Archive | January 2010

iPads and web apps

It would appear that the world has ended, Apple’s iPad has failed to live up to expectations.

But has it?

I’m not much of a multitasker, the only things I really multitask are surfing the net, listening to music and using twitter.

All of which can still be done.

How? Through the browser, safari offers a decent browsing experience (I prefer chrome myself) and we can assume that like the iphone version the iPad Safari will also support tabbed browsing. So we can have multiple tabs open at once, which also means we can have multiple web apps running at the same time. It’s been done before with palms WebOs, as the majority of apps are based on html, css and javascript which can be viewed in browser.

Granted it may not be the most elegant or efficient way of doing it, but I can happily emulate alot of what I would need from a multitasking os with browser based web apps.

Has Apple inadvertently started the second web app age?

iPad

So iPad day has finally come and gone.

So after the histeria, the build up and reveal where do we stand? With what new wondrous device has Mr Jobs provided us with?

A slightly larger iPhone.

Now I’m going to split my views into for and against and let you decide:

For

What I don’t get is why people were expecting something different, its the next logical step for Apple as a mobile device provider. I love my iPhone 3G its a great device it was my first smartphone and having the range of apps/email and internet on the go has really been a revelation to me. Of course its not perfect, but its pretty close.  So why should I get an iPad?

It can do more than an iPhone.

It offers a full page browsing experience,  surfing the net on the iPhone is great, for a phone but spend any amount of time and it can be a bit frustrating having to scroll so much. It’s also provide eBooks with iBooks, I’ve been looking at ebook readers for a while but I’ve held off because they’re expensive and only have one function to read books and I cannot at this time justify spending £200-300 on something that just does one task (however well it may do it).

The netbook is good but surfing the net on it is a pain and although it does its job well its beginning to show its age, I could easily buy an iPad and have it replace my netbook, an iPad can offer me ebooks, the internet, music and more, its a tempting package.

Against

So yes the iPad offers many tempting features and it looks better than a netbook but it’s missing key features like multitaskin, if the A4 Cpu is so powerful why can’t we use it, if its such a great internet device why does it use a 1024 x 768 resolution and lack  flash? Yes flash’s importance will be reduced with HTML 5 but how long will it take for that to become the defacto way of embedding videos?

Apple would like you to think that it has created a new segment, a third way solution if you will, a magical device capable of changing the way you access content and the web at home.

Conclusion?

The iPad is an interesting take on the now 7 year old tablet medium, its got some nice features but it’s not the game changer we expected. But should it be? Apple is never about revolution but evolution, the iPad is the next logical step from iPod to iPhone to iPad. My main problem is that the iPad feels like it could have been alot better, as it stands now it’s just enough, ok, not bad.

It would do the job, the problem is I already have a device that does the job:

Mobile musings

I’m currently out of contract for my mobile phone (iphone 3g) it’s costing me around £17.99 a month on a simplicity contract inc unlimited web and wifi. It certainly does the job, it’s a smidgen slower than I would want but otherwise its still an amazing phone.

Which means I’m currently content with my handset with no real desire to upgrade, this is unheard of, I’ve always had a massive upgrade/shiny thing bug that causes me to dump my phone as soon as possible.

One of the reason is cost, I have no desire to get back on to a £35/£45 a month contract for a phone that I don’t use all that much (for calling that is), but if I were to ‘upgrade’ lets take a look at what’s available:

  • Apple  iPhone 3Gs
  • Google Nexus One (snapdragon cpu)
  • Palm Pre
  • Motorola Droid
  • HTC HD2 (Wimo)
  • Toshiba TG01 (Wimo, snapdragon cpu)
  • Nokia N900

(If you’re wondering, the snapdragon is the latest and greatest design from Arm, clocking in at 1ghz)

That list covers the main players in the smartphone arena, namely Apple, Google, Nokia Wimo and Palm, none of them are perfect, a few get pretty close and some are fairly shonky.

And that’s not mentioning the elephant in the room, the iPhone 4G which will no doubt muddy the waters even further. My gut instinct is to do what I did last time and buy a 2nd hand 3GS when people flood the market as they purchase a iPhone 4g.

