My morning with Google Sites/Apps

Well, it took a lot of effort this morning, but I’m finally taking a look at Google Sites, which is rising from the ashes of the Jotspot wiki acquisition by Google last year.

I almost bailed on the process before I even started. I couldn’t use my existing Google account to log in. Seems that in order to try out Google Sites I needed to enter an email address of a work or school domain. Huh?

Upon further examination, it looked like I was actually signing up for Google Apps and not just Google Sites. Double huh?

I reread the Google Sites page and realized that Google has bundled Sites with Google Apps. If you want Sites, you need to have an Apps account. I couldn’t find any way to tie Google Sites to my existing single Google account.

So, if my first impression is correct, it doesn’t look like creating a wiki is going to be easy for your average user. I suspect individual users aren’t even on the radar for Google with respect to Sites. By bundling it with Google Apps, Google has sent a clear signal that they are targeting organizational IT departments moreso than individual users.

That’s not a bad thing. But don’t expect Google Sites to compete with PBWiki, Wetpaint or Wikispaces in the “hey I can get a wiki up and running in 5 minutes” department. It appears that’s not the purpose. It looks like Google Sites has become one little piece of a bigger puzzle for Google as they take aim at domain wide collaborative applications like SharePoint.

I did plunge in and sign up for a Google Apps account. I control a domain name so I used an email address from that domain to sign up and have now spent the better part of the morning getting distracted by Google Apps (and getting WAAAAAAY more functionality and services than I wanted). But for many of the people I am trying to convince to use wiki’s as a learning and teaching tool, this won’t be the first one out of my mouth.

 

Desire2Learn loses Blackboard patent case

D2L President John Baker posted the news on the D2L patent blog late Friday afternoon. Blackboard has won the patent lawsuit against D2L. D2L has been ordered to pay Blackboard $3 million US in damages.

Now, I’m no lawyer. And even though I have been following this case with interest partly because we are a D2L institution, I don’t know all the intricacies of the patent claim beyond the what I have read at places like No Education Patents, the D2L patent blog and various blog postings. But in my mind, this really stinks, and I am not alone in this sentiment.

This worries me on a number of fronts. First, being a D2L customer this may have implications. Perhaps not immediately, but unless D2L can find some sympathetic and sane ears at the US Patent Office (who will be reviewing the patent claim), there could be rough times ahead for D2L. In his letter, John Baker has made an assurance that:

There is no immediate threat to you our clients. We will work with you
to ensure there are no future issues. We are financially sound and are
confident of our ability to work through this matter.

Maybe I am reading too much into the word “immediate” in that statement and my FUD-ish tendencies are showing. But as a client, I am concerned and troubled by this turn. (update: maybe I don’t have to worry too much, being in Canada, according to this article.)

After my self serving interest, I’m really astonished that Blackboard can now claim it “invented” many of the features of an LMS, which, as this excellent analysis by Alfred H. Essa at Minnesota State College clearly shows is a folly. If this is the case, then can we soon expect to see a number of other software companies in other industries launch similar claims using this decision as the basis?

For example, one of the patent claims upheld was the claim that says Blackboard created a method that allows instructors to post a student grade to a file on a server accessible only to that student (claim #39 for those of you keeping track). Well, what Student Records System doesn’t have a web interface that allows that? Can we now expect to see Blackboard sue Datatel or another SRS that allows that functionality?

Claim #40 that allows instructors to perform a statistical analysis on a student or group of students grades? Maybe Microsoft should be worried because I know a heck of a lot of instructors that do grade analysis using Excel.

Claim #43 that says Blackboard provides “…an asynchronous communication tool accessible to student users enrolled in the course for enabling asynchronous communication amongst student users.” Insert ANY bloody email or discussion group software provider here. And the next claim says the same thing for synchronous products.

The list goes on. It’s a crock. Plain and simple.

Who first invented the idea of authenticated users having access to specific resources? Quick, sue Blackboard! Judging from this farce you have a strong case.

 

Adobe to add DRM to Flash video?

I imagine video remixers around the world are holding their collective breath today in hopes that Adobe will not go ahead and include Digital Rights Management (DRM) encryption in the new version of Flash servers.

