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I’ve been busy. Sorry. Very unbloggy recently. My contribution to the blogosphere and Twitter has been pathetic. Where was I?

Magile? = Mobile + Agile?

One of the reasons has been that I’ve been managing a project over the past year to create a participatory science mobile app for the iSpot project – actually it’s taken more than a year and we’ve had a bit of a bumpy ride with this one. I’ve documented the process in a conference paper that I’m pleased to say has been accepted for mLearn 2012. There’s a ‘stable beta’ version on the Google Play store, it’s really only a proof of concept as the more innovative pedagogic/technical features such as ‘around here’ (geo-spatial data about observations within a specific locale presented through a map view) and the posting of comments and identifications about other peoples observations are part of the new version which also has a fantastic user interface.

The paper focuses mainly on the reasons for creating a mobile app for participatory science and about the types of functionality and design considerations required during app development. I’ve quite pleased with the result. The paper iSpot Mobile –  A Natural History Participatory Science Application is available through the OU’s Knowledge Network.

If you’d like to try out the stable beta app (for Android) visit the Google Play app store (direct link to app) however before I move on from the app (there’s lots more I want to say about it but I’ll write a new post when the new version is released shortly) I want to conclude by saying that creating this has been an extremely liberating process. The work reminded me of the kind of hand crafting of HTML we did back in 1994/5 when building bespoke websites viewable through Netscape (if we were lucky) on our own custom built web servers based on Windows NT.  Thats what building this reminded me of, and I think that the HTMl5 v native issue will eventually get resolved but at the moment as Zack Epstein explains in his post the jury is still out! – which makes development expensive but hugely rewarding.

ispot mobile screenshot

ispot mobile


I’m going to be blogging more about iSpot as we’ve got a busy 18 months ahead with this project. It’s part of the Wolfson OpenScience Laboratory project and has funding to internationalise, personalise, incorporate a social layer, work better for novice users, work via mobile, be interoperable or embeddable (through APIs) with other sites and services, and incorporate new ecology functions through funding from the The National Lottery, Garfield Weston Foundation and British Ecological Society respectively.

I’ve created a technical roadmap for iSpot to explain all this and I hope to regularly blog about what is happening throughout the next three years of that roadmap.

Lots to do I better get started.

Magile = Magic + Fragile?

Plus ca change

google plusI’ve been using Google+ for a while now and I’m starting to build up a bit of stickability with it. There are already millions of guides and resources building up around it, a bit like the buzz surrounding launch of an Apple product. Including Mashable resources, the Google+ guide and Professors use of Google+ in classrooms to name three I’ve read recently.

The launch of Google+ put me off a little, because it was much like that of Google Wave in that there was a kind of limited public release surrounded by lots of PR and buzz. Luckily they moved quickly to a more open release as I was complaining that the whole concept of circles seems diminished if you can’t share with other Google people who are excluded from the release.

Lets start with Circles…

I enjoy the circle concept for allowing me to place people and share with different groups. I don’t on the whole enjoy categorising people though and I started to try it at the beginning and quickly just moved everyone into my ‘friends’ circle. I have however more recently received some requests from people I don’t know so well and have set up a circle for them. I also move people between circles and so I’m becoming familiar with the paradigm. I do think it’s a bit like Grainne Conole said in her recent keynote at MoodleMOOT about the evolution of people and technology and I’m wondering how much I’m adapting my behaviour to suit the product.

There are ways to do ‘friend’ grouping within Facebook and friends of mine who are adept at Facebooking do set up groups to share specific things with. I’ve always said that I find the cognitive overhead of this a bit much for what are, in effect, just my public outpourings. In general within Google+ I tend to share with everyone but there have been occasions where I’ve selected groups to share with and so the intuitive method Google+ have devised to allow this may well mean that I start doing this more often and therefore the metaphor is more like one of entering different rooms or online forums where you pick the forum you want to post to and go there to do it.

The streams are quite Twitter like, although at the moment more like Facebook because there aren’t too many people posting however I expect as the numbers grow the ‘streams’ will really start flowing and managing that will be like dipping in with twitter. I’m sure that Google have done testing to see that under heavy usage the important stuff does actually surface using the +1 concept and the fact that you can select the groups (circles) to view but I don’t think there’s enough usage yet to really get the impression of how this will pan out.

I like the fact that you can post longer posts than with Twitter. Twitter is good in limiting you to say thing succinctly but there are times when you need more words to express yourself than Twitter allows easily. I’m very verbose though (as you can tell from this post!). The lack of limit though means that there is more scope for pedagogic  application.

What about Hangouts?

