battis.net and I'm all out of bubble gum…

YouTube has changed their embed codes (several years ago) to IFRAMEs, replacing the old object embed codes. Turns out that on older web-based WYSIWYG-editors, such as Blackboard 8, the IFRAME embed codes get munged up, often with deleterious effects. In Blackboard, for example, you might lose the ability to see, edit or use a content area in which an IFRAME has been embedded. This. Is. Bad.

YouTube lets you switch to their old embed code for individual videos, but no so to embed a playlist. I wanted to embed a playlist, so I took a look at the object tag specs and the IFRAME embed code and came up with a simple script that generates an old-style object embed code for a YouTube playlist IFRAME embed code, thus:

Paste a YouTube playlist embed code below.

November 30th, 2012

Posted In: How To

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I wrote this originally in response to a question from [the assistant head at Jewish Day School] about how I think about web tools. After writing this, I chatted with him and [my opposite number in the middle school] about how folks that are using OTSW in the middle school that are more successful — largely because they’re using it as a “gateway drug” to a web presence, rather than trying to bring an existing web presence into one place.

Here my general thoughts on selecting tools for teaching and learning, and how OTSW measures up against them. This is in no way meant as a slam on OTSW, but rather an explanation of my thought process in selecting tools with which to teach and learn, while examining the OTSW system.

In general, when looking at a tool, my first concern is how well it does its intended job — whether intended by the developer or by the user. Education is strewn with unintended, but serendipitous uses of tools never intended for that purpose: consider the military’s use of game systems for training.

Assuming that a tool does what it is intended to do, and does it well, my next concern is how well this tool will connect not just to any existing tools, but specifically to the tools that I already use (although a little forward-thinking at this moment, considering tools I might want to use down the road, is not uncalled-for).

Having looked at these two considerations, the final — and really potentially gamestopping — concern is how well this tool will support a safe learning environment for my students and myself. What “safe” means can certainly be construed in different ways, depending on the purpose of the tool (a discussion tool would certainly have different safety concerns than a research tool).

With these three concerns in mind, let us turn our eye to OTSW and our current set of web tools:

What does it do? And does it do it well?

OTSW provides a Facebook-like environment for users of our FirstClass system. It allows users to post status updates, to maintain blogs and wikis, and to comment on each other’s postings.

User status updates are handled reasonably well — there are no major surprises. The status updates are limited in length (as is true of Twitter, Facebook, SMS messages, etc.) The system will display a somewhat shortened (truncated) version of the status message to users who “follow” that user. The users cannot type a longer status update than will fit into the field, but there is no warning when the status update is longer than can be displayed to one’s followers. Potential uses for these status updates are unknown, but a creative mind could certainly come up with something. Mostly, they’re just for fun.

Consider the blogging system: the word processing system for writing posts is comparable to the FirstClass document editor in the FirstClass client, although perhaps more limited. It is also comparable to the WordPress or MindTouch wiki document editors although, again, perhaps a touch more limited: fewer formatting options, no support of the style associated with structured documents built for the web, limited capabilities for facilitating linking to other documents on the same system.

The blog commenting system is apparently “un-threaded” — or, at least, controls for turning on threaded comments are not apparent. This means that a comment posted in response to another comment is shown in the overall list of comments by date, rather than by thread of conversation. This makes complex, truly interactive asynchronous conversations about a blog post difficult, if not impossible, to read. Additionally, already read comments automatically collapse upon the return to the page (with no preference otherwise), providing limited context for new comments.

The wiki document editing system is somewhat more advanced than the blogging system, allowing for the creation of links to other pages within the specific wiki on which you’re working, although not to other wikis on the OTSW system. Additionally, three styles of structured text (body, heading and subheading) are supported on wikis, as well as a few more rich formatting options.

The organization of the wiki pages within a specific wiki on the OTSW system is flat, rather than hierarchical. While this limits the confusion associated with the page hierarchies on the MindTouch wiki, the presentation of the pages for the wiki is now as a “page cloud” in the tool bar, organized apparently by date of creation or modification (making the placement of pages unpredictable between visits). There is no clear way to move or copy a page from one OTSW wiki to another.