One of the great byproducts of the emergence of powerful, free and easy to use media production tools like Jumpcut, iMovie and Windows Movie Maker is the emergence of the video mashup. Someone posts a video, perhaps to a video sharing site like YouTube, DailyMotion or a similar site, which then gets captured by someone else, remixed and recut to create something new.

Flash video is one of the technologies that is making this easy to do. The vast majority of video sharing sites are using this relatively new video protocol which, up until now, has been DRM free, unlike many other streaming media technologies like Real and Windows Media which have had DRM encryption fro quite some time. Ironically, the new version of Real Player includes a video download tool that allows you to download and save Flash video, but not Real video. Go figure.

Remixing is nothing new. But in a digital age, video remixing is becoming a powerful tool of both expression and media literacy. Seth Schoen at the Electronic Frontier Foundation makes a great point in his article:

Before we understand how to read media messages, we must first learn how to speak their language — and we learn that language by playing with and remixing the efforts of others. DRM, by restricting the remixing of Flash videos, stands to bankrupt a rich store of educational value by foreclosing the ability of students and teachers to “echo others” by remixing videos posted online.

There is another angle to this story. The fact that Adobe can use this new tool to effectively lock out any client side player except for an Adobe player. I don’t imagine Adobe would be so stupid as to shoot themselves in the foot and do this. One of the major reasons we are currently looking at purchasing a Flash server at our institution is precisely because it is much more platform neutral than Real, Windows Media or Quicktime. But corporations have done sillier things in the past in an attempt to control a market.

This will probably be a minor annoyance in the future as workarounds and hacks will become available should Adobe follow through with the plan to do this. But still it puts a hurdle in the way of remixers looking to build upon previous works to create new forms of art and express themselves in new and interesting ways.

 

Desire2Learn 8.2 – my first impressions

We’re preparing to upgrade our version of Desire2Learn from 8.1 to 8.2 in the Spring. This week I got access to our 8.2 sandbox to take a look.

While I have experienced 8.2 in action at the D2L community site, I didn’t fully realize the extent of this upgrading. In the words of some of my colleagues – it’s HUGE!!!!!!

Here are some of my thoughts and some screen shots for you.

Overall

The changes to the user interface are substantial. Overall the design feels more unified and cohesive. Navigation between tools has pretty well be standardized on the left. No longer do you have to hunt around for where the option tools might be – on the right, left or along the top.

There are new icons which feel more contemporary and help give the system that more unified feel I mentioned above. The new icons are also more logical, although I think D2L relies a bit too much on icons to convey information, especially in the content area for students where no text information is provided for the icons they see.

A nice feature is the icon highlighting of your current option. This makes it much more obvious as to what option you are currently using within the system. The previous version didn’t have this highlighting and relied on font color alone to convey what option you were currently working with. This was always confusing for me, especially if a tool only had 2 options and you had one option with blue text and the other with black text. Which one was I actually using? Now at a glance I can see where I am and what option or tool I am using.

Course Management (edit course)

This area has had a major upgrade for the better.

The previous Course Manager area was very clunky and confusing. For one thing the course navigation bars used to disappear and were replaced by the Course Manager options. This was a bit confusing for faculty, especially when they would make changes to the navigation bars for their course and not see those changes reflected in the navigation bar. So it’s nice to see that when you now enter the new Course Manager, the standard course navigation bars remain. And if you add a tool to the navigation bar, it immediately appears. Instant feedback for users.

The Course manager navigation bar has been moved from the top to the left, making options more obvious to users. And you can now manage your groups via Edit Courses.

Course Content

This area has also had a major overhaul and is probably going to throw our faculty more than any as it is quite a bit different than the Content Manager in 8.1. But once they get used to it I think they will find it saves them time as it reduces the number of clicks you need to add or edit content.

When you first enter the new Content Manager as a teacher, you are now taken to manage content instead of view content, which will save a few mouse clicks. The navigation has moved from the right to the left and has been greatly simplified.

