When I first set up the Learning Lab, ((it’s nothing fancy, just a Linux server and what goes on on that server is called ‘Learning Lab work’)) I had it in my mind that clever people might be able to use it as space to experiment with web applications that would benefit the university community. Until now, it’s just been me in my lab coat poking at things until they work. I didn’t really spread the word very well.
Anyway, Alex, who’s a 2nd year Computing student and working with me on the JISCPress project, tweeted this earlier…
Got bored so I wrote a script to convert your University of Lincoln timetable to an iCal.
…which seemed like a very clever and useful thing to do for his fellow students, so I asked if he’d like to host the script on the Learning Lab and here it is:
It’s nothing fancy to look at but it means that students can now grab their timetable in the .ics format that will import into Google Calendar and Apple’s iCal. Students are already using calendar applications like these so it easily integrates into whatever they’re using and, if it’s something like Google Calendar, it works well on their mobile phone, iPod Touch or similar gizmo, too.
Over the last month, we’ve I’ve started to grow an embryonic social web publishing platform that can be many things but fundamentally offers a personalised and collaborative environment for research, teaching and learning. (Where? You’re looking at it!). There are a few active blogs (currently fewer than on the pilot Learning Lab blogs), nearly 70 users and the word is starting to get out at a pace that I can manage. So, now it’s time to look to the future…
By running BuddyPress, the connections between people are pretty much taken care of. Sign in to http://blogs.lincoln.ac.uk with a Lincoln username and password and you’ve joined a community that, as it grows, will increasingly and effortlessly connect people through the information they choose to add to their profile. Staff and students can click on a link and find other people who have similarly tagged their profile.
What is of equal interest to me, and potentially very useful to the university community, is how we link the content that is being generated by staff and students and make those links accessible. It is not difficult to appreciate what the potential is when you have a revolving community of 10,000 people who, over time, document their work, their research, teaching and learning using cutting edge web publishing tools, but I’m writing this post to try and understand and sketch out how I might evolve what I have begun.
Put simply, WordPress Multi-User (WPMU) allows one person (me) to provide and manage multiple web sites which other people (staff and students) take ownership of. Typically, every action, every new user and every new page and post on every site, is recorded and held in a shared database(s). Although at this low level, the data is relational, on the surface, when you look at one of the sites, they pretty much stand alone and so they should. We’re not talking about a single website with lots of users, we’re talking about lots of websites with lots of users. They might be working collaboratively with others, but they’re working as individuals or in distinct groups that benefit from a distinct online identity. BuddyPress helps bring things together by aggregating people’s actions (i.e. posting blog updates, making friends, joining groups, posting messages) but the visibility of those connections is transient. Social networks display our actions along a timeline and the connections between people are, for the most part, buried until the next time person A interacts with person Y.
Enough about connecting people.
Site-wide content aggregation
Site content is a mixture of text, multimedia and metadata. The last thing I’ll do when completing this blog post is to categorise and tag it. Each time I write, I publish text, (sometimes images) and metadata which summarises and categorises the full text. Why am I telling you this? You know it already. What you may not know is that each post created on our university WPMU installation, by any person, providing their blog is public, is aggregated into a single site and re-published a second time. So this post exists here on this site and there, on the Community Posts site. Notice how the Community Posts version links back to the original post. We’re not creating a whole new resource, we’re creating a powerful linked resource that allows others to search, filter, browse and discover content held across multiple sites. With only a few sites up and running here at the moment, the opportunity to discover varied content is limited, but over time that will change. Look at wordpress.com, where there are 5 million sites:
On the university blogs, this is made possible through the use of the site-wide-tags plugin, which was developed by @donncha, the same person that develops WPMU and the wordpress.com site. By using this plugin, a WPMU installation can share similar functionality to what you see on wordpress.com. I say ‘similar’ because, as I’ll mention later, designing how people discover content is key to all of this and something I, or we as a community, would benefit from thinking about and acting on collectively.
