Acquisitions and Mergers

I have been reading with interest the posts about Blackboard’s recent aquisition of MoodleRooms. There’s a good article by Christopher Dawson about it for ZDNet Education. The creation of an Open Source Services Group headed up by our old pal well known by the OU crowd – Charles “Chuck” Severance of Sakai fame. I think he’ll do a great job and he is upbeat about the Blackboard finally listening to his message about ” think[ing] more broadly about the LMS market”.

I’m sure I’m not the only one however that feels a little uncomfortable about the acquisition (and possible merger?) of these. The quote by Martin Dougiamas is interesting

“The decision of Moodlerooms and NetSpot to work under Blackboard may sound very strange at first to anyone in this industry…but it’s my understanding that these three companies have some good plans and synergies. I’m happy to say that Moodlerooms and NetSpot will remain Moodle Partners, and have promised to continue…participating in the community…and contributing financially to Moodle exactly as they always have.”

I think it’s a very interesting move by Blackboard. It reminds me of the Microsoft approach of the 90’s where they saw best-of-breed and acquired them to be merged into their ‘market leading’ technology group.

My feeling is that if all the organisations can remain pure to their ideals and founding principles then this should be treated as a positive move to financially support the onward development of the products and services. There is a little demon on my shoulder thought that’s whispering in my ear that Blackboard are not being altruistic in this venture. They are owned by a private equity firm. It’s a good move for them, it’s hedging their bets. It’s playing the percentages. It may however reduce consumer choice down the line.

Overall I’m not quite as upbeat about this as Christopher Dawson. I see this as a power-play by one of the giants in the LMS arena however a saving grace might be the fact that we’ve got a good guy in Chuck and a mature Open Source Community. If they don’t like a product they’ll build a better one.

I’m not for a proliferation of LMS’s but I am pro choice and I think we should be able to have interoperable systems and services without having to buy whole product suites. If Dr Chuck can manage to make that happen then I’ll buy him a drink. Possibly two.

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Agile Ballooning

Over the next three months there are projects planned which will use 140% of the available resources. In reality this means that we’ve got to hire in freelancers and contractors to cover work and ensure we’re meeting all the commitments. All of the work is strategically significant and high priority, and I’m acutely aware that the funding available to make these things happen is only available until August is unlikely to be available again in the next couple of years so we have a small window of opportunity to get things done. I thought that I’d explain what the developments are and how we’re planning to manage them.

Firstly we’ve had a number of successful small bids by academic colleagues. One of the most interesting of these, led by Doug Clow, is the development of a community based version of iSpot – this project is called iSpot local and is JISC funded for the next six months. The project is around community engagement as much as technology and there are a number of Bio Blitz’s to engage locals. Because the system is can be largely standalone we’re using a freelancer to carry out the work and using a series of hooks to the main iSpot service. The plan is that the iSpot local modules will be made available and can be set-up by anyone using a generic Drupal instance. Then you request an API key to allow your service to connect to iSpot and transfer the data between the services. Without the key you’ll still get the local community toolkit but it only becomes really useful when you can overlay all the data, the ‘spots’, that are localised to your community. There will be a map which will be set to your region or area (you’ll need to configure it initially to set it for your region) and the sightings in your area will then be displayed. The freelancer is having to work pro-actively on a steep learning curve to get the services working efficiently but he has been making good progress and we’re confident that the system will be ready for the first Bio Blitz on the 21st May.

A second project which we’re currently involved in is around the aggregation and presentation of Digital Scholarship data, this is led by Martin Weller, this is interesting because it is getting data feeds from a number of existing services and pulling data to form a view of an academic’s digital profile. As Martin says

Boyer defines scholarship as being based around four functions: discovery, integration, application, and teaching. We can think of digital scholarship then as the changes in all four of these that are brought about by the impact of digital and internet technologies. For example, if we take ‘discovery’ to be largely synonymous with ‘research’ then a digital scholarship view would be interested in the way researchers are collaborating using new technologies, sharing and visualising data, forming research communities using social media, etc

Up to now we’ve been using a contract developer (Richard Greenwood) to build the service but Richard is now required on another project around developing android apps (see below) and so we’re employing a contract developer to complete the final phase of work which is around adding further data feeds and working with the researchers to develop the visualisations.