I tried using the hangout feature (not sure that I like the name!) but quickly came unstuck as the whole thing crashed on me. I later discovered (thanks to colleagues who investigated further) that the problems arose because of the local firewalls at work that blocked me from hanging-out. I think this may be a problem for Google if they want to get it used more widely as corporate firewalls will simply not allow it. I’m not generally one for social video sharing as I prefer to mong around in scruffy clothes and unkempt hair when using social sites at home and wouldn’t want the effort of having to become presentable to chat to people. Note to Lord Sugar – That’s why the Amstrad video phone never took off.

So how does it shape up overall?

I like the integration with other Google products, this may well be the killer move since so many people use Gmail or Google Docs regularly. I think that Google+ mixed with Google Apps for Education for example will make a very interesting a dynamic suite for constructivist learning.

I think that on a simplistic level Google have done something that could be considered as much of a social experiment as it is a technology breakthrough. Are people evolving to think more overtly about the groupings they share information with or do they just want to be public and open with everything as they can with Twitter?

I’m still unsure about whether I’ll be sticking with Google+ in the long-term as I tend to spend most of my ‘cognitive overhead’ time in Twitter and even then most of that as a consumer rather than a producer of information, I especially like reading the postings by my peers but also like the feeds coming from tech news services etc. This flow is important to me. What Google + allows though is the movement of information easily between social groups and this may become something extremely useful. It will require the evolution of people and product and it will also require a tipping point where organisations start adopting it so that we get a mixture of social space and feeds of useful information.

For me the jury is still out but I’ve stuck with it for over a week and I logged into it before either Twitter or Facebook this morning so perhaps that is a sign of things to come.

I’d like to know what other people think of it.

Google User Group Event

This week I attended the Google Apps For Education UK User Group Event in Loughborough.

There were a group of hardcore tweeters and the event had over 1000 tweets (search for #guug11) – also some nice work done to demo a mash-up using Google Apps spreadsheet and crunching twitter data to display top tweeters against this hashtag. (@timbuckteeth won the day!)

Highlights included the first UK live presentation of the CR-48 Chrome OS laptop.

CR-48 Chrome OS laptop

CR-48 Chrome OS laptop

..I was impressed by the simplicity, the fact that you can install multiple copies of the OS so that you can have failover if an OS gets corrupted and also that you don’t need any other software as it’s all simply a browser. The always on concept is appealing, and thankfully at Loughborough we had good Wifi, but I’ve been to events where it’s patchy or non-existent. I do now however store almost all my ‘stuff’ in the cloud and use Google docs to master and then convert into MS Word to clean up and send on so I think conceptually it’s where we’re moving. For those who don’t know about Chrome OS there’s a good explanation at Geekosystem

We saw a live demo of Google Translate which was impressive real-time translation of IM chat messages (into and from Japanese in this case). Worked very well and available within docs, sites and gmail. We saw a demo of this in sites and again it seemed to do a complete translation of the page.

As well as the new tools and functionality presented we also had the opportunity to hear accounts of how people were getting on with using Google Apps to support students. A couple of notable quotes here…

“How many people are happy with their VLE’s?” – a total of five hands went up.

“the platform must be intuitive FOR THE TEACHERS, the students will know how to use it anyhow”

“If it’s good the students will sell it for you”

“Walled gardens present problems”

“Most VLE’s are actually only CMS’s”

“Sakai 3 is a Facebook like environment”

“Will we need Moodle, Blackboard etc. in the future or simply mix and match Google Apps and tools on marketplace to create the LMS?”

This was for me one of the most interesting aspects of the day and when at the end of the day we returned to Google presenters and had a Q&A session the same concerns were being voiced across the group. Those who had not adopted the suite were generally concerned about security and privacy of data. Those that had adopted the suite were generally concerned about accessibility, onward directions with respect to the learning landscape (integration with VLE products) and how Google was going to support the HE community that it was cultivating.  Google stressed its commitment to achieve better accessibility in the Apps suite and working with us to do that.

Google also stressed the support for the community and it’s ambition to address concerns that individuals had which would be raised directly through the Google reps at the event.

Overall the event was thoroughly enjoyable and I’m looking forward to the next one. I particularly enjoyed the chats with people both on twitter and face to face during the breaks in sessions as they provided an extra dimension to the event.

Further blog posts and event summaries

Google Bad Day?

I heard about the demise of Google Wave last week and I’ve been reading a large number of the hundreds of blog posts and tweets that accompanied it and continue to do so. I’m not going to try to capture all of these but the TechCrunch and Mashable articles are as good a summary as any.