On the Community Posts site, you can search the full-text of every post, filter resources by category and tag, and subscribe to feeds from any combination of tag or category. Any search can be turned into a feed by appending ‘&feed=rss’ to the end of the resulting URL.
You can also specify the type of feed you want by appending:
Mixing categories and tags is currently broken by a bug but is due to be fixed in the next version of WordPress.
So it’s not difficult to imagine, over time, an active community of thousands of university web publishers, having their content aggregated into a site-wide resource that allows full text searching, browsing and filtering with a choice of feeds to syndicate that content elsewhere. See how it’s happening at the University of Mary Washington, where over 2400 sites have been created in under three years.
Yesterday, I discovered OpenCalais. It’s a semantic technology that’s been around since January 2008, so you might be tired of hearing about it, but if not, ‘Welcome to Web 3.0!’
The Calais Web Service automatically creates rich semantic metadata for the content you submit – in well under a second. Using natural language processing, machine learning and other methods, Calais analyzes your document and finds the entities within it. But, Calais goes well beyond classic entity identification and returns the facts and events hidden within your text as well.
Nice. And it’s installed on this site. There are three Calais plugins available for WordPress. This one, allows writers to submit their blog posts to the OpenCalais web service API and fetch back a number of auto-generated tags based on the content of their post. The longer the post, the more tags are returned. Tags are returned in just seconds. Those tags can be added to the post in their entirety or used selectively (actually, you have to add them all and then remove those you don’t want to include – a minor irritation). This next plugin, allows you to automatically go through every post you’ve written and tags them using the Calais web service. It’s all or nothing, but following the auto-tagging of archive content, you can then go to the ‘tags’ menu and delete any tags you don’t want to use. I’ve done that to this site and to the Community Posts site. Calais looks for names, facts and events and the API allows for up to 40,000 transactions a day and up to four per second. It returns some predictable tags and a few odd ones, but on the whole is fast and works like magic.
The third plugin also allows blog authors to fetch tags for the post they are writing and, in addition, it also suggests Creative Commons licensed images based on a dynamic evaluation of the chosen or suggested tags.
Image suggestion is a nice idea, but tends to return some fairly generic images.
Having used OpenCalais to auto-tag the Community Posts site, a whole new and richer set of semantic metadata has been added with barely any effort. The challenge now is to figure out how to 1) automate this as a scheduled process, so that the Calais plugin looks for new content every hour, say, and tags whatever has been recently introduced (a cron job that calls the plugin and a modification to the plugin to look at the timestamp of the post and ignore anything older than when it was last run?); 2) present the semantic data in an accessible way and this mostly, I think, comes down to appropriate site design. The wordpress.com screenshots above show one way of doing it. A del.icio.us style approach is a more powerful and versatile model of tag filtering. Until then, it’s a matter of constructing filters, searches and feeds in the way I’ve outlined above.
So how might all of this semantically structured data be used? It seems to me that most of the advantages are proportional to the quantity of information available. For teaching and learning, it could be used by students and staff who want to find and re-use material that has been posted in the past for a specific course or subject area. Great for new students who want to measure the type and quality of work produced by students in previous years. In a similar way, it could be used by staff looking for posts by colleagues on subjects they might be teaching, and because searches and tags can be turned into feeds, past content could be aggregated into a new course site. A widely adopted, semantically tagged WPMU installation could also reveal trends in the type of work occurring at the university and, by tagging names of people, queries against references to Prof. X’s work could be made (I also wonder whether through the use of feeds, content from the institutional repository could be joined up with all of this, too – but it’s late in the day and I can’t think straight).
You’ll see from the image below that using Calais on the Community Posts site, resulted in a much richer variety of tags than would have appeared if we relied on user-generated tagging alone (136 posts now have 558 tags). Some people don’t even bother to tag their work… Shame on them! Notice too, that with the Firefox Operator plugin, you can take a tag on the site and use it to find related resources elsewhere. So if you’re looking at work tagged ‘client-applications’ on WPMU, you can conveniently hop over to delicious and find further web resources or, on a whim, look at what books on this subject are available on Amazon.
