Books, LibraryThing and me

We recently planned, designed and built our own, small, house. Once the builders had gone, I finished off the interior, laying the finished floors, decorating and tiling. I also put up book shelves that went up one side of the back door, over it and then down the other side, so that when you walk through the door, you walk under our books. There’s about 500 or so, I guess.

Why am I writing about this? Well, those books, accumulated by my wife and I over many years, look good against the wall there, and when people visit, they often stand looking across the shelves at the range of books we’ve bought and sometimes even read. Personally, I buy books on a whim and there are many that I’ve yet to read. I rarely read books cover-to-cover and rarely read fiction. When you look across the shelves, tilting your head to read the spines, you’ll come across the fiction I started reading in my late teens, the books on Buddhism, philosophy and Japanese, that I bought as a student; you’ll see the books I bought while a post-graduate student, studying film archiving. Then there are all the books I bought in-between, while teaching myself about computers, not to mention all my wife’s books. I don’t know about you, but those books say a lot about me and about the last 20 years of my life. Many of them reflect my interests and ambitions before I sent my first email, before I first used the World Wide Web and before I knew 70% of the people I now call ‘friends’ (such an abused word these days).

The thing is, I haven’t opened many of those books since I first looked at them. I’ll never read them again and most of the people I know at work and online, will never scan my bookshelves. We can chat over Twitter, subscribe to each other’s FriendFeed and read each other’s blogs, but I’ll tell you now, that’s not even half of me.

I signed up to LibraryThing a couple of years ago, added a couple of Cormac McCarthy books and then left the account alone. I thought my wife would enjoy it more than me. She reads books cover-to-cover all the time. I don’t. I use books to learn about things that I don’t know. With the exception of a few authors, I rarely read books for relaxation. I relax in my own time online and have done for years. It suits my wandering mind.

It occurred to me a few days ago that LibraryThing could enrich my digital identity in a way that no other social networking site could. By importing my book collection into LibraryThing, I could go back over my book collection, dust off the covers and gradually enrich my online identity, and at the same time people would get to know me better, if they cared to look. Never mind Twitter, where I’ve read that we’ll get to know one-another through a glimpse of the small details of our lives. I don’t buy it. You’ll learn more about me by perusing my LibraryThing collection, I can assure you.

As I write this, I’ve added 110 books that I own, about a third of the total, I reckon.


This also got me thinking about e-portfolios and how the books I accumulated as a student reveal a lot more than my CV about my depth of study and research interests during and shortly after those periods of learning. To build a book collection over time is an achievement in itself. We tend to think of a portfolio as an accumulated, curated presentation of work that we have undertaken. It’s a product – something to show; but until recently we couldn’t include a book collection in our portfolio.

As a student, I spent more time reading than writing and I read wider than my term papers and exams reflected. Despite a good degree, my undergraduate essays aren’t worth your time today, even if I could still find them, but I still have the books I collected and they are worth your time. If I was employing me, I’d take an interest in my book collection. It’s a background check I can recommend.

Of course, I could have added books I don’t own to give a false impression of myself (I haven’t). And I could exclude books from LibraryThing that I do own, because they might give a false impression of who I think I am (I have – the exceptions are trivial). But this is my point about Identity and LibraryThing: I’ve got a collection of physical books that I’m now curating online to develop a ‘portfolio’ that better represents me.

I guess that’s what a lot of LibraryThing members do. Have you?

The user is in control

Just a quick nod to Andy Powell’s post yesterday about Identity in a Web 2.0 World. As I’ve said before, I’m trying to catch up with the issues Andy discusses and develop them into a blueprint for the Mozilla/Creative Commons/P2P University Open Education course, I am participating in.

Andy writes:

…identity in a Web 2.0 world is not institution-centric, as manifest in the current UK Federation, nor is it based on the currently deployed education-specific identity and access management technologies.  Identity in a Web 2.0 world is user-centric – that means the user is in control…. The important point is that learners (and staff) will come into institutions with an existing identity, they will increasingly expect to use that identity while they are there (particularly in their use of services ‘outside’ the institution) and that they will continue using it after they have left.  As a community, we therefore have to understand what impact that has on our provision of services and the way we support learning and research.

I am therefore reassured that my blueprint outline is not completely off the wall:

University students are at least 18 years old and have spent many years unconsciously accumulating or deliberately developing a digital identity. When people enter university they are expected to accept a new digital identity, one which may rarely acknowledge and easily exploit their preceding experience and productivity. Students are given a new email address, a university ID, expected to submit course work using new, institutionally unique tools and develop a portfolio of work over three to four years which is set apart from their existing portfolio of work and often difficult to fully exploit after graduation. I think this will be increasingly questioned and resisted by individuals paying to study at university.

