Work at web scale* on the Orbital project

This job is now formally open for applications.

Just a heads up to say that we’ll be advertising for a Web Developer to work on Orbital, our JISC-funded ‘Managing Research Data’ project. The post, starting in March/April, will be a 12 month, full-time, grade 5 (c.£21K) position.

The Web Developer (‘you’) will be working in the Centre for Educational Research and Development, alongside Nick Jackson, Lead Developer on Orbital, and also benefit from being in a team that includes staff in central ICT services and the Library. Orbital builds on and extends previous work we’ve been doing over the last couple of years, so if you’re interested, you should read through our projects pages.

If we were to summarise our technologies and interests I guess they would be #agile, #opensource, #opendata #LAMP, #php, #codeigniter, #mongoDB, #OAuth, #APIs, #HTML5, #CSS3, #github and moving towards #RDF and #LinkedData.

Just seeing these hashtags listed together should cause your heart to beat with excitement :-)

When we advertise in January, you’ll see that the job spec is actually a pretty standard affair. What I want to emphasise here is how interesting and fun the job will be.

The key section in the Job Description is what you’d be working on with Nick:

  1. Development and implementation of a set of web services, which re-use and develop our previous, JISC-funded work as well as other initiatives (e.g. SWORD and DataCite DOIs).
  2. Documented source code will be made available under an open source license by the end of the project.
  3. Development and implementation of mechanisms for managing and transferring data, including the use of MongoDB, OAuth, read/write RESTful APIs, SWORD2 interoperability, and integration with the administrative functions of EPrints.

That actually summarises a lot of work.

I’m managing the project and try to run things with as little hierarchy as possible within a university environment. You’ll always know the project priorities and will be trusted to self-organise and deliver on time, working to two-week iterations and, roughly, monthly releases. I regularly reflect on how we work and our overall working environment. For Orbital, I favour the Crystal Clear agile methodology, as does Nick. You’ll be encouraged to reflect on this with us, too.

We work hard, and not always 9-5pm, but we work at a pace that is sustainable over a long period of time. We take our work seriously but, in the spirit of hacking, are always looking for ways to have fun, too. We recognise that we’re fortunate to be working in a diverse and intellectually stimulating academic environment, but are user/product focused at the end of the day. You’ll be working directly with our users, who are Researchers in the School of Engineering and Siemens, and staff in the Library and ICT. You’ll need to be showing them refreshed, working software every couple of weeks and iteratively improving Orbital, based on their feedback and requirements. There may also be times when you’ll be asked to talk publicly about your work and you’ll be encouraged to blog about it every so often, too. I expect the project to produce one or two conference/journal papers, and you’ll be named as a contributor and can take as active role in that as you like.

I hope this sounds like an interesting job. At £21K, I recognise that it will probably attract younger developers looking to gain experience, though of course, we welcome applications from anyone whatever your age. By the time the post starts, we’ll have set up a decent dev/staging/production environment, hosted in the cloud, and relying on Github and Jenkins to keep things versioned, integrated and tested. Nick will have been developing Orbital for a couple of months or more and laid the groundwork for someone to start coding quickly in a supportive environment.

If you’re thinking of applying and don’t live in Lincoln, you’ll be pleased to know that it’s a decent small city, and a relatively cheap place to live. The campus is modern and sits by a Marina in the middle of the city. You can walk to work. I love the place. Oh, and you can choose your own hardware for development, within reason. Most of us use Macs, but whatever suits you. I’ll ask the successful candidate what they prefer when we offer them the job.

If, after reading around the project website, you’ve got any questions about the post, please do get in touch. Thanks.

* Wondering what the hell ‘web scale’ means? Something like this.

LNCD: Web Developer Intern

Last month, I wrote about LNCD, a new progressive new group that includes educational developers, technologists, teachers, researchers and students and was set up to support the objectives of Student as Producer through the research and development of technology for education. With the formation of LNCD, we’re also looking to employ a recent graduate (or an MComp student on their placement year). The job is advertised from today and more details can be found on our Careers website.