Anyway, if you’re still reading, you might remember from the title of this post that my overriding interest in all of this is how it can be understood as and developed into a site-wide ‘architecture’. Again, I’m thinking how user-generated tags have determined the way delicious is designed for navigation and searching of resources. I need to learn more about how WordPress themes are constructed and consider how available functions can be best exploited and usefully presented on this type of site. If you have any ideas or want to work on a specific theme to get the most out of the site-wide-tags plugin, please do leave a comment or get in touch on Twitter @josswinn
To cut to the chase, this post is about using WordPress MU and BuddyPress with enterprise authentication (LDAP) to create an internal/private social network while leaving the blogs, by default, public.
Since May 2008, I’ve been running WordPress MU on the Learning Lab, a Linux server I maintain at the University of Lincoln, for experimenting, trialling and evaluating software that may enhance and support research, teaching and learning. It’s a great job 😉
Of all the software we’ve looked at over the last few months, ‘WordPress Multi-User’, has clearly shown the most potential for use by staff and students at the university. It’s a mature, well maintained, very popular open source blogging platform. In fact, it’s more than that. It’s a web content management system that runs 5 million blogs on wordpress.com and 280,000 blogs on edublogs.org. While evaluating WPMU on the Learning Lab, 65 blogs were registered by 123 users. I didn’t advertise the service at all during this period, preferring to work with individuals on specific projects and get their (informal) feedback. The feedback has been positive. People initially need support but once they’re set up and running, they only tended to contact me when they wanted to push WordPress to do more for them through plugins and custom themes.
During this period, I’ve been watching and doing my best to help with the progress made on BuddyPress, a set of plugins for WordPress MU, developed by Automattic, the company behind WordPress. It’s been interesting trying to get everything to work together at times but over the last few weeks it’s all come together.
Automattic also develop open source forum software which integrates with Buddypress, too. Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington pioneered the integration of all three products and I’ve had it working here at the University of Lincoln quite nicely. However, bbPress is still beta software and I’d like to be able to offer privacy options on forums, too, which is currently unsupported (there are some plugins, but they’re not mature enough for our use yet). So currently, we’re running WordPressMU, BuddyPress, an LDAP plugin for WPMU and a privacy plugin that’s commonly used on WPMU installations. It works really well.
I’ve documented some of the set up on our wiki. It’s not been difficult. For the time-being, while BuddyPress matures, I’ve chosen to stick with the default home and members themes, changing just the logo. Forums are, as mentioned above, turned off for now. I wonder if we’ll ever turn them on as the ‘Wire’ (similar to the Facebook Wall) is available and people are used to using services like Twitter and the Facebook Wall to communicate these days. We’ll see what demand there is for forums.
The final set up is really quite sweet. A member of the university goes to https://blogs.lincoln.ac.uk for the first time and logs in with their usual credentials. The first time they login, they are signed up. That’s it. No sign up page needed. It’s as if they were already a member of the social network, which, being members of the university, they are of course. From there, they see the BuddyPress home pages, can join groups, change their profiles and, when they’re ready, create or join a blog.
I’ve finally finished setting it up for general use today. The few people that know about it and have already joined, instantly see the benefits of having the social networking layer on top of the blogs. I’m excited to see how this works out over time. It’s not something we’re going to launch in a big way just yet (it’s only me supporting it at the moment), but I’m guessing that it will spread quite quickly through word-of-mouth.
The university web team are supportive and are sending staff and whole departments my way when they want a web site. The IT support team have been trained to use WordPress, should they get enquiries their way. We’ve got a few projects that have been waiting patiently for the new home of the blogs and a number of the Learning Lab blog users are migrating across already. The potential for supporting personalised and group online learning is now better than it’s ever been and the social networking element only helps bring peers together for collaboration and discussion.
Many thanks to Jim Groom and D’Arcy Norman who have been working on WordPressMU at their universities in ways which I hope we can emulate and contribute to here at the University of Lincoln.
Following my initial local install of OpenSim, I now have it running on the Learning Lab server. It was a bit of a nuisance to install and I still need to look at how best to work with its seemingly basic user management, but for alpha software it seems pretty stable and worth investing some time in. I’ve set up a page on our wiki to document the process.