You can now access reports about your content directly from the Content Manager, giving you a snapshot of how many times the content has been viewed and which students have viewed what content. And student feedback is directly accessible from the Content Manager.

For students, the content modules and topics are now collapsible, reducing the clutter on the screen.

Discussions

As with the Content Manager, the Discussions tool in 8.2 is quite a bit different than the Discussions in 8.1 in terms of look and feel and new features.

When you first enter Discussions you are taken directly into Manage Discussions instead of View Discussions.

As I mentioned before, there is a peer rating system so students can rate other participants content. And discussions can now be tied directly to the Grade tool, a nice integration feature.

Bookmark

Finally, users can now have multiple bookmarks to content within the system as opposed to a single bookmark.

Blogs & Personal Homepages

Two tools that haven’t changed that I was hoping would are the Blog and the Personal Homepages tools.

The blog tool is still the only way you can publish an RSS feed for any content from within D2L. Both the blog and the RSS feed can be made public. But compared to other blogging options, the D2L blog is still very clunky and confusing to use. I would love to see some major work done here to make this a more compelling option for our faculty and students.

I was also hoping we might be able to suggest the Personal Homepage tool as a possible replacement for stand alone faculty websites as the Public Homepage is also outside the LMS. But you can’t link from one page to another within the Personal Homepage tool. And you cannot create folders or organize content. A bit of work here would make this a much more compelling option that Frontpage for many of our faculty.

Conclusion

This isn’t a definitive or comprehensive look at all the changes in 8.2, but rather a snapshot of what I’ve noticed after poking around the system for about an hour. For example, I haven’t touched the new Group Folder or Group Dropbox functions, or taken a look at the Group Workspaces area or any of the new Admin tools within the DOME. But overall I’m quite impressed with the changes D2L has made to the LMS.

Now, on to train our faculty….

 

Google Docs adds Forms

Google Docs users have a new tool at their disposal – forms. And it looks dead easy to use.

Create a spreadsheet, share it as a form, choose who you want to email that form to and Google Docs will collect and tabulate that information in a spreadsheet.

I created a form in a minute. Fill it out if you would like to give it a try (no personal info or Google account is required). I’ve set it so that responses will be displayed in the form so if you fill it out and go back to the form you’ll see your response. This info also gets added to a spreadsheet that I’ve made public in my Google Docs account.

Dan Schellenberg has created a screencast on how to create a form with Google Docs.

 

I just joined Twitter and I'm lonely – wait a sec…Google can fix that!

Google releases Social Graph API

The scenario:
EdTech geek finally joins YASN (Yet Another Social Network), in this case Twitter. Said EdTech geek now needs to find friends also using Twitter (and find a reason to use it) or else see it go the way of other social networks. Fortunately, some folks whom I virtually follow on a regular basis are already using it, so I check out their profiles and follow along. Uploading my Gmail account catches a few more friends, but this all feels pretty clunky.

Soon there will be a better way. Today Google announced their Social Graph API. Using 2 technologies I’ve never heard of – FOAF and XFN – Google will now be able to track my relationships like they track the linked relationships of webpages. They then open this information up to social network developers who can now make it possible for me to, say, find all my Facebook friends who are using Twitter.

Here’s the high level overview.

 

"The professor is just another open browser window, 1 of 10"

The wonderful quote in the title comes from a graduate student at the University of North Carolina and was posted over at one of my favorite blogs about parenting and technology parent.thesis.

The quote comes from a post about an issue that many of us in the classroom deal with. How do we capture our students attention when there are so many distractions around? Do we ban it or embrace it?

Well, one strategy is to take this particular prof’s approach and do both. He does a wonderful job at making his point while still managing to capture his students attention.

Just in case you miss it at the end, he introduces his friend to the class. A joke, but an effective one.

The parent.thesis post mentions a PBS Frontline documentary called Growing Up Online that aired a few weeks ago. They’ve posted the whole show online and it has a great segment featuring 2 high school teachers on both sides of the fence. They have posted the entire doc online. And, if you have kids, you may want to check the whole thing out. As the producers of the documentary point out, we might be facing the greatest generation gap since rock ‘n’ roll.