What does the Oculus Rift mean for education?

I’m pretty excited about the Oculus Rift. Incase you’ve missed it, the Oculus Rift is a Virtual Reality headset that was initially a kickstarter project that while successful on kickstarter has since found even more big money backers. Playing on it goes something like this:

We’ve seen VR headsets before, several were released in the mid 90s such as the Virtual I/O iGlasses and Virtual Boy (does that count?) but they never really took off for various reasons;  Of course most blame Craig Charles in Cyber Zone (don’t bother looking it up). This time however, I believe it’s different and that it will have uptake. As any successful technology is bound too have an effect on education I wonder what that effect is, I think an even effect bigger than the surge of top notch surgeons we’ll undoubtedly see after the release of simulator surgeon 2013 [1].

I think its success will be based on a number of things:

  • The Cost

At £200 for the development kit the Oculus Rift, while not cheap is still less than the price  of an iPad.

  • The Backers

John Carmack is it’s  Chief Technology Officer, Gabe Newell  gives it the nod (with various Valve games already supporting it), Cliffy B is an investor.  For those not really interested in gaming, imagine that Scorsese, Lynch and the Coens had all just invested their own time and money in Coronation Street the Movie. You wouldn’t have thought it could be an interesting project; but check out the talent!

  • The Development Tools

This is the most important to me. The development tools are accessible. The source SDK, Unreal Engine and Unity all support the Oculus Rift! Even more exciting is the prospect of using it with technologies such as WebGL.

But suppose it does take off? What does it mean for education? There has been some chatter on the web about serious games  and, of course, educations best friend; second life. These posts explore the learning experience of simply emulating being in a situation, but I think there are much more available to us than that. For example, Mark Johnson blogged about the immersive experience of the Oculus Rift and how it might engage learners by limiting the learner’s environment and being able to get closer to the emotional aspects of learning. If they get bored you can’t just pick up your phone to tweet ‘bored’. You have to tell the experience somehow, look away perhaps. Now how does a VR MOOC respond to that?

I think Marks post is exciting, but education isn’t just about consuming stuff? For a device that doesn’t even have a consumer version the development tools for the Rift are astonishingly accessible and I wonder what else is down the road. Being easily able to create and share immersive experiences sounds pretty good to me. While I don’t think we’ll see classes of students all wearing headsets, the Rift seems fun and I don’t mean fun in the same way we tried to convince kids the Raspberry Pi was fun; actually fun enough to drive them to do something with it.

Edit: since posting this I’ve been playing with getting my Rift working with WebGL trying to get my web browser ‘Rift Enabled’.  I’ve not got very far yet but I think getting HTML 5 3D is pretty cool. I’ve been using websockets to send the tracking information. Since I’ve only been giving the tires a kick I’ve been posting updates about my playtime on my experimental blog, the first of which can be found here.

[1]Surgery Simulator 2013, combine this with the Oculus Rift for instant Surgeons:


An interactive employability event, some notes

Last week at the University of Bolton we put on a workshop for final year students that were about to embark on a job hunt. While the workshop was held in conjunction with the careers advice service and there was chance to give students a hand with practical things such as CV writing and interview technique we also wanted to get the students to talk to one another, reflect and share experiences from their time at the University to boost their confidence and help each other identify things such as transferable skills and job hunting tips.


Graph Widget example and the lone psychology job hunter (click to enlarge)

Before the event I built some bits of software with the aim to provide Sheila and Stephens first possibility of Learning Analytics. That is the possibility that learning analytics could allow ‘individual learners to reflect on their achievements and patterns of behaviour in relation to others’. The software was quite simple, there were two sets of widgets, one set of widgets was designed to collect information from the students. This set of widgets was mode up simple text forms of checkboxes that the students could access on their laptops/phones/ipads. Questions where asked in a variety of ways, sometimes the widget itself would prompt the student with a question and waited for an answer (what the questions were and when they where asked were controlled by staff) and sometimes they were simply asked to input answers/thoughts/feelings during various stages of an activity (involving an activity with play doh!).