This Internship is designed to help recent graduates develop the skills and experience required for a number of potential roles in web development and open source hacking. We’re looking to work with, support and mentor an enthusiastic developer with a genuine interest in the use of the open, data-driven web in higher education. We’re looking for someone who enjoys working both face-to-face and in a distributed online environment and who is keen to share their work with others across the university.

Based in the Centre for Educational Research and Development (CERD) but working across the university, you’ll be a member of LNCD, a progressive group that was recently set up to support the research and development of technology for education and includes educational developers, technologists, teachers, researchers and students. This graduate Internship is a new 12-month position, designed to provide you with the relevant mentoring, experience and skills for working in a cutting-edge web development and research environment. The role will require significant interaction with students and academic staff and you will be encouraged and supported to write about your work and present your work to peers across the university sector.

I really want this to be a rewarding 12 month Internship for someone, who’ll be working alongside colleagues in CERD, ICT (i.e. Nick and Alex) and the Library (i.e. Paul), as well as with academic staff and students. We’re asking for a lot, but you’ll get a lot back in return and you should end the year with experience working on several internal and externally funded projects, producing and contributing to publicly hosted open source code, attending and presenting at workshops and conferences and being a named contributor to at least one published academic paper.

If you’re interested in the Internship and wondering what you might be getting into, please do read about the LNCD group, its remit and the tools we use, and take a look at some of the work we’ve been doing over the  last year, too. Read about Student as Producer and what its objectives are and think about how you want to contribute to the work we’re doing at Lincoln.  Thanks.

Technology for education: A new group

I offer this as one response to my previous post. Much more needs to be done to ‘reverse imagineer’ EdTech, but this will be my practical focus for the foreseeable future and the nexus of where theory is put into practice, where pedagogy meets technología: “The processes and practices of doing things, understanding things and developing knowledge”? (Selwyn 2011, p7)

A new group

In January, I wrote about how I had written a paper for the university about the role of technology in the context of Student as Producer. The paper included a recommendation that a new team be convened to “further the research, development and support of technology” at the university. January feels like a long time ago now, and I wanted to write about what’s been happening since then, because it’s all good :-)

Following my presentation of the original paper to the Teaching and Learning Committee, I was asked to provide more detail on what the proposed team would do and a justification for the budget I had outlined. Both papers were written on behalf of and with the co-operation of, the Dean of Teaching and Learning, the University Librarian, the Prof. of Education, the Head of ICT and the Vice President of Academic Affairs in the Student Union. The second paper went back to the T&L Committee and, following their approval, then went to the university’s Executive Board in early April.

I began the paper by outlining what the team is for:

The team will consolidate and extend the existing collaborative work taking place between Centre for Educational Research and Development, The Library and ICT Services1 and invite staff and students from across the university to join the team. The team will offer incentives to staff and students who wish to contribute to the rapid innovation of appropriate technology for education at the university, through work-experience, research bursaries and internal and external applications for funding. Through our experience of the Fund for Educational Development (FED) and Undergraduate Research Opportunity Scheme (UROS) funds, we know this is an effective method of engaging staff and students in research and development. A core principle of the team will be that students and staff have much to learn from each other and that students as producers can be agents of change in the use of technology for education.

I then went on to argue:

The Student as Producer project is anticipated to take between 3-5 years to fully embed across the university. During this time, significant changes will occur in the technologies we use. In just the last five years, we have seen the rise of web applications such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Web 2.0 in general. Aside from such applications, networked infrastructure has developed considerably, with access to broadband now widespread and the use of smart phones and netbooks rapidly increasing. For a student at the University of Lincoln in 2011, high-speed networks are now ubiquitous across the city campuses and such networks themselves are now the ‘learning landscape’, in which the university is but one part.

