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

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

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to post a monthly column on the goings-on in our media studies department (and in education technology in general) to our online parent bulletin. This is one such column.

This winter, as our students were in the throes of course selection for 2010-2011, I had a number of conversations with my students about their plans for the coming year. Of course, they are my students and I like them, and I would be delighted to see them continue in media studies (and have the opportunity to continue teaching them). Almost without exception, my students talked about how excited they were in their classes with me (which is very flattering, and taken with a grain of salt), but also about how they were concerned about fulfilling all of their graduation requirements. And when we talked about others who were planning to continue, they asked — uniformly — “why are they taking that class? Just because they like it?”

I teach in the media studies department — a department that is unusual at the secondary level, and doubly unusual at [Jewish Day School] in the richness and depth of its offerings. Of course students take our classes “just because they like them.” The prospect of getting to work on a weekly TV newscast, or of building interactive computer games or producing animated movies is, on the very face of it… pretty cool (or hot, or sick, or whatever it is that students are calling the things they like these days). But they’re also more than that: they are classes that provide authentic learning, allowing students to wrap their minds around incredibly nuanced and complex concepts in design and media and information literacy. That this happens in middle and high school, at a time when students are undergoing drastic social, moral and personal development, provides a rich and fertile environment for lasting learning.

I have taught high school students since 1998, and my classes have never been graduation requirements. The frustrations of convincing the NCAA that Advanced Placement Computer Science AB was actually an “academic” subject are best left untapped; suffice it to say that I have always taught “niche” courses. But what I have seen in my students has been astounding: the students who choose to pursue a course of study for lishma, for the joy of learning, “just because they like it” — these are the students who find success, both in high school and afterwards. I love to see what my students are doing, be they aspiring screenwriters, Ph.D.s in information management, automotive engineers, or crew coaches. In each case, having first discovered a passion and then pursued it in high school, they are now able to do the same again and again in their adult lives: they understand what it means to be lifelong learners.

The stereotype, of course, is that media studies and computer science courses are “filler classes” that are available for the especially gifted — or the especially ambitious — student to add on top of their graduation requirements; these classes are a way to impress prospective colleges. In fact, what I have found is that teaching media studies and computer science is much more about teaching students how to be effective teammates and leaders on complex projects. It is about teaching students to instinctively apply formal problem-solving techniques to difficult personal problems. And it is about teaching students to apply their critical and analytical information literacy to the world around them. In short, these are classes that focus on teaching students to think, and to think hard, about the world around them and how they live in it and communicate with others.

These are the courses that transform a high school experience from college prep to an outstanding, lasting education. At a time in their lives when they are undergoing profound social, moral and personal growth, the students in media studies classes are not taking these classes “just because they like them”, but because they recognize — or are starting to recognize — that the process of identifying, pursuing and achieving a passion is not a goal for other people “just because they like it”, but is, in fact, a key skill for living their lives. The students who take these classes are able to point proudly at them on their college applications, and on their resumes, as a signal accomplishment, and one that they can and will replicate again and again throughout their lives.

February 12th, 2010

Posted In: Parent Communication

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