Protopage and Pageflakes and Netvibes, Oh My

And hey, I now know that’s a snowclone. Good thing all this web education isn’t going to waste!

I am currently comparing Personal Start Pages, but for communicating with others, not just setting up my personal learning environment (though later I’ll do that too, I’m sure). As I play, I have compared these three products. What I want is:

  • the option to make the page public
  • a block where I can post one or several specific videos
  • a block that shows comments and discussion, preferrably right there though it’s OK if it links out to another board
  • a block where I can put in whatever HTML I want
  • no ads
  • customized layout
  • boxes showing RSS feeds and lots of ’em
  • a way to show a web page, like the Program for Online Teaching page
  • and how ’bout my tag cloud?

Turns out all three had no ads, and a way to show a web page. Then they started to differ.

Protopage gave me my own URL for my page, which got me wanting that too!

  • I could share any page using the tabs
  • no YouTube video block specifically, but it let me embed a video with height and width in an HTML block
  • has a comment box right there, but it’s announcing, not interactive
  • I can display and combine feeds with no limit
  • widget resizing and arrangements not problem
  • challenge: the scroll bars get tangled in Firefox on the Mac
  • cool things: it doesn’t make you use the username to log in, just the password (I can never remember my damn usernames), and any user can adjust widget boxes

can do public, private or group pages and allows invited people to edit. It also gave me my own URL for my page.

  • I couldn’t figure out a way to post just one video, and
  • I could find no open HTML “flake” to put code in
  • Message Board right there (in which I got a comment immediately)
  • RSS feeds limited to 25
  • cool things: web page flake can display any web page, and can have flake showing tag cloud

Netvibes was the one I struggled with the most, though I was able to do a lot. No URL, and I can’t show you my page because I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I had to sign in to do anything at all. This one made me feel stupid.

  • No YouTube widget but can use HTML External Widget for videos or HTML
  • can do an HTML note
  • no built in message board, but has phpBB discussion forum monitor, so I could see an external discussion if it were in phpBB
  • it can show the first line of feeds, but has 10 maximum
  • can display any web page

So….I’m still thinking about it.

Snowden on Humanity and Web 2.0

I’ve been listening to the podcast of Dave Snowden’s presentation at the Future of Education 2007 conference (on my new RCA mp3 player), and it’s given me a new perspective on the down side of all this social networking activity. Here’s some of his key points, with my comments.

  • The quality of academic work used to be based on the nature of published papers, but this has now been devalued because scholars work on publishing many small papers in the plethora of new journals, ignoring any kind of depth. They now specialize is small areas, with little or no linking to other fields — few generalists exist, instead we have collections of experts. The explicit detail involved inhibits the birth of new ideas.

    I have recently concluded a research project with lots of sources, and was astonished at the sheer number of journals (a few are listed here) dedicated to online learning. Many of the articles were little studies based on very small research samples, so they contained findings that I thought were of somewhat limited use. Thousands of papers were able to cite thousands of such specialized other papers. I got a real illusory, house-of-cards feeling doing my reading, along with a suspicion that any idiot can get published in this field.

  • Virtual worlds (such as Second Life or multi-user games like World of Warcraft) contain a representation of learning rather than real learning, as they are based on a representation of real life. People spend more time playing with the system (adjusting their avatars) then actually doing innovative work. The communication is fundamentally deficient because it relies only on visual representation and text, while true social interaction relies on all the senses. Research indicates that the brain was designed not to process information, but to process patterns. Scent, touch and peripheral vision are crucial to this patterning.

    This makes me wonder about online learning in general. I began to realize that some of my colleagues’ resistance to teaching online may be a deep understanding that since these elements are lacking in that environment, online teaching and learning are less “real” to them. I’ve seen real learning take place online, of course (I would hardly continue doing this if I hadn’t!) but I now wonder if what I’m doing is creating only representations of college classes.