My proposal is to show there are existing technical solutions which would allow an individual to register as a student at a university, provide the institution with their Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, OpenID, etc. identification and from then on, the student uses their existing ID to authenticate against any university online resource. There’s an example of how this might happen in the JISC Review of OpenID, which describes one of the project aims as the development of

bridging software that will allow OpenIDs from any source to be used as identities within the production UK (SAML) federation.

The University of Kent host a demonstrator of this OpenID-to-Shibboleth bridge.

The other aspect of my blueprint is institutional support of a Personal Learning Environment (PLE). I am suggesting that the WordPress Multi User platform is one technology that could support the characteristics of a PLE, being:1

  • Focus on coordinating connections between the user and services
  • Symmetric relationships
  • Individualized context
  • Open Internet standards and lightweight proprietary APIs
  • Open content and remix culture
  • Personal and global scope

The PLE implementation which I have in mind is not, like the VLE, a monolithic system but rather a platform which aggregates and co-ordinates external user-centric services into a coherent learning environment. It is a parasitic system, feeding off content from existing online services such as blogs, social bookmarking, wikis and social networks, but also a rewarding environment which supports and develops the student’s existing portfolio2 throughout their period of study.

I’ve shown how WordPress can aggregate and archive course activity, how it can enhance the discovery and connectivity of an individual’s and institution’s online profile through the addition of semantic-web-enabling plugins, how it can syndicate filtered content to other internal and external systems (through the use of feed2js, it can also syndicate content to legacy systems like Blackboard, which don’t support embedded web feeds). I’ve also shown that it can support a lightweight social network that integrates with an institution’s LDAP/Active Directory authentication system, and that social network can be OpenID enabled, allowing users to optionally link their OpenID to their WordPress/LDAP account and login via OpenID instead.3

Finally, the institutional and wider benefits to the public can be found when the cumulative data of the platform is itself aggregated into a structured site that enables discovery and re-use of content. An example of this is our Community Posts site, and I have also previously discussed the potential development and exploitation of this resource. Designed and licensed carefully, such a site could provide open educational resources at both user and programmatic levels.

So what empowers the user/student and puts them in control? Data-Portability and Creative Commons licensing?4.

  1. Taken from, Personal Learning Environments: Challenging the dominant design of educational systems. Scott Wilson, Prof. Oleg Liber, Mark Johnson, Phil Beauvoir, Paul Sharples & Colin Milligan, University of Bolton. 2006 []
  2. In many ways, I am thinking of ‘Identity’ and ‘Portfolio’ as being largely synonymous during the student’s period of study. []
  3. I’ve tested this with DiSo’s OpenID plugin, which works in principle, but I suspect that once set up, the OpenID login for the specified account, completely bypasses the LDAP authentication. Surely just a small amount of development would provide tighter integration. Incidentally, a Shibboleth plugin (by the same author of the OpenID plugin) for WordPress also exists. []
  4. Actually, I’m starting to think that CC licensing is little more than an interim step to a better understanding of ‘data’. See ‘You don’t nor need to own your data‘ When knowledge is transmitted online, every aspect of its representation is in a form of data. Both information and instruction become ‘data’ – isn’t it backwards to think of knowledge in terms of something ‘owned’ Do you think of instructional methods as ‘yours’? []

Open Education Project Blueprint

Each participant on the Mozilla Open Education Course, has been asked to develop a project blueprint. Here is the start of mine. It’s basically a ‘Personal Learning Environment’ (PLE)1and I’m going to try to show how WordPress MU is a good technology platform for an institution to easily and effectively support a PLE. I’m going to place an emphasis on ‘identity’ because it’s something I want to learn more about.

Short description

University students are at least 18 years old and have spent many years unconsciously accumulating or deliberately developing a digital identity. When people enter university they are expected to accept a new digital identity, one which may rarely acknowledge and easily exploit their preceding experience and productivity. Students are given a new email address, a university ID, expected to submit course work using new, institutionally unique tools and develop a portfolio of work over three to four years which is set apart from their existing portfolio of work and often difficult to fully exploit after graduation.