Example Tree Widget, at this stage most students claimed they weren't on the job hunt.. (Click to enlarge)

The other set was designed to show the students how their experiences related to those of other students by a series of d3.js powered visualisations. Each of these widgets had a single visualisation on and a collection if them where shown on a dashboard at the front of the workshop hall and were updated in real time, so that if a student added a response to an input widget they could instantly see how it fit in to the big picture. Students also had the ability to take away single visualisations and interact with them on their own devices.


If I said X am I likely to say Y

We had approached the event with quite a ‘handwavy’ idea, we weren’t sure if the visualisations or data would mean anything to the students, my colleague was writing bits of code 5 minutes before the event and at one point I had to add some data sanitization during one of the exercises, to keep the widgets alive. Still, the students seemed to really like real time feedback from the analytics. Students regularly checked the dashboard waiting for their answers to pop up on the screen to see who gave similar answers and where their answers sat in the grand scheme of things. Most importantly it got them talking to each other, the input widgets gave them the ability to go back and change answers and there were some tactical changes between groups of students to improve what their future picture looked like.

My todo list:

  • Fix Widgets, get a working demo!
  • The widgets are in a sorry state with lots of bubblegum code and hacks sticking bits together. Better sort them out and get a working demo up!

  • Work on ways to share the activity (via OMDL)
  • Lots of students (particularly psychology students!) liked the real time dashboard of answers and wondered if they could implement it themselves for their own events. This isn’t a problem if the widgets are to go in Moodle or Apache Rave then this wouldn’t be a problem since we can use ODML, essentially a MarkUp language that defines widgets and their layout so they can be moved from one platform to another.

  • Try to capture more data next time
  • Feeding the data back to the students was interesting but I wonder what we can learn about our event from it? Something I didn’t collect but would be interested in was the points of the event where the students decided to change their data. I wonder what it was that made them change their answer from ‘not currently looking for a job’ to ‘desperately applying for everything’.

Analytics Tools and Infrastructure Briefing Paper

I volenteered to help write a briefing paper on analytic tools in the hope of stealing some time to play with cool stuff. The joy of having some play time in work quickly evaporated when it struck me that not only is there a very large number of tools but also that they come from communities of such diverse practices. It was quickly evident that creating a full list of tools would be impossible and almost certainly out of date the moment it was released.

As such, Wilbert and I have opted to provide a map of communities with information on landmark tools hoping to guide the you to a community, tool, or set of tools that fits your needs.

The briefing paper “Analytics Tools and Infrastructure” has just been released and is tenth in the CETIS Analytics Series.

Our favourite posts of 2012

Those who subscribe to the CETIS newsletter will receive the top posts of the month ranked by the total number of views they’ve had, while its nice to see what our audience find interesting sometimes we have our own personal favourites that we’d like to share. I asked CETIS staff if they wanted to share any of blog posts they had written in 2012 they were fond of and why..

My favourite post of 2012 is “The MOOC just got even better“, which mentions some of my reflections on taking Stanford’s HCI MOOC over the autumn semester. There has been a lot of MOOC-bashing lately and whilst they’re not perfect (in fact Coursera has only been around for a year), from a student’s point of view they’re a great way to access free education from reputable institutions. Sometimes I think we’re so busy looking at the technology or the process, that we forget about the student. To be involved in something at the beginning that will undoubtedly mature and change is exciting and I look forward to seeing how MOOCs will evolve.

For this year, I choose not a post that has received comments, but one that has not, Follower guidance idea.

I had first used the term “follower guidance” in a CETIS e-mail in May 2011, so it had brewed in my mind for over a year before this exposition. I think we (in CETIS/IEC) should be doing this kind of exposition of vision, whether or not it is immediately recognised or responded to. In this case, I have to accept that people have not yet digested the idea enough to comment on it, though when I explain it face-to-face it seems to be understood and appreciated at some level. So I offer this post as a hope for the future — maybe it will be referred to by others as the ideas come to make more sense.

First one is “a conversation around what it means to be a digital university“.  This was a personal favourite as it was more of a staff development activity for me as it allowed me to co-author some thoughts with my Strathclyde Uni colleague Bill Johnston around strategic aspects of becoming a digital university. We’ve had very positive feedback, conference presentation and a couple of papers in the pipeline from this. We’ve also been approached by Napier University to be critical friends over the next year as they develop their digital strategy.

