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.
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.
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.