There is a strong argument for shifting away from the idea of ‘educational technology’ to address technology straight on, recognising that any technology can support and enhance the research, teaching and learning process, and that the use of these technologies increasingly lies outside the institution’s control. We would argue that it is not the university’s role to compete with or determine the use of any technology but rather support access to technology in the broadest terms. This can be achieved through incremental improvements to infrastructure (e.g. network capacity and ease of use), supporting staff and students (e.g. training, workshops, courses) and personalising and integrating the services we do provide so that staff and students have a useful and enjoyable experience of technology at the university and understand how it fits within their wider networks. In particular, we should consider whether Blackboard can be better enhanced through mobile applications and the integration of other popular services such as Facebook. It is a key technology for the support of teaching and learning and if extended through the work of the proposed team, could be a platform for innovation. All of this work should be informed by a broad understanding of the social roles of technology and the objective of producing critical, digitally literate staff and students.

I presented a list of risks that I thought would present themselves if we didn’t take this approach:

  1. Poor co-ordination: Poorly co-ordinated investment in technology to support strategic objectives, resulting in competing interests in limited resources.
  2. Disjuncture: Growing disjuncture between student expectations and institutional provision of technology and support.
  3. Inertia: No locus for technological experimentation and innovation.
  4. Unattractive to potential post-graduates and staff: Technological provision compares poorly to other institutions, putting off new staff and post-graduates.
  5. Loss of income stream: Under-investment in ‘seeding’ projects that may attract external income.
  6. Business As Usual: During a period of significant change in Higher Education, our progressive T&L Strategy is hindered by poorly co-ordinated technological development.
  7. Student as Consumer: Technology remains something ‘provided’ by the university, rather than produced and informed by its staff and students.

Finally, I provided more detail about the costs. After taking into account existing budgets available to us and anticipated external research income, the total I asked for was £22K/yr to pay for an additional 12-month Intern position and a contribution to the staff and student bursaries we want to make available.  This was approved.

I was pleased with the outcome as it means that our current work is being recognised as well as the strategic direction we wish to go in. In terms of resourcing, we will have at least one more full-time (Intern) post and hold a £20K annual budget which will be used to provide grants and bursaries to staff and students, pay for hardware and software as needed and pay for participants to go to conferences to discuss their work and learn from the EdTech community at large. This doesn’t include any external income that we hope to generate. The nature of our applications for research grants is unlikely to change other than we hope to have more capacity in the future including both students and academic staff as active contributors to the development, implementation and support of technology for education at the university.

Team? Group? Network? Place?

The core members of the group (i.e. CERD/ICT/Library) met for an afternoon last week to discuss the roadmap for getting everything in place for the new academic year. We began by discussing the remit of the group (as detailed in the two committee papers), which is principally to serve the objectives of Student as Producer, the de facto teaching and learning strategy of the university. We spent a while discussing the nature of the group; that is, whether it was a team, a network, a group or even a place. In the first committee paper I wrote, I described it as “a flexible, cross-departmental team of staff and student peers”, but have since come to refer to it as a ‘group’, as ‘team’ does not reflect the nature of how we intend to work, nor the relationships we hope to build among participants, nor is a ‘team’ inclusive enough. I’d like to think that we’ll develop a network of interested staff and students and even attract interest and collaboration from outside the university, but I think it’s too early to call what we’re doing a network, although we are networked and working on the Net.  We’ve given ourselves a couple of weeks to come up with name but whatever we call it, we agreed that in principle we’d govern the group by consensus among us. Ideally, though not always in practice, the Net can help us create flatter structures of governance, so we’ll try to shape the way we work around this ideal.  My role will be to co-ordinate the work of the group by consensus.

UPDATE: We decided upon LNCD as the name for our group. It’s a recursive acronym: LNCD’s Not a Central Development group.

All participants will be encouraged to write about their work in the context of Student as Producer, building on the progressive pedagogical framework that is being implemented at the university, theorising their work critically and reflexively. We’ll support this approach, too, building a reading list for people wanting to think critically about EdTech and an occasional seminar series where we’ll discuss our ideas critically, reflexively and collegially.