The third project we’re undertaking is to develop mobile apps for the iSpot service. iSpot recently passed the 10,000 user mark and so it’s at a stage where we’re considering the use cases and the baseline activities that need to be developed through to ‘production’ level service. I’m excited by the opportunity to work with the OU’s Knowledge Media Institute to create mobile apps. We’re concentrating on developing an app for Android and iPhone initially but we’re creating an API which can be used across mobile platforms. Richard Greenwood is going to be working on the API and also developing the beta iPhone app. The apps will allow users to easily use their phones to capture images and upload and share them. Because of the location specific information and the visual aspects of iSpot it is a perfect service to deploy as a mobile app and it will interesting to explore how things like the image carousel and mapping information can be recreated through an app.

The fourth project we’re working, led by Mary Thorpe, is called PePLE, the concept is to create a professional working environment to support social workers, as Mary says…

PePLE is a resource for the training and continuing professional development of social workers that can be used with flexibility to fit in with the operational demands of workplaces. The resources can be used to support independent study or existing employer led provision.

The site is unique in terms of the tools it provides and we had to make the difficult decision (as we did with Cloudworks) to use a framework other that Drupal for it because there were too many constraints within Drupal to allow it to be considered. By the way there’s a good blog post about the decision to move to CodeIgniter by another of the developers, Juliette Culver, for those that want to explore the pro and cons of different PHP framework environments. The work on this project is almost complete and the site is being used as a resource to support OU Health and Social Care courses.

The fifth project we working on is the development of the OU Media Player, which I’ve already blogged about in a previous post. Work is going to plan on this project but we’ve had to be very agile and flexible in our thinking and do some reassignment of work throughout the project, to ensure things get delivered as expected since there are fours units all working together on this project and the timescales are tight. There an early demonstration of the embed service in action (note not yet accessible!).

So these projects are all significant and all have deadlines of end of July. What are the lessons we’re learning for doing all these things together and with limited resource.

1. It’s the people who make the project work. Good people who are flexible in their thinking and are into solving rather than creating problems.

2. Being pragmatic. Don’t think you can do the ‘gold star’ service within three months. In particular getting a realistic scope and keep it realistic. The developers need to be good as deciding when the requirements come in how to manage those against existing ones.

3. Use freelancers and contractors where you can on the commodity items.

4. Keep reporting and documentation to minimum. Rely on the developers to self organise, using tools such as TimePanic to keep active tracking of their time on projects.

5. Organise meetings effectively. In the team we have a system which I’m exploring where we only arrange meetings on Monday or Tuesday and the rest of the week is purely for programming. This allows the ‘flow’ that is needed to develop. So all the team only arrange any project meetings on the Monday or Tuesday in any week. The meetings are kept short and a fixed agenda. I have monthly 1-2-1’s to check progress (the team use Google Docs to record their progress for these 1-2-1’s) and rely on project blogs to keep me informed of any day-to-day changes.

6. Issues are flagged up and recorded and resolved quickly and without fuss or blame. We assign an owner to problems and fix a date to have things resolved. We use the same Drupal module that Drupal.org use for managing bugs and feature enhancements. I bring in project support staff to assist me with organising resolutions if they involve multiple parties/units.

7. Ensure the developers are not ‘managing other people’s monkeys’, I use the 1-2-1’s as an opportunity to explore what the developers spend time on to try to ensure that the majority of time is on the development of the services and not on administration, design, support.

8. Be transparent. Keep active communication channels open with the project team, stakeholders and end users. This can be done in numerous ways and will help to ensure rapid feedback and iteration.

None of these things guarantee success but they help to reduce failure rates.