  • Social computing has good uses and areas of great concern. Blogs increase communication, but also increase the intimacy of communication: they are personal and emotional. As people read each others’ blogs, they form communities of similar people, filtering out others, and use common tags to make communication easier, creating a tribal system. Wikis are useful for creating stockpiles of information, but validation is a serious problem. The initial enthusiasm and freedom of such collections and editing possibilities can give rise to fanaticism and reactionism (such as Conservapedia) and acts of vandalism (spamming). The tyranny of crowds becomes the validating mechanism: if a huge group believes something, however wrong, it is seen to be true. At a small scale, with a small user group, this is not that significant. But as scale increases and we become reliant on the information (as many have with Wikipedia), validation becomes a significant issue.

    I had been thinking that Wikipedia was as good or better as other sources because so many people were involved, and people who really cared did the entries. I still see the possibility for diffusion of bias through participation, total objectivity being impossible. But the persistence of irrational thinking in our society today being encouraged by such sources of “information” is indeed downright frightening to consider. In the past decade, I have witnessed amazing acts of irrationality on the part of our government and the people in this country, that this issue concerns me now more than it used to. When I was younger, I was a great deal more of a cultural relativist than I am now. Perhaps it takes a while for an open, tolerant, educated person to see certain points of view as damaging, or even evil.

  • Issues of cognitive development of users need consideration, since the ages for brain plasticity are between 2-3 years old (language development) and puberty (social inhibition development). The tribal groupings necessary for survival in primitive cultures can be literally short-circuited by lack of appropriate real-life social contact. In a university setting, the rote learning of particular skills is still needed, and self-directed learning is not necessarily appropriate.

    This helps me understand why children and young adults should not spend too much time in the virtual world, and why my few efforts at guiding the learning of those without any background information have been futile. Perhaps the skill is not, as I’ve been thinking, learning how to learn. Is this connected to all the trivial cell phone and twitter communications? Communication is so easy, and yet people have nothing to say. It never occurred to me that such humanist ideas were connected to today’s issues of the web and learning. My thanks to Dave Snowden.

Good Web Docs, Bad Web Docs

My frustration with technology goes hand-in-hand with my enthusiasm for it. Shortly after I was introduced to computers, I found myself wondering why they couldn’t do the things I wanted them to do. With the advent of web-based applications, some of my complaints…um, requests…have been answered. But, as I teach my history students, every improvement in technology has a down side.

I write a lot, and one of my frustrations has been that I can’t have the same document settings exist automatically on multiple machines. I have to customize each installation of a word-processing program. Web-based programs like Zoho and Google Docs now make it possible to work, and work collaboratively, with text documents online. You can upload from any common program, and export back to it for printing or distribution. You can mark changes, made by you or your colleagues, in various colors, and keep all previous versions for reference.

The Good: Documents can be worked on from any computer with an Internet connection, changes are easy to see, all settings are preserved. Instead of carrying around your flash drive, you can work anywhere. If your documents are in one of the larger systems, you can find them with a search. You can work collaboratively instead of emailing versions back and forth.

The Bad: Since they’re on the internet, all documents can be hacked. It’s just not the place for anything private, or that shouldn’t be seen until it’s done (articles of publication, resumes, industrial design plans). You have to be on the internet to get to the document, and if it’s in one of the bigger systems, it can be searched for and stolen, or if it’s published someone else could even claim ownership of it. Some people can’t handle the collaborative aspect, and are afraid to edit other people’s work in an open forum where any stupid suggestions they make can be seen by everyone.

My advice: reserve your use of web apps for text to things that are OK to be seen in public as they evolve, but enjoy the convenience.

What would you like to do?

My big plan (yeah, I have one) is to get folks to recognize that the pedagogy must come before the technology. While technology can inspire us, at its base it is just a set of tools (or toolset, in the current lingo — like Sears Craftsman).

Good classroom teachers moving into an online environment tend to let the available/popular/supported technology dictate what they do. That’s like letting my wrench, screwdriver and tape measure tell me what to build (though that would make a good Disney movie). Isn’t it more natural to look at a piece of wood, determine it needs to be cut in half, then look for the right saw?