Road map and tools

We will be up and running by the start of the next academic year. Over the summer, we’ve got a timetable of work that we plan to do to ensure we’ve got a clearly defined identity and the tools in place to support the nature of our work. By the end of September, we’ll have a website that offers clear information on what we do, what we’re working on, how to get involved and the ways we can support staff and students at the university. The site will allow you to review all aspects of our projects as well as propose new projects which can be voted up and down according to staff and students’ priority. There will be an application form for you to apply for funding from us and a number of ways for you discuss your ideas on and offline. We’ll be continuing our current provision of staff training, but will be looking to re-develop the sessions into short courses that are useful to both staff and students. The 2009 Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World report recommended that

The time would seem to be right seriously and systematically to begin the process of renegotiating the relationship between tutor and student to bring about a situation where each recognises and values the other’s expertise and capability and works together to capitalise on it. This implies drawing students into the development of approaches to teaching and learning. [Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World, p.9]

This is very much what Student as Producer is aiming to do through embedding research-engaged teaching and learning across the curricula and the approach we plan to take around support and training for the use of technology in teaching and learning. We’ll be working with the Student Union and the Principle Teacher Fellows across the university to identify ways that students and their tutors can be encouraged to support each other and we welcome the input and collaboration of anyone who wishes to adopt and advocate this approach. We’ll be designing some posters, flyers and business cards over the summer so that people around the university know who we are and how to get in touch in time for Fresher’s Week.

For the Geeks, you might be interested to know that we’ve decided upon a set of tools for managing our work online in a distributed environment where most of us work in different parts of the university campuses. We’ll have a dedicated virtual Linux box (as well as our usual development servers) and the main website will be run on WordPress using our own custom CWD theme. We’ll be migrating all of our code to Git Hub very soon and we’ll be using Pivotal Tracker to manage our development tasks in an agile and open way. We’ll be using our existing combination of Get Satisfaction and Zen Desk to manage peer-to-peer user support and bug reports and we’ll also be looking at alternatives such as User Voice and the Open Source Q&A tool to provide a way for you to suggest and vote for project ideas. Notably, through the use of their APIs, most of these tools integrate well, so that we can create tasks in Pivotal Tracker from bug reports made with Zen Desk and associate those tasks with commits on Git Hub. We’ll be using Twitter just as we always do, and we’ll be using Google Groups for longer discussions around each project (as well as regularly meeting face-to-face, of course). For projects that don’t involve writing code (which we certainly welcome), we’ll be looking at tools that assist with resource development and document control, such as digress.it, MediaWiki, Git Hub, Google Docs, EPrints and Jorum, depending on the nature of the project. We won’t be prescriptive with the tools we adopt, using whatever is appropriate, but with an emphasis on those that offer decent APIs, data portability and good usability. Proprietary software lacking APIs and with poor usability (we can all think of a few) won’t get much of a look in. Finally, through RSS and widgets, we’ll be presenting a coherent picture of each project on the main website.

There’s quite a bit to do but we know how to do it.  If you’ve got any suggestions (a name would be useful!), ideas or even want to join us, for the time-being, leave a comment here and we’ll get back to you. Thanks.

  1. Since writing this, I’ve listed examples of our existing work in a recent blog post. You can add JISCPress and ChemistryFM, this WordPress platform and our e-portfolio system to that list, too. []

Total ReCal (or Calendar Combiner C^2). A proposed JISC Rapid Innovation project

I’ve just submitted this funding proposal to JISC, under their Flexible Service Delivery programme call. As usual, I’m keen to share bids sooner rather than later, whether they are successful or not. Go here for the full bid or just read the summary below. Comments always welcome. Thanks.

Building on a university-wide initiative to improve collaborative, undergraduate research, this student-driven project will discuss, document and develop API plugins for a number of common corporate applications in the HE sector. The plugins will expose space-time data in an open, standardised format that can then be queried and aggregated by a student-centred calendaring service, which will also be developed during the course of the project.