Musings on Moot

moodle moot logoI attended Moodle Moot 11 for the first time this year. I’ve been happy to catch up from others or to visit blogs to get a sense of the up and coming Moodle stuff but I must say that there is nothing quite like a face to face dialogue with other practitioners to help to clarify the big “elephants in the room” and get them addressed.

Senate House

Senate House, UoL

Highlights of the conference for me included Gráinne’s keynote and her differentiation of services which are ‘object’ centric compared with those which are ‘ego’ centric. I hadn’t thought much about this up until now but I’m definitely finding an urge with my twitter and Facebook posts to make them ‘quirky and interesting’ and so Gráinne’s talk struck a cord. It was quite an academic and generic but none the less inspirational and her references to works by Sara De Freitas and Michael Wesch were on the money, for example how people either love or hate Facebook, the fact that the people and technology both evolve together and organisations are generally slow to employ technology well to evolve their practices.

I attended a workshop from Manchester Metropolitan University about their use of cloud service provision using Equella and ULCC to provide the hosting, platform and custom integration. Things that interested me about this approach was that they employed a post per faculty to assist with the migration. They migrated quickly and moved all undergraduate provision to the new platform from Blackboard. The key point that they made in my opinion was “We wanted to target resource elsewhere on the learning environment so bringing in expertise was best way to get ahead and it was important to get contracts right for hosting. Make sure you have the right partners.”

There was a workshop from University of Kent on their move from WebCT to Moodle which followed a similar model to MMU and they transferred in around nine months (January to September 2009). They made strong reference to the LTI specification and later in the MOOT we had confirmation for increased LTI support in M2. They have a blog site that explains their work in the LTI arena.

Other things that I attended included a workshop on Individual Learning Plans. I was impressed by the work done by Hall School on getting tutor feedback models and peer review and peer assessment processes in place and which they seem to think works. I also found it interesting that they (also) use Google Apps and Moodle model for their VLE and do various things around the portal to make these as integrated as possible and have single sign on working across them. The Hall School chap caused a bit of a stir by suggesting that Google Apps is the future for the VLE in his opinion and they’ve started using Google spreadsheets for peer assessment and Google Sites for ePortfolio (as they didn’t want to add an extra layer of complexity by adding Mahara to the mix).

There was a good talk by the University of Vienna on using Eye tracking for Usability using the Tobii Eye Tracker. I agree with everything that the chap said but we at the Open University also use the same equipment and also user studies, paper-prototyping and accessibility testing and a myriad of other practices throughout VLE development so I found it useful but to me it’s to be used in context of improved testing regimes rather than the ultimate tool (for example certain elements are more distracting to some people than others, causing fixations which could be interpreted incorrectly if not backed up by other evidence, for example whether colour blindness affects the fixation).

Martin Dougiamas

Highlights from day 2 of MOOT include of course the keynote by Martin Dougiamas given via video conference link. Things he covered included big push for mobile support, work on community engagement (Mooch), the new method and processes for deploying code which make it much more robust and creating what he calls “Safe environment for production sites”. He also mentioned work on performance improvement in v2.1. The development work included a shout to Tim Hunt and his work on the quiz engine and also the work on incorporating Forum NG, although here he was a bit vague on whether Forum NG would be adopted, adapted or  rebuilt from ground up. The three things I came away with were

(a) Martin wants to push to mobile effort and increase support across mobile tech, initially iPhone and closely followed by Android

(b) Martin wants to improve the mechanism for responding to issues and building them into the product through new process models

(c) Martin is not interested in building a repository within Moodle and indeed the emphasis is on building good hooks from and to Moodle with whatever back-end of middleware products you wish to use for your installation.

I spoke to the Equella people on day 2 and discussed how they’re working with MoodleRooms to provide an alternative hosting service to the MoodleRooms/Alfresco option. They also want to promote their products as aggregators and to enhance visibility of institutional repositories. Providing the glue.