The second one, is one of those posts that I kind of wrote off the cuff and is “learning analytics, where do you stand?“. It was really useful to reflect on a presentation from Gardner Campbell about learning analytics, and I got quite a few comments, which is always good. The post  also helped to set the scene for our work on analytics this year which culminating in the CETIS Analytics Series.

Notes on technology behind cMOOCs: Show me your aggregation architecture and I’ll show you mine
This post started as a simple analysis of the infrastructure around MOOCs, but as a wrestled with the text a couple of revelations emerged.
Focusing on the connectivist style of courses it’s evident that instructors are picking up the tools around them to manage courses. Because, as Downes commented, ‘users are assumed to be outside the system for the most part, inhabiting their own spaces’ aggregation of data becomes key. Even when you deal with well-established technologies like blogs there are interoperability issues with extracting data like category/tags and user comments. One of the key challenges in moving connectivist style MOOCs forward is developing tools that can effectively aggregate data from a range of sources and provide actionable insights for both tutors and students. This post highlights some current work and possible future directions.

Do you git it?: Open educational resources/practices meets software version control
Software version control tools like Git have long provided software developers a space to collaboratively work on projects providing an easy way track, contribute and modify code even when offline. Given the features of remixing and branch existing material you’d think it would make the ideal repository for open educational resources (OER). This solution is not without its issues such as confusing terminology and very structured workflows but it’s interesting to see non-coders adopt Git as a place to host their content. This post highlights some existing examples like open bid writing, music and course content and asks should we be Gitting OER.

At the end of the JLeRN experiment

Not so much because of what is in the blog post but because of the work it represents which illustrates how CETIS can spot an innovation that looks interesting and work with Jisc and Jisc services to trial it in a UK F&HE context.


Since Phil has already chosen his JLeRN Experiment blog post, I’m going to choose this: OER Booksprints Reflections

I’ve chosen this as post as undertaking a booksprint to synthesise, record and disseminate the technical outputs and issues surfaced by Jisc programmes was an entirely new approach for both Jisc and CETIS.   A booksprint is essentially an accelerated facilitated writing retreat and our aim was to draw together the significant technical outputs of three years of the JISC / HEA Open Educational Resources Programmes, reflect on issues that arose and identify future directions.  I think its fair to say that we all approached the task with some trepidation and perhaps even a little scepticism but we were all greatly surprised and encouraged by the result: “Technology for open educational resources – Into the  Wild”,  which will be available to download as a free ebook, or to print on demand in the new year.  On reflection, we all agreed that this was a very effective way to synthesise the complex outputs of the programmes and I would certainly recommend this approach to others.  And who knows, we might even plan another sprint in the new year!

Thoughts on a huge social media strategy

Whether you’re trying to flog wares, advertise consultancy skills or simply have a big ego; it seems that we all want to abuse social media for a cause. I find it interesting that we all choose to use different social media services and guess that our strategy depends on on many factors such as what it is we are sharing, the audiences we are trying to reach and ultimately the user base size of the social media service.

Yesterday Obama claimed the most popular Twitter and Facebook posts of all time with over 640 000 retweets and 3 million likes of a picture of him and his wife and it occurred to me that the two huge social media strategies; that of the U.S presidential candidates will be winding down.

With my social media strategy restricted to posting on Google Site’s and this very blog I thought it would be interesting to poke about and reflect on how the candidates things.  I found much analysis of both Obama’s and Romney’s campaign already exists; here are some things I found interesting:

Email still plays a huge role

Ed Hallen did an analysis of both candidates email campaigns. The strategies of both candidates are quite complex, but it is clear that email plays a huge roll and there seem to be some important themes to the strategy.

It matters who in the organisation sends the message.

Both campaigns restricted the times that messages appeared to come from the candidates themselves to more urgent emails. Other emails came from the VP-candidate or spouse.

Subject matters

Emails from the Democrat camp were often punchy with a semi colon, which Ed claims was a tested way making people more likely to read the message. On the other hand the Republican camp used relaxed one word subjects. ‘Hey’ being the most common

*  Know your audience

Having signed up to the lists, both camps know that they are preaching to the converted.  It seems the list were more likely to be used for issues such as fund raising then trying to get new votes.

