Reading ‘The Edgeless University’ and ‘HE in a Web 2.0 World’ reports

I have been asked to present the recent Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World report to the University’s next Teaching and Learning Committee. The report came out shortly before, and is referenced by, The Edgeless University. Why Higher Education Must Embrace Technology, which was launched by David Lammy MP at the end of June. I’ve been going through both reports, pulling out significant quotes and annotating them. Here are my notes. It is not a comprehensive nor formal review of the reports, nor a statement from the University of Lincoln. Just personal reflections which I will take to my colleagues for discussion. I don’t whole-heartedly agree with every statement made in both reports or even those quoted here, but I do take government promoted reports, and the funding that accompanies them, seriously.

I include quotes from David Lammy’s speech, as it can be read as a formal statement from government on the recommendations of the ‘Edgeless’ report and a commentary on future funding priorities.

If you’ve not yet read the reports, my notes might provide a useful summary, albeit from the bias of someone charged with supporting the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning.  I am also an advocate of Open Access and Open Education on which the Edgeless report has a lot to say. Methodologically, the writing of both reports combined both current literature reviews and interviews across the sector and as I write, they are the most current documents of their kind that I am aware of.

If you have commented on either of these reports on your own blog or have something to say about the excerpts I include here, please do leave a comment and let me (and others) know.  Thanks.

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JISCPress: Developing a community platform for the JISC funding process

I’m very pleased to announce that my bid with Tony Hirst at the Open University, to develop a community platform for the JISC funding call process based on WriteToReply, was successful. The original bid document is publicly available and currently offers the most information on this six month, £32,500 project.

Note that this is an open project using open source software and we welcome volunteer contributions from anyone. I’ve set up a project blog, mailing list, wiki and code repository. Feel free to join us if this WriteToReply spin-off appeals to you. If you know anyone that might be interested, please do let them know.

If you’ve been following WriteToReply, you’ll know that we use WordPress Multi-User and CommentPress. Eddie Tejeda, the developer of CommentPress will be working with us on the project and this will result in significant further development of CommentPress 2. So, if you’re interested in CommentPress (as many people are), please consider following, contributing to and testing JISCPress.

I should also note that while the project is a spin-off of our work on WriteToReply, neither Tony or I are personally receiving any funds from JISC.  The contributions from JISC to cover our time on this project are paid directly to our employers and does not result in any financial benefit to us or WriteToReply (which is in the process of being formalised as a non-profit business).  In other words, while WriteToReply is a personal project, JISCPress is part of our normal work as employees of our universities (both Tony and I are expected to bid and win project funds – you get used to it after a while!). Money has been allocated to fund dedicated developer time to the project, which will pay Eddie and Alex, a student at the University of Lincoln,  for their work.

Anyway, on with the project! Here’s the outline from the bid document:

This project will deliver a demonstrator prototype publishing platform for the JISC funding call and dissemination process. It will seek to show how WordPress Multi-User (WPMU) can be used as an effective document authoring, publishing, discussion and syndication platform for JISC’s funding calls and final project reports, and demonstrate how the cumulative effect of publishing this way will lead to an improved platform for the discovery and dissemination of grant-related information and project outputs. In so doing, we hope to provide a means by which JISC project investigators can more effectively discover, and hence build on, related JISC projects. In general, the project will seek to promote openness and collaboration from the point of bid announcements onwards.

The proposed platform is inspired and informed by WriteToReply, a service developed by the principle project staff (Joss Winn and Tony Hirst) in Spring 2009 which re-publishes consultation documents for public comment and allows anyone to re-publish a document for comment by their target community. In our view, this model of publishing meets many of the intended benefits and deliverables of the Rapid Innovation call and Information Environment Programme. The project will exploit well understood and popular open source technologies to implement an alternative infrastructure that enables new processes of funding-related content creation, improves communication around funding calls and enables web-centric methods of dissemination and content re-use. The platform will be extensible and could therefore be the object of further future development by the HE developer community through the creation of plugins that provide desired functionality in the future.

CommentPress

CommentPress is, for educators, one of the most important developments to come out of the WordPress community and one of the most significant innovations that I know of in online publishing. I first learned about it when I saw that Yale University Press were using it to invite comment on Yochai Benkler’s book, The Wealth of Networks. In its original form, CommentPress is a theme for WordPress that allows readers to comment on, annotate and discuss paragraphs of text. In fact, although installed as a theme, it transforms a site not only by design, but with functionality you’d normally expect from plugins. In CommentPress v1.x, form and function came as a single package. It’s worth reading about the background to CommentPress. You’ll see that it’s part of a larger course of research by the Institute for the Future of the Book.

Institute for the Future of the Book was founded in 2004 to [... stimulate] a broad rethinking—in publishing, academia and the world at large—of books as networked objects. CommentPress is a happy byproduct of this process, the result of a series of “networked book” experiments run by the Institute in 2006-7. The goal of these was to see whether a popular net-native publishing form, the blog, which, most would agree, is very good at covering the present moment in pithy, conversational bursts but lousy at handling larger, slow-developing works requiring more than chronological organization—whether this form might be refashioned to enable social interaction around long-form texts… We can imagine a number of possibilities: scholarly contexts: working papers, conferences, annotation projects, journals, collaborative glosses; educational: virtual classroom discussion around readings, study groups; journalism/public advocacy/networked democracy: social assessment and public dissection of government or corporate documents, cutting through opaque language and spin (like the Iraq Study Group Report, a presidential speech, the federal budget, a Walmart or Google press release); creative writing: workshopping story drafts, collaborative storytelling; recreational: social reading, book clubs.

