Fighting on the Internet – is there anything we can do?

When all is said and done, some debates will be acrimonious regardless of the medium in which they are conducted. What asynchronous public discussion boards or forums are liable to do is vastly aggravate any tendencies in this direction. And of course, some people find fighting on the Internet very life-affirming. This is fine if they can hook up with other recreational belligerents, but otherwise they take some handling.

One way or another people who attempt to carry out asynchronous textual debates online are prone to dish out and/or experience angry and insulting messages. Even if you’re careful yourself, your readers can explode in response. It’s not surprising really – the social cues of tone, expression, stance etc are missing and the medium encourages rapid unpolished responses. Moreover in these democratised times, everybody is encouraged to consider their contribution valid and deserving of a platform, so it’s not as if the right to respond is restricted only to accomplished writers and thinkers.

So be it – is there anything we can do? Well, effective as this may be:

we’re not going to stop having these debates at a distance. Assuming you are not in fact attempting to provoke your correspondent, one way to avoid web rage is to give ample benefit of the doubt, take pains with language, and argumentation, and slow down. Unless you do this, people will take you for a thug or an e-social inept.

There are also some technical ways to replace social cues. MyChingo is an audio comment tool which at least injects some tone and non-verbal emotion into the words. Video comments like Seesmic give you the whole shabang minus the pheromones (and maybe that’s to everybody’s advantage).

Thing is, I’d say all discussion board conversation have some educational function – this is why they’re both public and available in posterity. People are supposed to be able to encounter that debate once it’s gone cold and actually be able to follow the thought processes of the participants.

If you value this, then text becomes not just a default due to a lack of anything better – it becomes important because of its unique texty properties: you can read it at your own pace; you can scan it rapidly for keywords or gist; and you can copy and paste it. Audio comments aren’t at all self-paced and relying on them exclusively would box up and hide all the contributions, making it impossible to scan the conversation as a whole or follow a particular dialogue within it.

So I’d argue that all multimedia comments require a textual form in addition. In fact I’d say that the transcript should take centre-stage, with the video available as a supplement, and the comments should be viewable in different ways, including threaded and flat (i.e. by scrolling).

Starting to sound a little less spontaneous now? Well, why not – maybe spontaneity is dispensible on comments boards.

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Shock of the Old 2008

I’m at Shock of the Old 2008 at Oxford. The wine reception ended at 7.00 (the buffet: marinated, grilled courgette, pepper and mushroom, salted black olives, marinated green olives, smoked tofu (praise be!), breads, leaves, cherry tomatoes, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lots of caper berries, two types of melon, strawberries and grapes – and animal, fish and shredded sea creatures). Peaked somewhat early (5-7 is a strange time for a wine reception, very welcome though it was) so instead of going to the pub I walked in University Park at dusk. When the gates shut I wasn’t ready to stop so wandered in the direction of the interesting stuff. It was very quiet but as I rounded Radcliff Camera I could hear music coming from a half open window in All Souls and I had the sense of future politicians and celebrity bloggers sequestered in study bedrooms reading Hobbes and filling ashtrays.

I write this from my room for the night in Keble College. S booked it and though it carries the feral odour of teenage boys, it’s very atmospheric. My curtains are open and beyond them is the quad. Keble is Victorian gothic, a bit like a toned-down Natural History Museum, but it has a workhouse atmosphere for some reason. Apart from the entrances, I can’t see another light. I’m afraid. Next to me is a cup of weak black PG and the unshaded desk lamp is throwing my shadow onto the magnolia gloss on behind me. The furniture is dark stained wood and the carpet, which clashes with the bedspread, is covered in a fine mesh of human hair. I have no idea how much it costs. I slightly wish I was in the Youth Hostel.

This conference is good as always. I enjoyed Ron Barnett talking about the will to learn, after a pretty condescending beginning revealing a considerable ignorance about the development of the debate about learning technologies. Once he got onto his own material, he was illuminating. Fred ‘runaway train’ Garnett put forward a distinction between pedagogy (the cognitive), andragogy (the metacognitive) and heutagogy (the – this was the buzzword of the day and probably the coming year, I have no idea what they’ve all been reading – epistemic). Then after these insights, arrived at some very pedestrian conclusions about institutions and it turned out that the meat of his work was this definition. Or maybe I missed something – everybody agreed that he had gone too fast.