As [one colleague] has correctly noted, another oddity of the OTSW wiki system is that, when commenting on a page, the actual content of the page is hidden (although the other comments on the page are displayed as on the blog, along with links to different versions of the page in its revision history). This is at best unhelpful, and certainly confusing to the novice (or experienced) user.

In both the blog and wiki systems on OTSW, the ability to tag posts and pages with keywords is provided. The tagging system in beta versions of OTSW was highly vulnerable to non-alphanumeric characters in tags (e.g. “Seth’s tag” — the apostrophe in one tag rendered an entire community inaccessible). In the current version of OTSW, non-alphanumeric characters are accepted in tags for display… but clicking the tag link to view all documents tagged with that keyword has unpredictable results (in the case of “Seth’s tag” the link takes the user to a page list all documents tagged “Seth” — which does not include the pages tagged “Seth’s Tag”).

Additionally, depending on what actions have recently been taken in the OTSW environment, the tagging tool will appear in unpredictable locations or may not even be accessible. (As is also the case for initial edits of wiki pages: once posted, the user has to leave the wiki and return in order to find an Edit link for that page.) Tagging wiki pages, at least in Safari, appears to be undo-able, as the tagging tool appears the bottom of the page, with scroll bars turned off, and no save button available.

Considering the apparent purposes of the OTSW system:

  • Status updates: nothing particularly unique or different or unusual, automatic truncation without warning.
  • Blogging: limited formatting options, lack of threaded discussions, lack of ability to link even to other posts in the blog.
  • Wikis: limited formatting options, confusing discussion format, no ability to organize pages.
  • Tagging: easily broken, predictably unpredictable.

Interoperability with Other Tools

When it comes to interoperability with the OTSW communities, the highest priority concern would be how well the tools work with our existing array of tools on campus, including our blog and wiki servers and, especially, FirstClass.

The communities are stored as a special type of conference on the FirstClass server. In current versions of the FirstClass client, clicking on these conferences will open the community in a web browser. When viewed by older clients, these conferences will open to reveal a list of documents (the pages, posts, comments, etc. within the community) with an array of specialized columns reflecting how these documents would be displayed in the web browser.

When a user is invited to a community, they receive an email invitation, with a link to click to accept the invitation. Users who have not already logged in to the web interface to the communities have found that these links often are not active: they do nothing. Ideally, the result of clicking this link is that an alias to that community’s conference will appear on the user’s FirstClass desktop, giving them access to the community. Moving these conference aliases off of the desktop (perhaps into a folder called “OTSW Communities”) renders the group memberships inoperable — the conference aliases must remain on the desktop, although each functions only as a bookmark to the web interface to the communities when accessed through the FirstClass client.

When a user creates a community of their own, a new community conference is created on their desktop, and all pages, posts and documents posted to that community will count against the creator’s FirstClass disk quota.

When a user posts a page, post or comment to an OTSW community, that content is displayed as an outgoing message to the users’s My Shared Documents conference in their mailbox. This is confusing.

In terms of interoperability with our blog and wiki tools, there are three standard ways to connect tools to each other on the web: links, RSS feeds of recent updates and embedding.

OTSW communities do not provide any RSS feeds. Links to OTSW communities, pages or posts, will fail if the user is not currently logged in to the OTSW communities in their browser. Following a link to an OTSW community while not logged in will drop a user into their OTSW desktop, rather than the target of the link. OTSW communities provide no options for embedding their content in other tools.

Looking at the flip side of this interoperability, bringing external tools into OTSW provides a somewhat better picture. OTSW supports regular web links in all posts, pages and comments. OTSW supports attaching any kind of document to a wiki page (e.g. a movie or audio file, or Word document).

OTSW does not provide any facility for subscribing to RSS feeds from other tools.

OTSW does provide some support for embedding external content in OTSW pages, posts and comments. These embeds are performed by pasting arbitrary HTML into the OTSW content embedding dialog. Unlike WordPress, which provides some filtering, OTSW will allow anything to be embedded — and, in fact, embeds most objects as IFRAMES (which allows the embedded site unlimited access to OTSW — not great for security).

One oddity of OTSW embedding is that embedded content is masked by the OTSW embed logo, which must be clicked upon to reveal the embedded content (perhaps as a security measure?). Once the logo is removed to reveal the embedded content (which must be done each time the page is loaded, for each embedded piece of content), the embedded content is presented in an IFRAME exactly the same size as the previously masking logo. The logo is smaller than the standard YouTube video, for size comparison. This means that all embedded content is viewed through what amounts to a porthole.