The work undertaken by the project will improve the student experience by providing end-users with a cutting-edge, centrally supported calendaring service driven by existing aggregate services at the University of Lincoln. The plugins, full documentation and further libraries and code examples for the service will be offered to the JISC community for use by their own institutions.

UPDATE: I’m pleased to say that this funding application was successful. :-)

Developing BuddyPress for education

In February, I wrote a brief post about setting up BuddyPress with LDAP authentication within a university context (you’re looking at it). Four days ago, BuddyPress reached maturity by hitting version 1.0, marking a time to reflect on what I’d like to see developed for BuddyPress for use within a university context. This is an initial wish list. I’m not looking for BuddyPress to be an all singing, all dancing, social network. I don’t care about image collections and status updates (Flickr and Twitter do those jobs nicely) I would, however, like to see it being used for building group identity (projects, special interest groups, classes, courses) and portfolio/resume building. Right now, it’s pretty limited in those areas.

Privacy controls

As I mentioned previously, our social network is private, while the blogs have five levels of optional privacy controls, ranging from public and indexed by Google, to private, single-user blogs. However, privacy within the social network is currently all or nothing. It’s a hack that works but has no flexibility. The BuddyPress activity plugin is currently turned off because the privacy plugin I use, doesn’t account for the feeds that the plugin exposes. It would be nice to be able to have the site-wide social activity visible when logged in. Currently, only information about new blog posts is published site-wide. What I would like is for everything that the activity plugin logs, to have site admin options to be 1) visible to non-logged in users/public; 2) visible to logged in users; 3) visible to my groups and friends,4)  visible to my friends and 5) not visible. In addition, the feeds that are exposed of site-wide activity and member activity, could also be configurable so that 1) a site admin can choose to expose them or not; 2) if allowed, a member can choose to expose their personal feed or not; 3) a feed key could be used in place of the normal feed URI so that private member feeds could be created. Finally, groups and member profiles could optionally be made public or private. So anything following /groups/ or /members/ has an option to be visible outside the community.

Group activity

Currently, groups don’t publish very much information and you can’t aggregate information from elsewhere into a group profile. I submitted a ‘wishlist’ ticket to BuddyPress for group activity feeds, requesting that feeds for when a new group member joins and changes to the group wire. It would also be nice to be able to aggregate content from other sites via RSS into the group ‘news’ field, or a new lifestream-like field so group photos or videos or whatever, could be sucked in. It was possible to do this via a Yahoo! Pipe which combined various feeds which could then be put through feed2js and dropped into the ‘News’ field. However, embedded javascript is now intentionally blocked :-( I guess I could find a work-around.

Member profiles

For both teachers and students, the profile pages could be effective resumes. Currently, the site-admin can build basic grouped fields and there’s a choice of field types, too. I’d like members to be able to build their own fields and for there to be pre-built field types to choose from. It’s possible for the site admin to pre-build fields and probably easy enough for me to pre-build specific fields to design a resume (the examples given of language, country and state are just .csv lists). However, currently, if I provide three ‘Employment’ fields, a member can’t add a fourth ‘Employment’ field, nor can they select dates to correspond to when that employment was. I’m pretty sure I could create the fields, but it’s beyond me to allow a member to build their own profile pages from a selection of pre-built fields.

Finally, in addition to my request for members to be able to make their profiles public, I’d like the member profile to be marked up with hResume markup and exportable in a variety of styled formats: xhtml+css, xml, pdf, txt, doc and rtf.

The entire member profile should use microformat markup where possible. Currently, the profile can export a simple, personal hCard but could also use hCard for company and school addresses, hCalendar for dates, and rel=”tag” for creating a set of tagged skills. LinkedIn partially implements this, by the way.

So, privacy controls, group feeds and a resume builder. Not too much to ask is it? I’d probably be able to pay for the resume builder if anyone is interested…