Why?

3GS is not the fastest or all powerful device, its shortcomings are well known and the lockdown nature of the platform irks me

But

It works, I haven’t had any major issues with my 3g, it offers me everything my 3g does but faster.

The other problem is the app store, not because there are a million apps, its just that I’ve bought quite a few paid apps and I’m loathed to waste all that money. And there’s the hook, we love the app store but its more a method of controlling us and keeping us locked in to the Apple mobile platform( I’m going to come back to this in another blog post).

And you know what, I’m ok with it, because there’s an app for that…

seeK: the first three weeks

As you may know, we launched an all new version of our student intranet last week. At the same time, we also unveiled a brand new student area called c_live. The launch went as smoothly as could be expected, there were some small issues (broken links etc) but no major problems in application logic. There is a lot to be said for how to best manage a transition between systems, our school of thought is to flip the switch and see how it all works out, trusting in our robust design. This, to a large degree was the correct decision as few students struggled with the new system although there was much discussion on the system in our forums.

When we did ‘flick the switch’, it was with a sense of personal trepidation as included in the upgrade was a web application called seeK. seeK is a twitter/facebook style status sharing application designed to provide students with the social networking & collaborating functionality they crave whilst ensuring it takes place in a secure and managed environment. I was nervous, as it can easily been seen as a chat application with no benefit to teaching and learning. This is a similar argument that was levelled at the internet when it was first offered as a resource, however it is my thinking that unsupervised or unmanaged any resource can be a distraction (doodling in a text book is a good example).

 So what happened? From uploading the application to the live server, it took under a minute for the first seeK status to be posted, that in itself is a record. The thing is seeK isn’t on the main page of seeNet, it’s a completely different section called c_Live, which means: The students recognised a new version of seeNet Realised there was a new section called c_live and clicked the link The Student was presented with a range of new applications they hadn’t seen before Posted a status update All within a minute and with no guidance from us. Say what you want about the term digital natives, the students took to the concept of seeK like ducks to water. So all went well? When I first unveiled the system to the team for testing, we messed around and posted silly status updates, if we did that, I wouldn’t expect anything less from our students.

Students will test the boundaries of the system they are given and boy howdy did they do exactly that. The one that stands out from the rest was a student using an harmless css injection attack to change the background image of c_live to a picture of himself!

The Scunthorpe issue

To protect our students from inappropriate status updates I’ve created a simple regex function that parses the status checks for certain words. My opinion is that swear filters are an exercise in futility, in that it a machine cannot detect (at the time of writing) the intent of the sentence. That means that the system can only check for a range of string values and execute the correct response based on the validation of the string. We can easily create a sentence that will pass through the swear filter, but can still be offensive. Better yet we can legitimately use swear words in a sentence e.g. Literary students can discuss the character of Phillip the Bastard from Shakespeare’s King John. The system won’t know of the play, let alone the character, all it will see is a word that is in the list of banned words and block the update.

It begs the question, if users can circumvent the system and the system itself can block legitimate discussion is there any point to a profanity filter?

Leaving the censorship debate aside, seeK has given us unparalleled access to the learner voice and their opinion of the changes on seeNet. I think that seeK gives us access to a previously unheard majority within the College as not everyone uses the Forums or emails us with feedback. In fact I’ve spent the last week modifying seeNet based on the feedback received via seek including swapping the two column layout for a three columns and making it fixed width. Alongside feedback, I’ve set up a default MyseeNet account that is auto associated with all student feeds, it allows us to ask questions, give answers and in some cases help students find lost memory sticks!

The bottom line is that we need to find new ways to communicate with students, whatever your thoughts are on e-learning, web 2.0, digital natives etc. Social networks and the internet aren’t going to disappear just because some in education are afraid of change, students are expecting their learning experience to match their social one.

Students want it, if we’re not listening to our learners we’re not being good educators.

At the time of writing 793 seek profiles have been created, 3048 status updates have been posted and 1085 friends have been added since the launch of seeNet 2.0 on the 25/11/2009.

c_live

I’ve reached a milestone, apart from some CSS layout bugs c_live is 99% done.This has been a big project of mine and although I’ve mentioned it here and there I haven’t really done a full blog post about it. I should probably start at the beginning, for the last year or so the Interactive Learning Strategies Team have been thinking about our long awaited upgrade to our bespoke learning platform, seeNet.