One possible way around the lack of ability to access an external site’s RSS feed (for example, a feed of recently updated instructional videos from YouTube), would be to use a third party tool such as WebRSS to generate a “badge” which could then be embedded in OTSW.

Considering OTSW’s interoperability with other tools:

  • FirstClass: Rube Goldberg-like dependency on community conferences to remain on the desktop, no warning about disk quota use for conference creators, confusing display of posted content, flaky invitation system.
  • Web Links: outgoing links from OTSW work fine, incoming links are functionally useless.
  • RSS Feeds: non-existent.
  • Embedding: no options to embed OTSW content elsewhere, very limited ability to embed external content in OTSW, requires manifold click-throughs.

Safety

OTSW provides a very well-secured environment for users, in that it leverages our existing FirstClass userbase to automatically limit access to communities. While I have no clear understanding of the true security capabilities of FirstClass, I note that the FirstClass messaging system was, for many, may years, a de facto standard across education — quick and easy to setup, very reliable, very secure. Nine out of ten dentists use it themselves, etc. OTSW does not seem to waiver from the FirstClass security model. In terms of operational security, OTSW appears to be a seamless layer on top of our existing FirstClass system.

Another aspect of security that is well worth considering in a teaching and learning standpoint are the types of habits promoted by a particular tool. For example, blog servers promote, well, self-promotion and publication, hopefully also critical, analytical engagement with external information sources. Wiki servers tend to promote collaboration, with individual accountability, on large documentation and research projects.

As a Facebook-like communication system, OTSW should, then be viewed as a safe learning environment for social networks and media, where students can learn good habits and social graces. Much of the system works in this manner (as did FirstClass in relation to traditional email), providing the ability to track revisions, flag offensive content, engage in asynchronous discussion, etc.

The one oddball is the profile system (and this may be dependent on system settings). By default, the OTSW user profiles are set to demand more and more and more personal information from each user, reminding the users that their “profile is only X% complete… add your [fill in the blank personal information] to complete your profile.” To my mind, without deeper discussion in the classroom, this type of message promotes a culture of thoughtless exposure, rather than a carefully managed digital footprint.

September 26th, 2010

Posted In: Educational Technology, Social Media

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

I have an inherent prejudice against teaching students (and faculty) to use user computers as tools by providing step-by-step directions for a specific progress. I believe that, while totally helpful in the individual instance of that specific process, the step-by-step instructions are, in the end, handicapping: they do not introduce the learner to the underlying concepts that might guide their further, more extensive use of the same tool independently.

That said, periodically I need students or colleagues to do exactly one specific sequence of steps. This year I have been experimenting with presenting these sequences of steps as “screencasts” — videos of me doing the process while I narrate what I’m doing. This has a number of advantages, not least being that it is far, far faster to create a screencast than to write a set of instructions. Additionally, the screencast presents as a manageable video, rather than as an overwhelming 17-step sequence of directions. Additonally, rather than describing the process, learners are able to see the process as it plays out.

In Practice

I have created perhaps a dozen or so screencasts so far this fall, and I have settled into using Screencast-O-Matic, which I like because it does not require installing additonal software (as Jing does) and it is free (as Jing is) and it makes it easy for me to post my screencasts either to the Screencast-O-Matic site (for free), to YouTube (for free) or to save a high quality video file to my computer, that I can edit in iMovie or Sony Vegas Movie Studio. With the video hosted on either Screencast-O-Matic or YouTube, I’m then able to embed the video in a blog post or wiki page for the learners to view.

One technical issue that I ran into is that the Screencast-O-Matic streaming video requires Java to be installed and allowed to run (which is generally true on all computers), and that the series of dialogs to permit this are disconcerting and derailing for some learners. In general, where I can (for videos under ten minutes), I have also posted the videos to YouTube, which requires less from the user to view it. The YouTube videos, viewed in HD are still somewhat lower quality than the Screencast-O-Matic-hosted videos, but they’re generally fine.

I have also been experimenting with OmniDazzle as a way of highlighting parts of the screen as I talk and work in screencasts, making it easier for learners to follow my mouse motions and directions.