Obama on Reddit

Both sides had the obvious online presence: Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Google + and Linked in but I was shocked to see  Obama do an ‘Ask me Anything’ on my favourite news aggregation site 2 months ago; but in retrospect Reddit is the perfect choice.

Targeting an audience on the edge

Reddit often comes under attack for suffering from group think popular opinions voted to the top with disagreements being voted down and often deleted. The demographic of Reddit in the U.S. is young males who lean towards the Democrats. This meant Obama could essentially reaching out to an audience who already supported him but were in a demographic not likely. The groupthink mentality would mean that  arguments against his replies would not float to the top ( Plus his reference to internet memes gave him geek cred – Not Bad! ).

Social sites create their own analysis dashboards

While twitter was an obvious choice for both candidates I found it interesting that twitter worked with Topsy to create a dashboard to mine itself for data on the candidates and the topics surrounding them.  I felt this was a sign that the service knows just how important the data it holds is and was a clear message to the world that if you want to win your cause you have to try and play its game. Twitter wasn’t the only service doing this, Microsoft’s  example can be found here.

Mitt Romney on 4chan

(I kid)

iTunesU for Games?

As those who followed the Game Group administration story earlier this year know, purchasing physical media for games is on the way out. This isn’t a recent thing, for many years PC gamers have had to install digital distribution systems to get their hands on the the latest games.

The most popular PC gaming distribution system is Steam. Steam is developed by the Valve Corporation who also develop a range of very successful games based on their in-house game engine, Source. Although Valve do not release sales figures, two years ago it was estimated by a rival company that Steam owned 70% of the digital distribution games market, we know that since then the service has grown in terms of audience, with just under 5 million people logging in to the service most days.

While Valve have supported game modding communities for a long time, they have recently turned their attention to schools with a very impressive set of free tools for education. The catch? You have to install their digital distribution and sign up to the “Steam for Schools Initiative”.

The tools:

  • Valve Learning with Portals

Valve offers free copies of Portal 2 and Portal 2 Puzzle for use in physics, maths, chemistry, language, design classes and offer lesson plans to available at http://www.learnwithportals.com/

  • Valve Filmmaker

There are lots of high profile film makers at Valve and the company are well known for their high quality ‘shorts’. Valve now offer their in house film making software to anybody that wants to give it a whirl for free. Videos are made inside of the game engine. You can take a peak of whats on offer here:


  • Hammer

The Valve Hammer Editor is a free map editing suite tused to teach game design.

  • Steam workshop

Steam offers a hub for users to share and publish (and make profit on!) their creations in the tools. Proud of the Portal 2 level you made in a physics class? Share it!

Steam for Schools is an aggressive move by Valve, the tools that they are offering are very high quality from a high profile publisher. It surly tells us that Valve thinks that games and storytelling have a big part to play in education.

Some other stories of interest:

My First Ebook

When I purchase an item I like having a physical thing to hold and show for my purchase. There is something about my physical CD collection that my digital one does not capture; is it all those colourful cases, the fancy sleeve artwork, the smell of a new cd or am I just a hoarder? My addiction to the physical means I am often late to the party where purchasing digital versions of media content is concerned. When I do finally cave in and opt for my first digital taste of something I remember what it was and the exact reason I opted for digital over physical. My first digital CD was a limited print and only sold in physical form at U.S gigs . My first digital games came from a ‘pay what you want’ indie charity bundle.

Yesterday I purchased a physical book, the book is called Getting started with Dwarf Fortress. For those that don’t know Dwarf Fortress is the 2nd greatest game ever (fact) and is free to download and play. It’s a very complex city building game where you manage a bunch of fortress building dwarfs while coping with many dangers such as goblins, vampires dwarfs, lack of beer and ‘the occasional rampant megabeast’. It’s a hard game with a high learning curve and ASCII graphics. My favourite thing about it is the sheer amount of things in the game. The below flowchart is a community creation to show a beginner what should be done in order to get started:


The game is constantly updated and as a result this flowchart gets bigger and bigger!