I was first introduced to OpenSim by Ian Truelove at Leeds Met, who ran an introductory workshop to Second Life using OpenSim. He uses private installs of OpenSim with his students to teach design for virtual worlds, a genuine occupation for some. At least one academic here, who teaches 3D animation, wants to experiment with it and as I tell more people, I’m sure there will be further interest. My colleague, Julian, has also blogged about Second Life recently.
I’ve also been asked to write a Briefing Paper for the university’s next Learning Landscapes Working Group meeting, on how virtual worlds could extend the overall ‘learning landscape’ and benefit the student experience. It’s not a subject I know a great deal about (except for an intense period with Doom II while writing my MA dissertation, my gaming period ended with Elite), but there have been some useful and interesting reports recently, which I will look at again.
I am conscious that it’s been almost a month since I last wrote here but that is largely due to my work on other projects, websites and blogs. Here’s an overview of some of the work I’m currently involved in. If you’re working on similar projects or want to discuss or collaborate on any of this, do get in touch.
I recently wrote a brief summary of the work I’ve been doing under the ‘Learning Lab’ banner, since I started my work as Technology Officer in the Centre for Educational Research and Development. WordPressMU occupied a large chunk of my summer, though I feel I have a good understanding of it now and can relax a little while supporting staff and students who wish to use it. It will soon be moving to the new, permanent home of http://blogs.lincoln.ac.uk
One of the unexpected outcomes of working on WordPressMU was the realisation that not only training but a different model of support is key to sustaining and improving the use of blogs and other Web 2.0 tools. I’m keen to advocate and support the user-to-user support model that most open source and social web services develop rather than the traditional user-to-professional, ‘Help Desk’ model that exists for much of the software provided by the university. Models of user support are not something I’ve taken much of an interest in until recently, but the reality is that I alone am unable to support the growing adoption of WordPressMU at the university and I need to encourage staff and students to help themselves wherever possible.
Having said that, with colleagues in the Library and Research Office, I’m also planning to offer regular staff training sessions on the use of Web 2.0 tools in education and I’m visiting classes to give one hour introductions to WordPress, which is a good opportunity to work with and learn from both students and staff. In addition to this, I’m contributing towards the revision of policy documents which ensure that these new tools are used effectively and appropriately.
This is something I’m developing to promote and support the various initiatives at the university which provide Open Access to our research, teaching and learning. I started working for the university on a JISC-funded project to develop an institutional repository, having been working as an Archivist and Project Manager of a Digital Asset Management system in my previous job. Then, a few months ago, I heard about the difficulties people in the Lincoln Business School were having trying to establish a series of ‘Occasional Working Papers’ (OWPS) using existing portal software provided by the university. At the same time, I was looking at the Open Journal System for publishing Open Access journals, so I suggested that we set up the OWPS using OJS. Seeing what a great piece of software OJS is, I then suggested we use it for NEO, a planned journal of student research which we intend to launch in the Spring. Finally (and this is where it gets really interesting for me), Mike Neary, Dean of Teaching and Learning and Head of the Centre for Educational Research and Development, is advocating a more critical engagement with the debates about the marketisation of higher education through teaching practice. He’s calling this critical engagement, ‘Teaching in Public’, which encompasses the idea of an Academic Commons.
Professor Neary argues the uncertainty over the university’s mission requires the notion of ‘the public’ to be reconceptualized, so as to remake the university as an academic project that confronts the negative consequences of academic capitalism, and the commodification of everyday life. He will present Karl Marx’s concept of the ‘general intellect’ as an idea through which the university might be remade.
I contributed to a book chapter Mike has recently written which elaborates on this in more detail. You can read more about that on a previous blog post.