Niall Sclater did a Virtual Learning Environment fightback to counteract the creeping influence of the Personal Learning Environment movement. I thought he made a good case. In the morning it looked as if there would be a stand-off between the Personalisers and the Formalisers but this dissipated by lunchtime. There was a question about Open ID as a facility which would allow both students and tutors to work in third party systems of their choice beyond the VLE but to pull data from those (unaccountable) third party systems onto institutional systems such as the VLE. He gave the question short shrift which I thought was a shame because OID does indeed have huge potential as a bridge between Personalisers and Formalisers, I think.

Annamaria Carusi was very interesting talking about e-Research – although quantitative research is so privileged that I’d have a job persuading my institution to avail itself or do the imaginative work required to form it to our needs. I liked her idea of e-research and researchers co-shaping each other in an epistemic culture of transparency and the commitment to shared ways of showing things. ‘Epistemic’ is a word which sounds sincere and meaningful when Annamaria says it, but slightly affected when anybody else does. I’ve undertaken never to use it. I think it goes for technology too, though. Technology and technology users shape each other in an epixxxmic culture. To my enduring frustration hardly anybody seems to want to admit that. Barnett seems to think that we can approach the technology with a set of criteria for evaluating it, and does not acknowledge that the technology may – should? – suggest any other criteria. Somebody in asking a question made the throwaway remark that technology hadn’t really changed anything much. He was making the point that we are still eating, sleeping, killing, playing, making love, raising our kids and ultimately dying. Of course we are but anybody who says that nothing has changed reveals huge ignorance, and devaluation of individual life courses. Think of: the role of women in – particularly – advanced industrialised societies; the Holocaust; napalm, anthrax, radiation and all the other ways to conduct a mass murder; our lifespan and the influence of the type of experience which comes with great age; the impact of anthropogenic carbon emissions; the promise and threat of genetically-modified life, the enclavisation of wild spaces; financial systems; the effects of material security on our ability and will to explore; the waning of religion; broadcasting and the sheer speed of news and response. I don’t know what he thinks change looks like, if not these things. Maybe he’s after something that he couldn’t even begin to imagine in advance. Well, you transport a mid-Victorian stevedore (they’d seen everything) to a traffic island in Docklands. Then take them home and put them in front of the telly and the Internet for a week. At the end of the week, ask them if things are different and see what they say. The only thing they’ll recognise is Jeremy Paxman.

The Warwick Blogs bloke talked about Warwick University’s experience with Web 2.0. He had devised a way to evaluate Web 2.0 tools according to its educational potential. It was a simple case of mapping software facilities to educational activity (this is ‘affordances’, right?), and he had opted for a binary record of presence/absence. It was fine, as far as it went (and that’s significantly further than most people have gone). Some interesting stuff about tagging came up. He thinks that 18,818 separate tags is too many, that there should be more coordination. I don’t, necessarily.

Record-keeping was last. I love listening to these health and safety type people – they have a particular gallows humour which probably goes hand in hand with a lifetime spent imagining worst-case scenarios and coming to terms with the futility of avoiding them. As XX O’Connor said, for many of us right now, Google is the only thing standing between us and a determined hacker or government agency. I did a straw poll – nobody I spoke with was inclined, as a consequence, to become more politically active for data ownership and data eradication and against totalitarianism.

Then there was a panel session which included Sugata Mitra who was not playing the panel discussion game (he gets his own slot tomorrow) and talked at length about the Hole in the Wall project where impoverished Indian children were given access to a computer with Internet access embedded into a wall in their neighbourhood, but no instructions about how to use it. The findings were very interesting indeed. They used the Internet, but they developed their own jargon. They managed to do pretty much everything they wanted to do, without any help except from each other. Using Google improved their English too.

Tomorrow is ‘Beyond digital natives’. Several people appeared to get the wrong end of this concept’s stick today. For example who was it who rose to his feet and began his question with “I’m a digital native…” as the spotlights glimmered on his silvery hair? Surely he meant that he was around when digital technology was born, not the other way round… The digital native / digital immigrant thing is, naturally, problematic.

On that note I shall retire to my spongey bed.

Blackboard Inc rides roughshod over the desire to learn in Texas (‘the junk patent state’)

In my opinion, software is ideas, not stuff. It’s freely reproducable and benefits from many eyes looking at the source code and many contributors. That’s why it’s recommended that UK Higher Education use Open Source software wherever possible. And that’s why I object to software patents and want licensing to remain the copyright issue it currently is.