I think this will be increasingly questioned and resisted by individuals paying to study at university. Both students and staff will suffer this disconnect caused by institutions not employing available online technologies and standards rapidly enough. There is a legacy of universities expecting and being expected to provide online tools to staff and students. This was useful and necessary several years ago, but it’s now quite possible for individuals in the UK to study, learn and work apart from any institutional technology provision. For example, Google provides many of these tools and will have a longer relationship with the individual than the university is likely to.

Many students and staff are relinquishing institutional technology ties and an indicator of this is the massive % of students who do not use their university email address (96% in one case study). In the UK, universities are keen to accept mature, work-based and part-time students. For these students, university is just a single part of their lives and should not require the development of a digital identity that mainly serves the institution, rather than the individual.

How would it work?

Students identify themselves with their OpenID, which authenticates against a Shibboleth Service Provider.2 They create, publish and syndicate their course work, privately or publicly using the web services of their choice. Students don’t turn in work for assessment, but rather publish their work for assessment under a CC license of their choice.

It’s basically a PLE project blueprint with an emphasis on identity and data-portability. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to get a fully working model to demonstrate by the end of the course, but I will try to show how existing technologies could be stitched together to achieve what I’m aiming for. Of course, the technologies are not really the issue here, the challenge is showing how this might work in an institutional context.

I think it will be possible to show how it’s technically possible using a single platform such as WordPress which has Facebook Connnect, OAuth, OpenID, Shibboleth and RPX plugins. WordPress is also microformat friendly and profile information can be easily exported in the hCard format. hResume would be ideal for developing an academic profile. The Diso project are leading the way in this area.

Similar projects:

UMW Blogs?

Open Technology:

OpenID, OAuth, RPX, Shibboleth, RSS, Atom, Microformats, XMPP, OPML, AtomPub, XML-RPC + WordPress

Open Content / Licensing:

I’ll look at how Creative Commons licensing may be compatible with our staff and student IP policies.

Open Pedagogy

No idea. This is a new area for me. I’m hoping that the Mozilla/CC Open Education course can point me in the right direction for this. Maybe you have some suggestions, too?

  1. See Personal Learning Environments: Challenging the dominant design of educational systems []
  2. See the JISC Review of OpenID. []

Outsourcing email and data storage case studies

The JISC published four case studies on Friday concerned with ‘outsourcing email and data storage’. They are quick reads and straight to the point. Pulling together all the ‘Lessons Learned’, we are told the following:

  • Handle the beta mentality – expect things to change, ask not how you can control change but how will you respond to it.
  • Web 2.0 is as much an attitude as any technical standard.
  • Ensure that your contractual and procurement processes allow for the provision of a free service. They may be designed for a traditional system of tendering with providers bidding to provide the service, and may not cope with a bidding system based on a ‘free’ service.
  • Ensure that students and staff are aware of the reasons behind the change.
  • Who is a student and who is a member of staff? If you have a high proportion of graduates who undertake various jobs and duties for the University, will they need a staff or a student email account, or both?
  • What emails and data do you need to keep private and confidential?
  • Are you aware of the jurisdiction that any external third party servers are under?

Useful observations. For me though, what the reports didn’t address was why each university was providing an email address to students in the first place. Isn’t the issue less about ‘email and data storage’ and more about having a trusted and portable university identity? Providing a GMail or Windows Live hosted account still doesn’t guarantee that the majority of students would use that email address as their primary address (prior to outsourcing at the University of Westminster, “96% of students did not use the University email system”). I’m assuming that the new, third-party managed email addresses are still *.ac.uk accounts – this wasn’t clear to me from the reports. Having a *.ac.uk account is useful, primarily for online identification purposes.

Personally, I think that the benefit of having Google or Microsoft manage a trusted university identity for students, is not the email service itself (yet another address that students wouldn’t necessarily use for messaging), but the additional services that Google provide such as their online office apps, instant messaging, news reader (all accessible from mobiles) and, most importantly, the trusted identity that is used across and beyond those value-added services. Furthermore, as both Google and Microsoft embrace OpenID, that trusted identity will assume even greater ‘value’ beyond their own web services. Email addresses are well established forms of online identity and most people are happy to have that identity managed by a third-party.

I like the URI approach that OpenID currently uses although I think that adoption will be slow if users can’t alternatively use their email address (i.e. johnsmith@gmail.com, rather than http://johnsmith.id.google.com or whatever Google settles on). Some services do allow that option using Email Address to URL Translation, which highlights the value of having an email address, not for the communication of messages but for the communication of one’s identity.

Anyone with any thoughts on this? It’s pretty simple to get a message across these days but harder to manage our online identities.