A project I’ve been leading for some months now is the installation of an Access Grid node at the university. We were fortunate in being approached by the Mental Health Research Network (MHRN) several months ago who offered to fund the installation of an AG node at the university to support their staff who work at the university and provide a facility that is otherwise missing in Lincolnshire. It’s been a really interesting and useful project for me as I learned about how the university undertakes a tendering exercise and I’ve been able to work with colleagues from across the university. The node should be available to use sometime in January. The Access Grid project is yet another technology-based initiative at the university which further improves our research infrastructure and supports collaboration and the wider exchange of ideas among colleagues worldwide.
This is a new project that brings together three, originally separate proposals, that the ICT department and CERD were proposing to take forward. It covers:
ubiquitous wireless networking
so called ‘thin client’ technology as an alternative to desktop PCs and the management of software applications and resources
access via user-owned devices, such as low-cost and increasingly popular ‘netbook’ hardware
We’re just starting to look at how we might offer the same user experience and services on our wireless network as we provide on our wired network. Currently the wireless network only offers Internet access. At the same time, we’re interested in evaluating new virtualisation technologies for the desktop. The ICT department are concluding a server consolidation project which is virtualising much of our server infrastructure. This brings many benefits and allows the ICT department to provide a more flexible service to users. Our new study will look at whether similar virtualisation technology can bring benefits to desktop users, too. The third part of this project is based on a proposal I made a few months ago to evaluate the user experience and support issues that the new generation of ‘netbooks‘ introduces. Smaller screens, Linux operating systems, an emphasis on web-based applications and the rapid adoption of these low-cost devices often aimed at the education sector, require a better understanding of the impact of this technology and the influence it may have on driving students to use more and more web-based applications.
Are you working on similar initiatives? If so, please leave a comment and share your experiences.
Today, I took a different approach to the conference and relaxed. I usually take the approach of trying to attend as many sessions as possible and absorb and report back on as much as I can. However, I’ve found that this approach quickly leaves me exhausted and somewhat removed from the rest of the conference as it allows little time for reflection.
So, my third day in Leeds was a much more enjoyable and stimulating one as I attended sessions, picking up on one or two things that were being presented and following threads and tangents that I found online and from talking with people. One term that I’ve heard mentioned a few times is ‘lifestream’, that is, an aggregation of online activity into a timeline that can be shared with others. You can see my lifestream by going to this page. You’ll see that following a conversation I had at F-ALT08, I looked again at OpenID and setup my own personal website as an OpenID server, learning a great deal at the same time.
You can also see that I joined identi.ca, an open source microblogging site like Twitter, and found details on setting up Laconica, the software behind identi.ca, on my own server and potentially, the Learning Lab. My experience using Twitter at the conference has really demonstrated the value of microblogging within a defined community as a way of rapidly communicating one-to-many messages and engaging in large asynchronous conversations.
During the second keynote, I drifted off and began to think about e-portfolios and aggregating our online social activity into a profile/portfolio that is controlled by the individual and is dynamically updated. I’d heard about the Attention Profiling Markup Language (APML), and spent time considering whether this could be used or adapted for aggregating a portfolio of work and experience. APML is primarily aimed at individuals’ relationship with advertisers and at a later F-ALT session was able to discuss the suitability of APML or an APML-like standard for aggregating a portfolio of work. Consequently, I’m developing an interest in this area and in other online relationships that can be made between people (see this link, too) and the data that we generate through purposeful and serendipitous online activity.
Having listened to quite a lot of discussion about web2.0 applications over the last few days, I’m even more pleased with the decision to use WordPress as a platform for blogging, web publishing and collaboration in the Learning Lab. With WordPress, we’re able to evaluate many of the latest social web technologies and standards through their plugin system. This flexible plugin and theming system has led to the development of an entire social networking platform based on WordPress, called BuddyPress, and because it’s basically WordPress with some specific plugins and clever use of a theme, it can use any of the available WordPress plugins to connect to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and other popular web 2 services. I’m looking forward to watching BuddyPress develop.
In the evening, we attended the conference dinner at Headingley Cricket Club. It was a great location, with good food and excellent service and while sitting next to one of my digital slam partners, he showed me JoikuSpot, an application that turns a mobile phone into a wifi router. There on our dinner table, he ran Joiku on a 3G Nokia phone and provided wifi access to his iPod Touch. What a great way to share high speed network access among friends, while meeting at a cafe or park to discuss work or study.
