docbook, html or other input, and transform it into DITA. Tweaking those to accept the html from any random content management system is not very difficult, and once that’s done, all the myriad existing output formats immediately become available. What’s more, any future output formats (e.g. for a new Wiki or VLE format) will be immediately useable once someone, somewhere makes a DITA to new format transform available.

Moreover, later changes and tweaks to your own element specialisations don’t necessarily require re-engineering all tools or transforms. Hence that Darwin moniker. You can evolve datamodels, rather than set them in stone and pray they won’t change.

The catch

All of this means that it quickly becomes more attractive to use DITA than make a set of custom transforms from scratch. But DITA isn’t magic, and there are some catches. One is simply that some assembly is required. Whatever legacy content you have lying around, some tweakery is needed in order to get it into DITA, and out again without losing to much of the original structural meaning.

Also, the spec itself was designed for software documentation. Though several people are taking a long, hard look at specialising it for educational applications (ADL, Edutech Wiki and OASIS itself), that’s not proven yet. Longer, non-screenful types of information have been done, but might not offer enough for those with, say, an existing docbook workflow.

The technology for the toolkit is of a robust, if pedestrian variety. All the elements and specialisations are in Document Type Definitions (DTDs) –a decidly retro XML technology– though you can use the hipper XMLSchema or RelaxNG as well. The toolkit itself is also rather dependent on extensive path hackery. High volume. real time content transformation is therefore probably best done with a new tool set.

Those tool issues are independent of the architecture itself, though. The one tool that would be difficult to remove is XSL Transforms, and that is pretty fundamental. Though ‘proper’ semantic web technology might have offered a far more powerful means to manipulate content meaning in theory, the more limited, but directly implementable XSLTs give it a distinct practical edge.

Finally, direct content authoring and editing in DITA XML poses the same problem that all structural content systems suffer from. Authors want to use MS Office, and couldn’t care less about consistent meaningful document structuring, while the Word format is a bit of a pig to transform and it is very difficult to extract a meaningful structure from something that was randomly styled.

Three types of solution exist for this issue: one is to use a dedicated XML editor meant for the non-angle bracket crowd. Something like XMLMind’s editor is pretty impressive and free to boot, but may only work for dedicated content authors simply because it is not MS Word. You can use MS Word with templates either directly with an plug-in, or with some post-processing via OpenOffice (much like ICE does). Those templates makes Word behave differently from normal, though, which authors may not appreciate.

Perhaps it is, therefore, best to go with the web oriented simplicity, and transform orientation of DITA, and use a Wiki. Wiki formats are so simple that mapping a style to a content structure is pretty safe and robust, and not too alien and complex for most users.