You can also read about CommentPress in The Chronicle for Higher Education and The Journal of Electronic Publishing.

We have started to use CommentPress at the University of Lincoln for the discussion of internal documents and feedback from staff has been good. Many are astonished at what it makes possible. A departmental research strategy paper received over 100 comments from nine staff; something we’d never have had by emailing the document out for comment. Of course, I am keen to use it to support courses and a colleague and I have recently applied for funding to use CommentPress in a course with over 100 Criminology students, who are normally asked to critique texts and respond by emailing Word documents to their tutor. Using CommentPress allows for transparent and open, formative feedback and assessment by both staff and student peers.

Outside of my work for the university, I’ve been developing WriteToReply, with Tony Hirst from the Open University. You can read about how we started WriteToReply and you’ll see that CommentPress is fundamental to what we’re trying to achieve and we’re using it for networked democracy, as suggested above. CommentPress is in fact, a comment engine for each document site. Two things make this possible. First, and most obvious, is the fact that readers on a document site can direct comments to specific paragraphs of text. Readers can also respond to other readers’ comments and a happy by-product of our re-publication of the Digital Britain – Interim Report, is that the discussion still continues, despite the consultation period being over. So CommentPress is an engine for on-site comment and discussion. Texts are dissected but remain whole; they also become social objects.

The second important contribution CommentPress has made is the provision of permalinks for each paragraph in the text. This provides a unique URI or URL for each paragraph of text, making linked references from third-party web sites possible. Combined with the trackback/pingback system built into decent web publishing platforms, CommentPress makes remote commenting on text possible, as Tony explains on his blog.

What this means is that the paragraph, action point, section or whatever can become a linked resource, or linked context, and can support remote commenting. And in turn, the remark made on the third party site can become a linked annotation to the corresponding part of the original report… How? Well through the judicious use of trackbacks… So even if you don’t want to comment on the Digital Britain Interim report on the WriteToReply site, but you do care, why not post your thoughts on your own blog, and link your thoughts directly back to the appropriate part of the report on WriteToReply?

It’s this feature, so easily missed, which makes CommentPress a comment engine. An engine suggests an underlying technology that drives something greater. By introducing paragraph permalinks, text can now be linked at a much more accurate and deeper level than was previous possible. Texts are transformed into uniquely identifiable resources of data. Academics can now reference paragraphs rather than page numbers and readers can reflect, comment and participate in the analysis of texts from their own site. For the reader, CommentPress provides a fluid interface to the document as a whole but at a technical level, explodes it across the Internet.

In the running of WriteToReply, we’ve tested CommentPress quite hard and found it to be a complex and fragile tool. Until recently, it hasn’t been updated to reflect the fast changing development of WordPress and because of its extensive use of Javascript, it clashes with other plugins, so while it transforms a WordPress site, it also restricts functionality otherwise possible. Fortunately, CommentPress 2 is being actively worked on and I’ve been helping to test it with Eddie Tejeda, the original developer. It’s currently in beta, but Eddie is responding to my feedback and fixing issues rapidly. There is a mailing list for CommentPress and the code is publicly accessible.

CommentPress 2.2 Beta

CommentPress 2.2 Beta

If you test CommentPress 2, you’ll immediately see that it’s been split into a suite of plugins and themes and that it’s now much more flexible in terms of compatibility with other WordPress plugins and in being able to select different components, options and themes.  Notably, paragraph permalinks are available as a separate plugin, which means that any WordPress blog will be able to have paragraph-level URIs, without necessarily supporting paragraph level commenting. My test site is on WriteToReply. Feel free to have a look and post comments, if you wish. As I write, it’s not quite ready for everyday use, but at the speed which Eddie has been working over the last few days, I’m confident that I’ll be able to use it here at the university and on WriteToReply before the month’s out. If you’re used to using v1.4.1, you’ll notice a lot of change. Remember that it’s still beta software and that not all of the features have been fully implemented yet. It would be great if other people could help test it across various browsers and with different documents. Multimedia is not something I’ve yet been able to throw at it, for example.

Finally, CommentPress needs continued support in terms of testing, reporting issues, bug fxes and feature development. This can be done voluntarily, but given it’s potential to support education, business and government consultations, I for one, will be looking for ways to raise funding to help support all of this. If you know of any possible funding opportunities within UK Higher Education, please do let me know.

Wikipedia : Google Docs : Yahoo Pipes Mashup

First of all, this is not my work. All credit should go to Tony Hirst from the Open University for posting an explanation of this to his blog. Brilliant stuff.

Tony is doing what we’ve been meaning to look at for some time, which is create ‘Learning Objects’ out of mashups. In Tony’s example, data is 1) taken from Wikipedia, 2) imported to a Google Spreadsheet, 3) output as a CSV file and 4) mashed up in Yahoo! Pipes.

The process of creating an object like the map below is so transparent that both teachers and students, with a specific outcome in mind, could achieve something like this and the results are very satisfying, as you can see.