I was impressed. The Learning Landscape had extended to the cricket ground.
My second day in Leeds for the ALT Conference 2008 and I’m really excited about three open source applications that I’d like us to evaluate when I return to Lincoln.
Yesterday’s OpenSim – A pre Second Life taster workshop demonstrated the potential of having our own OpenSim virtual environment, either as a way to orientate new users to Second Life or actually develop a Virtual World, confined to the university network.
Today’s Hood 2.0, it’s a Web 2 world out there, introduced Laconica to me. This is an open source microblogging service, that would allow us to effectively reproduce a Twitter-like service, but within the confines of the university. I think for us, this has an advantage over Twitter because of the privacy issues surrounding the use of public microblogging services. It does also have the ability to hook into Twitter (and soon, Facebook), if desired.
During the F-ALT08 Edublogger session this evening, I met David, who works on identity systems as Eduserv. We talked about OpenID and how it can easily be set up to serve as an identity provider for one person or an entire organisation. I’ve taken his advice and now run an OpenID server on my personal website (it took less than 30 minutes to install and test). I’ve also been looking at OpenID plugins for WordPress and indeed the Learning Lab blogs could act as OpenID providers for anyone with a blog. I need to speak to ICT Services about the issues surrounding this on an institutional scale, but for me personally, I’m really impressed with how simple the process was to regain more control over my own identity online.
Finally, on a different note, the Keynote this morning was by Hans Rosling of Gapminder. He gave a very similar presentation to the one on TED, which I encourage you to watch for beautiful visualisations of statistical data relating to social, economic and environmental development.
Following their predictions in January, the Web Trend Map 3 from Information Architects, offers an interesting overview of the 300 most influential websites, illustrated along the lines of the Tokyo train map.
To get the full picture you need to either view the PDF or buy the poster. Cast your eye over the PDF and you’ll see that among the big names that stand out are Yahoo!, MSN, Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, YouTube, eBay, WordPress and Friendster. No real surprises there.
The layout is meaningful in that the train lines correspond to different web trends and Google sits in the centre because it is “slowly becoming a metaphor of the Internet itself”. Each of the 300 sites occupy different train stations in Tokyo, depending on the current status they’re deemed to have. The cool sites can be seen in cool parts of Tokyo and likewise the boring sites (i.e. Facebook) have been moved to the boring areas of the city. The creators are clearly having fun at times, too. Yahoo News, for example, is located in Sugamo, where old ladies go shopping, because Yahoo News “recently hijacked the online advertisement revenue of around 250 local newspapers and locked them into a binding contract. Who reads local news? Old people.”
Despite the sarcasm, it is a genuinely useful and interesting illustration of who the players are on the web and what spaces they dominate. There are also two forecast and branding plates which, as the names suggest, illustrate where the weather is turning for some sites and how certain brands are resonating with users.
It’s good to see WordPress being in the centre of it all; an open source product (which the Learning Lab runs on), not far from the centre of everything, located between the Google Vatican and the News district, on the Technology and Social Networking lines. The popularity of WordPress is no doubt due to it’s focus on usability and good presentation but also because as an open source product, it attracts a large developer community who write plugins to extend the basic functionality of the blogging platform, making it attractive to people who want their blog to integrate with sites like Facebook, Bebo, YouTube, Flickr and Twitter. WordPress leverage this voluntary manpower by enhancing their commercial product. Integration between sites is key as each compete for our time so it’s not surprising that dataportability.org, despite being a recent initiative, sits in the Brains district among all the big players.
The DataPortability Project is a group created to promote the idea that individuals have control over their data by determing how they can use it and who can use it. This includes access to data that is under the control of another entity.
In practice, this means that we should expect to be able to login to WordPress, select images from our Flickr account and publish them in a blog to Facebook, painlessly and securely. Web applications, including those sold to the Education market, that inhibit the secure but effortless portability of data are digging themselves into a hole.