I have seen classroom teachers who excel at discussion and interaction give it up when they get online, and instead start loading Word documents into the preset Blackboard categories. What a waste! So many free tools are now available to do these things, and if a Course Management System must be used, these sites can be linked out from inside what one presenter at Ed-Media called “BlackCT”.

So whatcha want to do? Have students work in groups to create posters and present to the whole class? Try Bubbleshare, which lets students upload and edit slide programs, using the Groups feature of the CMS for discussion, or use Skype so the students can talk to each other as a group. Have students annotate visuals? You can use Flickr for that, either uploading the images yourself or having them do it. Have them study urban growth over time? Try Trulia Hindsight. Collaborate on a paper or wiki, or use free applications for planning, meeting or writing? Zoho is good.

More tools are available all the time. It’s about what you want to have happen. Dream first. Then find the socket wrench.


I have attended over a dozen sessions, and overall what I’m getting is that educators and technologists are excited by the opportunities and challenges of using the web to enhance learning experiences at all levels.edmedia.jpgThe opportunities are for collaboration (in small groups and globally), the creation of new knowledge, access to and participation in scholarship, and interactivity. Challenges include the widening of the gap between rich and poor, bad design, uncontrolled and vastly expanding information (much of which has dubious value), marketing interests, and security fears.

Some “take away” notes as I think about the sessions (names linked to conference abstract):

  • Providing specific instructions and a rubric grading elements such as relevance, originality, and writing quality improve online discussion participation quantity and quality. (Karen Swan, Kent State Univ)
  • Using a blog linked inside Blackboard can replace both Announcements and the lousy discussion forums, but is still instructor-controlled. (Raymond Kimball, US Military Academy at West Point)
  • A student project where sound was captured in neighborhoods and then linked to Google maps created high interest but not much analysis among students. (Claudia Engel, Stanford University)
  • We know what works for teaching: authentic tasks, problem-based learning, collaborative construction of knowledge, construction of presentation. What doesn’t work is talking heads, isolated learners and low-level outcomes. (Thomas Reeves, University of Georgia)
  • New online instructors need help with knowing how to adjust instruction, guide and motivate students online, manage their time, choose appropriate technologies, perceive online student personalities, and model the effective use of technology. (Brian Newberry, CSUSB)
  • When assessed on content acquisition, students prefer a standard web page of information to an inquiry-based “conversational agent”. (Bob Heller, Athabasca University)
  • A good first day of class activity is a scavenger hunt in groups for information from the course website. (Teresa Adams, Georgia Perimeter College)
  • E-Portfolios can be created in different kinds of software and used for keeping track of artifacts over a long period, for assessment and retrieval. (Joan Hanor, CSUSM and Jean Haefner, University of Wisconsin)
  • During a collaboration project between American and Danish students, cultural differences caused both learning and challenges. American students tended to base discussion on personal experience, be task-oriented, divide work according to who already knew the topic, and work fewer hours. Danish students based discussion on the assigned materials, focused on process, divided the work according to who needed to learn a topic, and worked more hours. (Ana-Paula Correira, Iowa State University)
  • Language students organized themselves into self-help groups to work on a course, having been provided with an audioconferencing tool. (John Pettit, Open University)
  • Second Life is not the only virtual world, but it has a huge group of educational participants. (Patricia McGee, University of Texas; Colleen Carmean, Arizona State University; Ulrich Rauch, University of British Columbia; Cyprien Lomas, The University of British Columbia)
  • Course Management Systems (now called Learning Management Systems) are cumbersome and problematic, especially when it comes to usability and transportability of content for both instructors and learners. What’s needed is smarter systems, ways to share materials, better integration, and pedagogical scaffolding (including ways to do remediation). Students still can’t create anything inside an LMS. (Patricia McGee, University of Texas, and Colleen Carmean, Arizona State University)