One article suggested that Google does simple things very well but doesn’t do complex things well, it suggested that where the concept (not necessarily the technology) is simple, such as with search and mail, it flourishes, but where there is more conceptual complexity or a larger leap forward then Google struggles.

I’m not sure that I totally agree with this argument but during the week when Wave was ‘crashing against the shore’ as someone put it I was taking a second attempt at swapping from using iPhone onto an Android device. In this case the Google Nexus One.

My primary motivation for the swap was some rubbish customer service from O2 when trying to change my “bolt on” on my account.

Anyone who has tried this and has texted the number that O2 provide to get a response “you are not subscribed to that bolt on” as a response and then had to deal with a call centre in some far flung country where you get assurances but then find you’re charged for the service you have asked to cancel will understand my frustration.

Anyhow coming back to Android the main downfall of the Nexus One in my opinion is the complete failure of Google to support devices which might need to connect to Wifi networks in ‘work based’ environments and to provide methods to address different ‘proxy’ and network types. There are 623 messages on this thread in the Google Code forum but the upshot is Google did a bad thing omitting this and haven’t addressed it in the 18 months since it was first highlighted. For me this is a ‘show stopper’ and not only did I attempt many of the suggestions and found them unsatisfactory solutions but also having spent this much time on the issue I was not very pleased with how the Android phone is set up considering it doesn’t rely on ‘syncing’ with a PC and therefore the importance of the Wifi connectivity should have been paramount to the success of the device in the workplace.

Google Nexus One

It would put me off buying it in a corporate capacity or recommending it to others to do so until this is addressed. It doesn’t seem to be affecting the take up for the device by end users but I think Google are missing a big market by not fixing this problem. (and only working with some Wifi networks, e.g. eduroam, is not enough).

It may appear in my blog posts that I’ve got a firm opinion on these things but that’s not the case and I’d like to hear other opinions about how well or badly Google handles the delivery of the more complex. I’d like to think that Google can put Wave and Buzz behind it and start afresh to hit Facebook in the social arena after conducting some good research, or studies research done by others and investigated the area well enough to deliver something that users really want.

I want to end by saying that I used and liked Wave because it did bring something new to the table in terms of allowing the blending of synchronous and asynchronous sharing of ideas and it could have been developed into a strong CRM or mind mapping solution for example, but it wasn’t in itself enough to provide stick-ability. It needed a killer application.  Buzz is in danger of suffering the same fate however I applaud Google for trying though and not a lot of concept stuff becomes commercially viable so accept that and move forward to the next big thing.

SaaS meets Old Skool

I was in a meeting recently between Google and the OU implementation group involved in the rollout of Google Apps. Google has flown in Gabe Cohen, Google Apps Product Manager and Sam Peters, Business Development Manager (Europe) and the OU had representatives from all the big areas of the organisation. I’ve had meetings like this several times in the past but I was struck by the chasm between the Google view of Enterprise change process management  for implementing SaaS (software as a Service) technology versus the ‘old school’ view of implementing services and systems with paid for 3rd party service suppliers.

For example the OU would like to spend a period working with a senior technical person from Google about how the Google suite gets implemented against existing technologies. Sitting around a table and whiteboarding scenarios and coming up with a implementation plan. With Google it’s a case of switching it on. They say they can provide eight weeks of technical support around the launch window ‘but we’re unlikely to need that’.  I visited the University of Westminster when they had just ‘switched on’ the Google suite and I can testify that Google make the process painless. UoW’s head of ICT said that they spent ten days internally with Google mapping their authentication services and sorting our the passthrough of information to their Google Apps environment and that was it!

At the meeting on Friday I was struck by the different world views. The people from the OU (myself included although I may think of myself as a little more enlightened) were discussing about how you’d provide a stable environment for students and roll out tools. Google said they just add ‘feature sets’ and have a quarterly release cycle so it’s a case of benefitting from new things and providing them as you see fit. The OU has however a different demographic to other UK higher education institutions and we have a fair share of ‘silver surfers’ and some technophobes to consider.

I think it’s a very different mindset coming from a more traditional 80’s or 90’s style view of systems and services where you have total control, holding you full architecture stack within your business in a single place (or multiple places within your control) and having a total internal structure and staffing mechanism to keep things going to moving to allowing things to be controlled by others and to have services that are provided for you (and that you don’t even pay for) but that your organisation benefits from.

This lack of control is obvious and moving to the cloud is undoubtedly a very positive step but when it finally starts to become reality you can almost smell the fear. Knowing that Google provides services to governments, pharmaceuticals and other organisations that have serious data control concerns doesn’t make it any easier. Our students ARE our business and even a 1% drop in students would make a huge impact so we need to make sure we do this right. 