In 2006 Blackboard Inc had the sheer (indulge me) anti-education sociopathic wickedness to patent the idea of a VLE. The day after they won the patent, they went after diminutive commercial Canadian elearning company Desire2Learn for patent infringement and easily won. I don’t use Blackboard – I use an Open Source VLE, Moodle, and interpret Blackboard’s litigiousness as an act of war.

This piece attempts to answer the following questions:

  • What’s the state of software patent law?
  • What is the nature of Blackboard’s patent?
  • Why is it a bad patent?
  • What is the HE e-learning community’s response?
  • What can we do?

Software patent law

What’s the future of patent law? The US has been insisting on harmonisation since around 1994 when it threatened to walk out of WTO talks, giving rise to TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights). The relevant part of TRIPS here is Article 27, paragraph 1:

“(…) patents shall be available for any inventions, whether products or processes, in all fields of technology, provided that they are new, involve an inventive step and are capable of industrial application. (…) patents shall be available and patent rights enjoyable without discrimination as to the place of invention, the field of technology and whether products are imported or locally produced.”

In the EU moves to relax the laws (i.e. changing the law to allow Blackboard-type patents) have been thrown out in 2003 and 2005. Paul Harnack, the Controller General of the UK Patenting Office is quoted as saying:

“Some have argued that the TRIPS agreement requires us to grant patents for software because it says “patents shall be available for any inventions (…) in all field of technology, provided they are (…) capable of industrial application”. However, it depends on how you interpret these words. Is a piece of pure software an invention? European law says it isn’t. Is pure software technology? Many would say no. Is it capable of “industrial” application? Again, for much software many would say no. TRIPS is an argument for wider protection for software. But the decision to do so should be based on sound economic reasons. Would it be in the interests of European industry, and European consumers, to take this step?”

This will come up again in the EU soon.

What is the nature of Blackboard’s patent?

Indeed. Here is the idea Blackboard unfeasibly has patented (the claim is reproduced in full – items 1-44 – to demonstrate the audacity of its scope):

1. A course-based system for providing to an educational community of users access to a plurality of online courses, comprising: a) a plurality of user computers, with each user computer being associated with a user of the system and with each user being capable of having predefined characteristics indicative of multiple predetermined roles in the system, each role providing a level of access to a plurality of data files associated with a particular course and a level of control over the data files associated with the course with the multiple predetermined user roles comprising at least two user’s predetermined roles selected from the group consisting of a student role in one or more course associated with a student user, an instructor role in one or more courses associated with an instructor user and an administrator role associated with an administrator user, and b) a server computer in communication with each of the user computers over a network, the server computer comprising: means for storing a plurality of data files associated with a course, means for assigning a level of access to and control of each data file based on a user of the system’s predetermined role in a course; means for determining whether access to a data file associated with the course is authorized; means for allowing access to and control of the data file associated with the course if authorization is granted based on the access level of the user of the system.

2. The system of claim 1 wherein the instructor user is provided with an access level to enable the creation and editing of a plurality of files associated with a course.

3. The system of claim 2 wherein the course files comprise an announcement file.

4. The system of claim 2 wherein the course files comprise a course information file.

5. The system of claim 2 wherein the course files comprise a staff information file posted to all registered in the course.

6. The system of claim 2 wherein the course files comprise a course document file posted to all registered in the course.

7. The system of claim 2 wherein the course files comprise an assignments file posted to all registered in the course.

8. The system of claim 2 wherein the course files comprise a dropbox file.

9. The system of claim 2 wherein the course files comprise an asynchronous communication file.

10. The system of claim 2 wherein the course files comprise a synchronous communication file.

11. The system of claim 2 wherein the student user is provided with an access level to enable reading of a plurality of files associated with a course.

12. The system of claim 11 wherein the student user is provided with an access level to enable modification of a subset of the plurality of files associated with a course.

13. The system of claim 11 wherein the user is provided with an access level to enable creation of a student file associated with a file for which the student user is able to read.

14. The system of claim 13 in which the file that the student is able to read is an assessment file created by the instructor user, and the student file created by the student user is a response to the assessment file.