A lot has changed within education since seeNet’s inception in 1999, google was a relative unknown, there was no such thing as mobile internet and Apple’s ipod was just a twinkle in Steve Job’s eye.

The main problem of current VLE’s is they have, for lack of a better word baggage.

When e-learning was first being thought of, it was such a radical concept that people talked and championed and enthused and discussed and presented….. you catch my drift. This continual fervent chatter created the impression that e-learning was something in a box that you could just unleash and suddenly everything would just work. It didn’t and for a range of reasons that are probably best left to another blog post. The failure of e-learning create a deep suspicion of technology within the education sector, right at the time students started to expect it.

I finished my diploma at South East Essex College just before seeNet was switched on, so I was part of the last generation to go through a course without online ILP’s,Wikis, Courseplans, online collaboration even the internet was restricted. Compare that to now, you can access anything, anywhere, you can check your bank accounts whilst grabbing a cup of coffee from Starbucks.

Let’s look at our typical student (for now, lets assume there is such a concept as a typical student), they are comfortable with technology, they can happily surf the internet, chat with friends, share content, shop, use mobile phones etc. So we can comfortably say they know how most things work in an internet browser on a superficial level. Yet most in education are still stuck in the late nineties, especially our learning platforms, this got me thinking. If I was a student now, what would I expect when I logged on? Now I should preface this by saying I’m not talking about “College of the future” that wouldn’t even require the student to log on.
And so c_live was born.

I looked back to my college and university experiences to see what technologies and services would have made my life easier.

seeLinks:

The one thing that always annoyed me is that you’re doing some research on campus and you find something really useful on the internet, so you do the sensible thing and bookmark it. Except that when you go home, you’ve forgotten the address and you can’t get at the bookmark as its stored on your user profile on the network. We’re almost through the first decade of the new millennium and our student has two options, trudge back up to campus, log on and email it to your home account or have the foresight to jot it down in a notebook?

We shouldn’t be making our students life harder, so to led a helping hand I created seeLinks, its a xml based web app that allows students to store useful links within the browser, all you need to do to access them is log into the vle, this can be at home, work, or even at starbucks.

seeFeeds:

Information overload, TMI  are just a two terms demonstrating the problems of living in the information age. We get content fired at us from every angle and sometimes it makes it difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. seeFeeds is a simple to use RSS feed aggregator, RSS feeds can help, instead of looking for the information, you can get your favourite websites to send information to you. This means that the information that will populate your c_live experience is tailored to you.

seeNotes:

You remember I mentioned scribbling down the url when talking about seeLinks? This takes the same concepts and applies it to a notepad, got a deadline? note it down here. What about a study meeting with students from your class? Instead of jotting it down in margin of your book, you can write it here and you can be sure that it won’t be misplaced.

Seek:

Seek is probably the biggest change in what we’re offering students. There’s been a lot of talk this past year of how online collaboration tools can help students. Twitter has been cited as an example of how we can quickly update and share information with friends and colleagues alike. Currently education has no such tool to offer, however giving students unfettered access to a micro blogging site is full of pitfalls and makes it hard to manage students use of it. So I took the quick microblogging features of sites like digg and twitter and developed an application that would enable students to interact with each other and share information whilst being in a secure and manageable space.

Blogs:

Blogs have been a big buzz word in education for a long time now, but they’ve always been an external application that students have to log into. I’ve given students the ability to create blogs and share them with the rest of the student body (subject to our approval) with one click. If students elect to share their the blog with other students, it’s published to a live feed that is available direct on c_live.

Look and feel:

c_live doesn’t look like your typical learning space, or any other learning software for that matter. That’s because instead of creating the application logic and interface myself, I posted on our student forums that I was looking for students to help shape the way c_live looked. A games development student offered to design the interface for c_live, I accepted and the design that he came up with was completely left field but epitomised the ethos of c_live completely:

 Simple, effective and like nothing in education today.