Yes lets just switch it on…but after we’ve planned and made sure that our students will be switched on to it.

Gagging Order, Google et al

I’ve been under what feels like a gagging order for the past twelve months as I’ve been part of a small team at the Open University evaluating Google Apps for Education versus Microsoft Live at Edu as the replacement to OpenText FirstClass system for email and also to provide other services to enhance the OU student experience (eProtfolios being one in particular that the OU would like to examine to see if Google can provide a suitable replacement to the current in-house solution called MyStuff).

This has been a very interesting project for me and I visited Google HQ in London earlier in the year and also went around to various places, including the University of Westminster to check out their use of Google tools. I also visited places that have taken the Microsoft tools route and I visited Microsoft HQ last year too, in both cases the overwhelming majority of the institutions are pleased with the results they have received by moving to a cloud provider and adopting more of a CLE rather than VLE (despite the odd niggling issue). I have to say though that, and this I hope is no disrespect to other UK Universities, they are coming from a place much lower on the curve then the OU when exploring “Virtual Campus” solutions. Most of them have Web CT, Blackboard or in a number of cases POP mail accounts as their VLE equivalent. These places gain a lot in a short time by moving to Google or Microsoft.

The OU is in a different position and so it was a big responsibility to make the decision we thought was the correct one to move the OU forward, I felt especially responsible since when I worked in the Technology faculty in the 1990’s we (the EMERG team) introduced FirstClass to the OU and through T171 with John Naughton, Martin Weller and Gary Alexander made it a core component  in online courses. It was a rich environment compared to the equivalent at the time (and remember this was Windows 3.1 era whereVAX mail and CoSy were around as competitors so it really was giving a whole new set of services to the student with it’s rich conferencing experience).

The upshot is that the Open University has picked Google as the provider of choice. Everyone and his dog is blogging about it but some interesting ones are Niall Sclater (who managed the evaluation process) and Tony Hirst who is starting to think about how these tools may be used.

I’m extremely pleased for three reasons, none are to do with Google being “better” then Microsoft by the way as I think it was really a close thing. They are:-

1. I can finally talk about the things I’ve been doing for the past year and not have NDA’s or confidentiality agreements to worry about, so the future is bright and I can discuss the potentials of the ‘next wave’ of technologies without having a gagging order placed on me.

2. We can start planning on how internal v external works for the organisation; we can explore and exploit the benefits of distributed, cloud and share services solutions.

3. I feel like I can start blogging again properly about techy stuff as I’m a nerd. I had considered setting up an anonymous blog or an internal blog (i.e. a blog to self) to keep track of all my doings  but neither of these seems satisfactory. I like to link to others posts and debate with colleagues online (and offline) so those things seem like anti-blogging to me.

…Never mind Happy New Year, it’s happy new era.

Catching the Wave (Oh I know it’s not original!)

I’ve been exploring using Google wave as a tool to help scaffold our work around Digital Scholarship Hackfests. My idea is simple –  i.e. to use wave a tool to capture the ideas forming that takes place before, during and after the hackfest – To help define the context of the work, to help support the discussions and provide a back channel during the development. The next hackfest is planned for the 24th so I’ll keep you posted of how we get on – key things are to get the group on wave, to get the discussion flowing freely and to keep the wave a reasonable size and shape.

I have only been trying wave for a short time but I’m enjoying it. It very simple conceptually but it does seem to have it’s own position. I was suggesting that it will form part of peoples online experience as time evolves.

At the moment it feels a little sterile as most of the conversations are about wave itself, or are people testing the water. It also feels a little chaotic and experimental. All of these things are fine in an emerging technology and I remembering feeling the same way when first experiencing email and conferencing many years ago when they were unrefined and raw. I think that ideas forming may be a crucial part of wave, as will it’s ability to mange complex relationships that used for be part of multiple email threads/discussions. It will also come of age when more people are on board and when etiquette is sorted out around privacy versus openness, and around whether you’re invited or can self join waves (I’d like a model like mail lists where some are open and some require you to be joined by the list moderators). I think the embedding is also fascinating and the ability to embed content from a range of sources will also help this mature into an extremely useful tool, it seems like it may have design applications, also CRM applications, it may replace wiki’s as a media for group and community led creations and it may also extend and complement email and twitter as a tool to manage complex organisational interactions. Finally it may be a tool that will help scaffold discourse and discussion, a bit like cloudworks.

I hope however it finds a home and does something new and that I haven’t thought of yet, something I didn’t know I needed until I used it in anger. Like twitter it enhances my life in small but very pleasant ways.