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.

Three tips for Microsoft about developing better software…

I’ll probably think of some more but these are my current three big gripes about using MS software….

1. When shutting down Operating Systems assume that people will want to save and close applications and then shut the computer down. Do not wait to get responses on every open application or document. Please PLEASE take the initiative that if a user requests the computer to be shut down the logical conclusion is that they want it to be shut down NOW! (“shutdown -h now”) – By all means allow options for other shutdown but have a default setting of closing apps and shutting the darn system down without user intervention.

2. Don’t shove all the less obvious functions under a generic “windows” icon. I don’t understand why everything went from being sensibly under menus to being shoved in one catchall thing that requires you to navigate down a tree again. I don’t want to have to customise my app each time I buy a new machine or log in somewhere else, if I can have my customisations at all times then I want a menu system that’s easier to use, not harder than previous versions.

3. Always assume that people use other tools as well as Microsoft ones. I applaud the opening up of client stuff to cross browser/cross platform (see my blog on Silverlight ) but please consider that people may write and produce stuff in different tools and having back end integration with other developer apps and the ability to work with content that isn’t MS tool developed would be beneficial to Microsoft as well as to others.


I attended the Microsoft Silverlight event today in Bletchley Park. For those that aren’t familiar with Silverlight I would describe it as a rich media environment for allowing rendering of applications and media. It’s basically a direct competitor to Flash but they probably wouldn’t say that themselves. They’re about to release version 2.0 and have tried to go for a more open approach, allowing developers to use Ruby, JSON, Javascript and providing SOAP and REST inferfacing. It’s also cross platform (or will be with Novell releasing clients for Mac and Linux and Solaris) and works with Firefox and Safari (but not supported under Opera although it should work).

OK plug over, now on to what I thought of the event…firstly Silverlight itself may be interesting but I’m not sure what it gives me over Flash, although it’s XAML under the bonnet and the benefits they claim are to do with the fact that design and code can be brought together better through it and also that it’s powerful, for example you can change the XAMP and push out design changes rapidly through it to allow easier methods of customisation.

There was a lot of 3D visualisation and rendering stuff which was fantastic to watch but not my area of interest. The Deep Zoom technology is cool. See The Hard Rock Cafe site for info.

To cut a long story short however the event was targetted at developers and designers not Academics, in my opinion a bit of a mistake as the event ended with a demo of Grava. You wont find much about Grava online but it’s Microsoft’s Academic authoring environment and anyone who has seen the LAMS environment or eve the work done by Grainne at the OU on Compendium LD will know about work being done on Learning Design authoring tools which may seem like competitors to this tool, however this tool seems to be very much based on rich media. I don’t see much pedagogy behind it and I’m a bit concerned that Microsoft are creating yet another tool built from the inside out and not asking people about how they’d like to learn. It’s a very broadcast centric view of the world. The tool maybe has a niche and it might prove to be very useful at filling that niche but I’m not sure that it’s built on solid principles of the learning experience. The activities are very sequential and there’s no framework to assist with the design process.

I’ll write more on this later (and on the venue which was great and very inspriational!)