The problem with a physical book on a subject like Dwarf Fortress is that it can date quickly. While the book will be a great help for me in turning Atolkol into a successful Dwarf fortress I wonder how useful it will be two or three game updates down the line. Will the book have a short shelf life with the subject of the book being constantly updated? Reading the back of the book I spotted this about free updates:


I headed over to forums and the author had this to say on the matter:

“Yes – it isn’t well explained on O’Reilly’s site, but O’R ebook customers will be alerted when the book is updated and able to grab a new copy. Other owners can, if they wish, “register” their book with O’R for $5 and also get the updates.

Print book will always be current to the version bought at the time of purchase. The current version is, basically the May releases of DF – so, exceptionally current“

This is a new concept to me; it could be common practice that I haven’t noticed, as I haven’t purchased an Ebook before. My shelf is full of text books on the same subject, not because I particularly love Java but because updates to it render old books useless. I like the idea of ‘patching books’ that a book can evolve along with its subject matter.

I checked out the Ebook and not only does it get updates, it is full of beautiful colourful pictures that don’t work very well in the black and white book. So now I have another digital media content first, my first Ebook.

Sharing ideas in a distributed organisation

A good thing about working in JISC CETIS is being surrounded by the wide array of interests and ideas of its staff. A bad thing about working for JISC CETIS is with its distributed nature (and the fact everybody is always so busy!) it is always not possible to sit down and have a good natter about these interests.

Sheila recently blogged about social analytics and the way people share things. I enjoyed the post as I find resource sharing online a really interesting area. I increasingly find myself getting anxious about how I share things online and to which online persona ideas and resources are attached. I find myself carving out an online identity created of different levels of obscurity where I push my outputs up the levels as and when I feel more comfortable with them. I find it interesting that Christopher Poole’s latest social network allows you to work anonymously and then gives you the option to claim the work at a later date.

I left a comment on Sheila’s post and she replied back to me. First through a comment back on the post followed up by a quick skype chat. It occurred to me then that an online social structure that has worked very well for me has been the JISC CETIS blogs. An environment of regular blogging and commenting allows ideas to be shared and grow through the distributed organisation.

Over the past week or so I’ve been collecting data for a report and struggling with a way to analyse it. I came up with a method of turning networks I can spot in my CSV files into something network analysis tools can understand (which you can read about further down the chain of obscurity). Now that I’m obsessed with running data through the technique I thought I’d run CETIS blog authors and the conversations that join them over the method and steal Tony’s visualisation technique. I’ve removed pingbacks and such. It might not be useful but it tickles the occipital lobe.


What are we writing about? Using CETIS Publications RSS in R

I have been poking around Adam Coopers text mining weak signals in R code, and being too lazy to collect data in CSV format wondered if I could come up with something similar that used RSS feeds. I discovered it was really easy to read and start to mine RSS feeds in R, but there didn’t seem to be much help available on the web so I thought I’d share my findings.

My test case was the new CETIS publications site, Phil has blogged about how the underlying technology behind site is wordpress, which means it has an easy to find feed. I wrote a very small script to test things out that looks something like this:

      src<-xpathApply(xmlRoot(doc), "//category")
      tags<- NULL

      for (i in 1:length(src)) {
             tags<- rbind(tags,data.frame(tag=tag<-xmlSApply(src[[i]], xmlValue)) )  

This simply grabs the feed and puts all the categories tags into a dataframe. I then removed the tags that referred to the type of publication and plotted it as a piechart. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the prettiest way to do this, but it was very quick and worked!

         cats <- subset(tags, tag != "Briefing Paper" & tag != "White Paper" & tag != "Other Publication" & tag != "Journal Paper"  & tag != "Report")
         df$tag = factor(df$tag)

Which gave me a visual breakdown of all the categories used on our publications site and how much they are used:

typesI was surprised at how much of a 5 minute job it was. It struck me that because the feed has the publication date it would be easy to do the Google Hans Rosling style chart with it. My next step would be to grab multiple feeds and use some of Adams techniques on the descriptions/content of the feed.


I had been interested in how to grab RSS and pump it into R and ‘interesting things we can do with the CETIS publications RSS feed’ had been a bit of an after thought. Martin brought up the idea of using the feed to drive a wordl (see comments). I stole the code from the comment and changed my code slightly so that I was grabbing the publication descriptions rather than the tags used… This is what it came up with.. Click to enlarge