Nook

The battle is on in the land of the ebook readers (ebooks are digital versions of paper books), Amazon released the Kindle and now American publisher Barnes & Noble has unveiled the Nook.

One thing you couldn’t say about the Kindle is that it pushed boundaries, it read ebooks and that’s all. Not so with the Nook.  First of all it runs <a Android

, Googles’ mobile operating system,&nbsp;Okay so that may not set your world on firew. This is understandable but think of it this way an ebook reader (or a book for that matter) has one function – to display books. The Nook can do this, surf the web and has the ability to extend its functionality via its support Android Apps Store.

I don’t know about you, but I struggle to justify a £156 device that just does one thing (no matter how good it is), the Nook may offer the extra&nbsp;functionality that will make me pull the trigger on ebook readers….


The ICT Bill of Rights

I’ve been thinking, well scratch that the team has been working flat out on the finishing touches to c_space, our staff and student vle/intranet.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know I’ve been working on a section (once known as seeSpace), called c_live which is a brand new concept for the College. c_live is a new area on our vle that is the first step in changing how our students view what a vle really is and gives educators an idea of what can be created in browser.

For those who don’t follow this blog (shame on you!), c_live gives all students persistent, pervasive access to a range of tools and services they have not had available to them before.

For too long the answer to many of educations problems has been to grab a box off the shelf and make it fit the need, this is not only a self defeating exercise but it also makes it harder for the learner to use. I say this as that more often than not the user will have to click through to find the system, log on and only then get to do what they aimed to do in the first place!

So what should we be doing?

Make the system easier to use and ensure that its provides the information that students want.

Simple eh?

To this end, when our new VLE seeNet launches the VLE will be broken into four main areas:

myInformation:
The current week view of their scheme of work
A weekly view of their tutorial
Upcoming assessments reminders
Up to date attendance data
Timetables
Email with 25 gigabytes of storage
Most recently set targets in their ILPs
Learning Resources:
Online databases of curriculum resources
Library catalogue and resources
Key skills and functional skills materials
Study skills, literacy and numeracy resources
Interactive learning resources
The Learning Resources Pool, which currently contains over 3000 staff authored curriculum resources
Student Information:
Student policies and procedures
Equality and diversity resources
Health and safety information
JobShop vacancies
C_space:
Online forums, (in which last year students and staff posted over 25000 messages in 1023 topics in 24 forums)
Student Blogs, that can be shared with all student and staff with a click of a button.
A student noticeboard that allows students to inform students and staff of events
A feature to allow Student Council members to publish their own content that is shown direct to all students via c_live
seeLinks – a pervasive bookmark creator that will enable students to bookmark key websites and have them available where ever they are
seeK – a tool modeled on Twitter which will allow students to share updates regarding their work and collaborate both with staff and students
seeNotes – an in browser notepad providing students with a personal space for them to post notes, reminders or even a shopping list to seeSpace
An RSS feed aggregator allowing students access to the latest news and information
Weather updates! (one of the largest requests from students)
All that from just a browser, available inside and outside of College.

So how does the ICT Bill of rights come into it? (Apart from being a rather catchy title…)

VLE’s have in one form or another been around since the early nineties and yet they’re still finding their feet, I suppose, you could say that they’re running to stay still. I feel that this is in part to do with how they came to be and the damaged that caused, the hyperbole created inflated user expectations and the resultant dismay has had lasting repercussions.

And the fact that application and service development within education was in its nascent form.

It’s not been possible with the available technology to give students what they need.

The ideas have been there, blogs, wiki’s, collaboration, sharing, giving students the ability to talk back; but the technology has always been the millstone dragging the system down.

Until now…

With c_space we can guarantee the following:
Students can know what is happening with their College life at any time, day or night
That every student will be able to have a blog, just by opening the browser
That students can have bookmarks, and take them with them
That students can share links with their friends and peers
That Teachers can share important documents without having to use email
That students can get to the information and resources quickly and easily
That students can access all of this via a single sign on process
It sounds simple, but think about it, this isn’t miriad of different applications, this is one system.

And this is just the beginning.

Vive La Revolution!