Upon arrival

edmedia.jpg I have arrived at the Ed-Media conference, but I was still listening to Future of Education podcasts on the plane and it occurred to me that this is a very big field. Even prior to this huge conference, I have attended sessions, read blogs, written posts and listened to podcasts on subjects as diverse as college education, web 2.0, learning management systems, student habits, and technical administration. And really, I am just a college history instructor who loves teaching online. The blogs I read are written by a wide variety of people, as wide an assortment as those I will access at this conference. And each seems to have a different focus:

  • Instructional designers ask: how can we do this? what can we build?
  • Practicing teachers ask: how should we do this to enable learning?
  • Educational entrepreneurs ask: how can I make money off my ideas?
  • Educational adminstrators ask: how much will this cost and how easily is it implemented?
  • Scholars and doctoral students ask: what does the research show? how can I make a career in this field?
  • Innovators ask: what would be both cool and really useful?
  • Instructional leaders ask: how can this help teachers help students?

Can all these different perspectives add up to new knowledge? Some of these approaches rely on formal learning, and some do not. Some depend on professional connections or publication. The Ed-Media abstracts number in the hundreds, yet there appears to be no blog, wiki or social forums associated with the conference, unlike the two I’ve just attended, and I’ve gotten to the point where I find this odd. We shall see….

Two Conferences

I am currently attending the @ONE 2007 Online Teaching Conference, being partly webcast from Ohlone College in Fremont, CA. I was quite reassured to hear David Balch’s presentation “A View from the Trenches“, especially when he talked about his answer to faculty concerns about student identity (“how do I know the online student is the person enrolled in the course?”). His answer was the same as mine: unless we check ID, we also don’t know whether the student who walks into our class is the same one on our rosters. Other heartening elements included the new focus on interactivity and recent surveys that show that faculty resistance to online instruction is fading.

The Future of Education 2007 conference (University of Manitoba) just ended (I am still catching up on the recordings). I was fascinated by Dave Cormier‘s presentation and the reaction to it. He presented on “Snowclones, Clichés and Memes”. . . sort of. There were presentation difficulties, since the technology he was using went down during the presentation, which focused on using online community to create learning, with the attendees acting as the students. A lot of attendees were trying to understand the topic itself, which related to the use of language. Cormier used a Pageflakes site, and showed the potential of such a feed aggregator for creating online learning communities.

Also wonderful was Brian Lamb‘s “DIY: Educators Gone Wild” presentation on mashups, Open, Connected, and Social, which made me feel better about mixing up all that pure educational content.

What I always find wonderful about these conferences, in addition to the friendly and helpful colleagues, is the chance to see what pieces of technology are being used by people who actually know what they’re doing! The Future of Education conference was so professional: synchronous and recorded sessions with Elluminate, Camtasia recordings, Moodle website with discussion forums, Pageflakes site, and podcasts so I can listen now that it’s over. And thanks to the presenters and organizers, I’ll look more carefully at Pageflakes (aggregator), SurveyMonkey (for surveys), Drupal (another CMS) and MediaWiki .

I also learn what I don’t like: at the @ONE conference, they used CCCConfer, which has the bother of audio over the telephone instead of through the computer speakers (I have a dial phone and thus a crick in my neck from today’s presentation). In Firefox, I had trouble getting the webcast to work even though I had the plug-in (WindowsMedia, naturally) installed. I had to reinstall it and use Safari instead to see the video, which was of excellent quality. The people at CVC are fabulous, though, and I was delighted to see people I knew, like Andrea Henne of SDCCD, and meet new folks just starting out in teaching online. One excellent presentation by Patricia Delich focused on tips for developing ones first online class. Good resources she provided included an assessment of technology skills for instructors, 10 activities before starting development [pdf], and a good online course rubric for both design and evaluation purposes.

I confess, however, I am suffering from Web 2.0 conference burn-out. Which is too bad, since I’m off to ED-Media in two weeks!