I spoke to the Institute of Education about their use of PebblePad (hosted by PebblePad) but was surprised to find that they leave the whole service in the hands of the students so that for example it can be used for CPD activity but relies on the students being trusted to manage their portfolio and not ’embellish’. They did say that it was extremely well used by their students as a reflection tool.

I attended three workshops on day 2 two of which were from the OU as I was learning as much about how our developers see our installation as how other people view theirs. I found it refreshing to ‘look in from outside’ with fresh eyes. I think the team in the OU within the Learning and Teaching Solutions unit do a fantastic job of which they should be very proud and it really showed at the MOOT how much they are respected in the Moodle community.

The other workshop I attended was from Dyslexia Action about their support of students. Boy do they give intense and active management, guidance and support. I’m really not sure if it would scale to the numbers the OU supports but I admire their dedication to their students.  Camtasia to provide screencasts, Scribd to provide documentation support, help button and FAQ’s, webinars to get students involved then further webinars for tutorial support, live chat for support issues including Jing and Skype and when all else fails GotoMeeting . It made me tired just listening to him!

To finish off the moot we had a great stimulating talk about happiness. It was a fantastic way to end the event and made everyone feel upbeat. We even did a bit of flashmob doing actions to the ‘official Moodle’ song

Future Learning Systems

If you do one thing this week then watch the YouTube video RSA Animate – Changing Education Paradigms by Sir Ken Robinson.

Inspirational? – yes I thought so.

I gave a presentation to the OU community last week about future learning systems. Barbara Poniatowska, Liz Burton-Pye  and I presented the current VLE state, 1 year planned and 3-5 year vision respectively a set of short talks and followed these with a “World Cafe“. If you haven’t come across the concept before then I encourage you to visit the website and find out more about it. It’s basically a way for people to think inspirationally around issues, moving between tables where facilitated discussion takes place and there the tablecloths are used by people to write out their ideas and to link them forming a ‘web’  and evolution of thinking. I decided to adapt this a bit and instead of getting people to simply write thoughts and ideas we also asked people to go around afterwards and to add a tick next to the ideas or comments that they most endorsed.

We decided on five themes of “User Generated Content”, “Communication and Collaboration”, “Assessment”, Joining Up” and “Supporting Students Online” (Joining up was about exploring new markets, linking to OER, globalisation etc.)

This worked very well,  for example here is the tablecloth from the table  where the discussion happened around “user generated content”

User Generated Content Tablecloth

I particularly like the ‘fuzzy felt’ suggestion. I think there’s a killer app waiting just around the corner :).

Seriously though there was a good discussion around the subject and what was interesting was that on tables where the facilitators were from operational units the discussions focused around the ‘here and now’ and on tables where the facilitators were from other units the discussions were more future focussed. This wasn’t because of the facilitators themselves because they’d all been told to allow the discussions to flow between the 1 year and the longer 3-5 year visioning but for some reasons the conversations naturally gravitated in that way. I suspect that there we some ‘historical’ reasons why some discussions were more rooted than others. i.e. the legacy systems that people may love or hate but recall when thinking about what to deliver next.

Overall I really enjoyed the event we had over fifty people attend. I have noticed one or two comments on a very particular subject that are on every tablecloth, some one or two people really having an axe to grind but the method of using the ticks helped to cancel out bias as the really important things for most people got lots of ticks.

If doing it again I’d suggest the following:-

1.       Have some clear ‘feeder questions’ at each table to steer discussions

2.       Have the facilitators shape conversations (or even stop them) if they’re focussing on an area outside what we want to capture. Brief facilitators before the event to explain that.

3.       I think it’s OK to allow the personal agendas to surface as long as they’re within scope and people then construct solutions to the issues raised. So moving conversations past what’s broken and onto the ‘ideal solution’.

4.       Again around personal agendas I think these are fine as long as we provide something like the tick/cross idea which I think worked well to allow people to judge how significant they thought particular things were. This means that personal agendas can surface but may not get many ticks compared to issues which are more ubiquitous/significant to many. There’s also a point to be made here that all concerns raised are legitimate and need to be considered so should not be dismissed (Barbara reminded me of just this point recently and it should not be remembered when gathering requirements to gather them all).