A learning issue that I have run into is that some folks (more faculty than students) have been unwilling to click play to watch the video. The process of learning new technology without an actual person standing at their elbow is too overwhelming to contemplate (this is not inference, this is what I was told by those faculty).

Reflection

I’m not entirely gung ho about screencasts, for the reasons listed above in The Model — that I want learners to understand concepts, rather than steps. I fear that presenting a shamanistic approach to learning technology — “do this sequence of arcane steps and the magic happens” — undermines long term learning. That said, I feel that I am able to better present concepts without intimidating learners in a screencast when I am just talking, rather than presenting a paragraph-sized annotation to each step of a set of directions.

The screencasting approach does, of course, not address all learning styles. It works for more than the directions, I believe, capturing both visual and auditory learners, but it is still not the same as working with the learner to help them accomplish the process in person, themselves. To this end, I have tried to hold screencasts in reserve as a reenforcement for in-class learning, rather than as a sole source of learning about a particular process.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Educational Technology, Social Media, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

I wanted to structure the feedback that my students presented to each other during our video critique. We often brainstorm the criteria that we will be using to review work as it is presented, and I post our criteria on the board or on the wiki as a reminder throughout the process. This time, I created a new Form in Google Docs and entered our criteria as questions. I then embedded the form in our class notes for the day, and each student filled out the form as we viewed video. I embedded the responses as a spreadsheet on a linked page, so that the the students could review the feedback they had received and post their responses to our class blog.

In Practice

Creating the form live went relatively smoothly — the only hang-up was my inability to type in public. Fortunately, the students were proofreading on the screen and caught me when I made errors. They were also able to help guide me when I got distracted and forgot what I was doing (“Mr. Battis, we’ve already got that question at the bottom of the screen…”).

It took very little instruction for the students to figure out how to use the form. The most complicated thing they had to do was refresh the page after they had submitted their feedback so that they could get a fresh, blank form for the next video.

We settled into a routine where I played each video through twice, once for them to watch, and once to remind them of details as they entered their feedback.

Reflection

After we finished reviewing videos and posting feedback, I put the question to the students: was this better, worse or the same as having a verbal critique of the same material (which we had done in the earlier digital photography unit). The response, by and large, appeared to be that this was actually really helpful: there were enough things to pay attention to while watching the video that being able to take notes into the form let them not forget things that were important.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Collaborative Writing and Editing, Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

This started out as simply a way of addressing my own personal predilections: I’m tired of trying to build a syllabus on a calendar (the calendar doesn’t present the syllabus in a useful view), or in a spreadsheet (changing dates becomes a chore), so I decided to separate the various issues out and automate as much as I could. The result is a Google Docs spreadsheet that I embed on my course web site, which allows me to think in terms of units and lessons, and which automatically sequences lessons on to class meetings and updates me with notes about those specific days (Moadim L’Simcha, vacation days, etc.).

This is an example of one of my syllabi as the students see it:

In Practice

This turned out to be some pro-level spreadsheet work. I like working in spreadsheets. Not everyone likes working in spreadsheets. This link takes you to a “scratch” version of one of my syllabi (you’re welcome to edit it to see changes — this isn’t live. The organization is thus:

  • There is a worksheet for each unit of the syllabus, named sequentially Unit 1, Unit 2, Unit 3, etc. (The best way to create a new unit is to duplicate an old one and replace the information).
  • On a unit worksheet, a few of the columns are automatically filled in. You just have to worry about editing the title of the lesson, the lesson description, and the assignment summary. Everything else is filled in automatically.
  • The integrated view of all the units, sequenced together and lined up to days with notes is the Syllabus worksheet.
  • The Meetings worksheet is just a list of days when the class meets (which I entered manually) and any notes about that day specifically that might be helpful for lesson planning.
  • There are a bunch of “working” sheets that you can look at, but don’t edit — they’re collating and organizing all of the units automatically.

Reflection

This was way more work than it was worth for a single syllabus. But as a tool that I intend to reuse again and again, I’m pretty happy with it and feel good about the investment. It is mildly idiosyncratic, in the sense that it meets my specific needs. But it could be used as a model for other people’s style of syllabus design, separating the schedule from the concepts in a way that makes visualizing the lesson flow much, much easier.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Educational Technology, How To, Teaching, Useful Tools

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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