So what were the big ideas? – I’ll reveal one from each topic that I think they’re worth sharing.

Big idea 1. Build widgets/gadgets that are platform neutral to provide services  that follow learners between environments, allowing for VLE and ‘small pieces’ system types. In particular these widgets should provide contextual help and online support and collaboration with other students.

Big idea 2. Provide methods to allow academics to easily leverage other OER material (produced outside of OU) so we become a consumer as well as producer. Use Learning Design to help foster this. Also provide better routes between informal (OER) and formal environments.

Big idea 3. Support (through internal research) prototyping of methods for rich web 2.0 assessment. Once established build into course design where appropriate (again course models and learning design).

Big idea 4. Provide methods to allow students to share content found elsewhere, including references. Allow methods for others to comment and annotate on these shared resources.

Big idea 5. Provide services to allow students to engage in forums and Elluminate and other synchronous/synchronous tools outside of their module (course). Including pre-registration and alumni stages. Make registration process simpler to allow the student to ‘continue discussions’ throughout their learning journey.

I think these are all great ideas and there were more like this which can’t be shared outside the OU but which I’ll be making sure the Learning Systems Visioning Group consider when they next meet and I’ll be pushing to get some of the exploratory work progressed to make sure the OU’s future learning system isn’t just an off the shelf VLE tool but rather actually meets the needs of 21st learners who quite rightly expect more from their education.

Learning from the past

I’ve been clearing out my office this week as I’m moving to my super new building next week and I’m full of excitement and expectation about how it will work. I’ve even sneaked in and had some time in my new bit to get a feel for it and I’m very impressed with it. They’ve given me some nice comfy chairs in my ‘space’ to have guests come and relax around a coffee table, all very funky and trendy. I can’t turn that lights off yet (need a remote control for that apparently) but that’s getting sorted out, as are the vents for the air which is flowing in through an undercroft and makes odd noises very occasionally (I feel a bit like that part of Total Recall where they start to turn the vents off on Mars). Actually Martin Weller described my move as landing on Mars and there are certain similarities because it’s quite odd moving to such an open environment. Yes I have an ‘office’ but it’s glass fronted and surrounded by open space (the Nexus). I’m very comfortable with it having been in more open environments before and I like the idea that we can brainstorm at any time should we need to and that the team can connect quickly with me and see if I’m free to chat without having to knock on a door.

Anyhow that isn’t the point of my post. The point is that when clearing out my office I’ve come across what could variously be described as either a load of old trash or a goldmine of information from the past. I tried throwing things out and I think I’ve got rid of most things before the last decade but it’s very difficult as I keep getting distracted by stuff that was about ‘the internet broadband revolution’ or ‘the ways people will engage with online learning environments’ or a myriad of other stuff that came out of EU or JISC work. The strange thing is much of it is still applicable today. The issues have switched a little away from connectivity issues in the UK to connectivity issues in emerging nations, the scope has increased but some issues still remain the same.

For example I did work in the nineties about Interactive TV. the theory we described back then is very topical now, much more so than back then when we were working largely from a theoretical viewpoint. I was involved in the MITV (Microsoft Interactive TV) trials so there was some actual hardware albeit limited but the research was very much ‘what if’. Now it’s more like ‘why not’ and ‘how much does it cost’.

I’ve also been reading some old magazines which refer to interesting stuff, an example is  this Open Source article from IT Week from March 2007. I didn’t read it at the time but it’s actually very relevent to our work now as with OpenLearn at the OU and the move to OER and aligns with the move by some organisations away from Vista and towards Linux there are trends developing which support the viewpoint that open source should rightly be explored by public sector organisations and promoted from school level upwards. I’ve nothing against Microsoft here I just think that non profit organisations should be trying to explore not for profit software and tools (and content and other resources) to help them.