15. The system of claim 14 wherein the assessment file comprises a plurality of examination questions selected by the instructor user to assess the ability of the student user.

16. The system of claim 15 wherein the examination questions are selected by the instructor user from a predetermined pool of available examination questions.

17. The system of claim 15 wherein the examination questions are created by the instructor user substantially at the time of the creation of the assessment file.

18. The system of claim 15 wherein the student file is reviewed by the instructor user and assigned a grade.

19. The system of claim 18 wherein the grade is made available to the student user.

20. The system of claim 18 wherein the instructor user collates a plurality of grades obtained from reviewing a plurality of student files, and wherein the collated grades are made available to all student users associated with the course.

21. The system of claim 13 in which the file that the student is able to read is an assignment file created by the instructor user, and the student file created by the student user is a response to the assignment file.

22. The system of claim 8 wherein the dropbox file comprises a plurality of files transferred to the server computer from one or more student users associated with the course.

23. The system of claim 22 wherein the instructor user is provided with access to the files in the dropbox file, whereby the instructor user may download, edit and upload the files in the dropbox.

24. The system of claim 1 wherein a user is required to enter a login sequence into a user computer in order to be provided with access to course files associated with that user.

25. The system of claim 24 wherein the user is provided with access to all courses with which the user is associated after entry of the logon sequence.

26. The system of claim 25 wherein the user is provided with a web page comprising a plurality of course hyperlinks, each of said course hyperlinks associated with each course that the user has enrolled in.

27. The system of claim 26 wherein selection of a course hyperlink will provide the user with a web page associated with the selected course, the web page comprising a plurality of content hyperlinks to various content areas associated with the course.

28. The system of claim 27 wherein said content hyperlinks comprise an announcement area hyperlink, a course information hyperlink, a staff information hyperlink, a course documents hyperlink, an assignments hyperlink, a communications hyperlink, and a student tools hyperlink.

29. The system of claim 28 wherein selection of the announcement area hyperlink provides a web page comprising a group of course announcements.

30. The system of claim 28 wherein selection of the course information hyperlink provides a web page comprising information regarding the associated course.

31. The system of claim 28 wherein selection of the staff information hyperlink provides a web page comprising data regarding the instructors of the associated course.

32. The system of claim 28 wherein selection of the course documents hyperlink provides a web page comprising a listing of documents associated with the course.

33. The system of claim 32 wherein the listing of course documents comprise active hyperlinks to the documents.

34. The system of claim 28 wherein selection of the assignments hyperlink provides a web page comprising a group of course assignments.

35. The system of claim 28 wherein selection of the communications hyperlink provides a web page comprising hyperlinks to a group of communication tools comprising an asynchronous communication tool and a synchronous communication tool.

36. An method for providing online education method for a community of users in a network based system comprising the steps of: a. establishing that each user is capable of having redefined characteristics indicative of multiple predetermined roles in the system and each role providing a level of access to and control of a plurality of course files; b. establishing a course to be offered online, comprising i. generating a set of course files for use with teaching a course; ii. transferring the course files to a server computer for storage; and iii. allowing access to and control of the course files according to the established roles for the users according to step (a); c. providing a predetermined level of access and control over the network to the course files to users with an established role as a student user enrolled in the course; and d. providing a predetermined level of access and control over the network to the course files to users with an established role other than a student user enrolled in the course.

37. The method of claim 36 wherein at least one of the course files comprises a course assignment, further comprising the steps of: e) the student user creating a student file in response to the course assignment; and f) the student user transferring the student file to the server computer.

38. The method of claim 37 further comprising the steps of: g) the instructor user accessing the student file from the server computer; h) the instructor user reviewing the student file to determine compliance with the course assignment; and i) the instructor user assigning a grade to the student file as a function of the determination of compliance with the course assignment.

39. The method of claim 38 further comprising the step of the instructor user posting the grade to a file on the server computer accessible only to the student user with which the grade is associated.

40. The method of claim 38 further comprising the steps of the instructor repeating the steps (g), (h), and (i) for a plurality of student users that are enrolled in the course.

41. The method of claim 40 further comprising the step of the instructor user performing a statistical analysis on the grades assigned to the plurality of student users.

42. The method of claim 41 further comprising the step of making results of the statistical analysis available to the student users enrolled in the course.

43. The method of claim 36 further comprising the step of providing an asynchronous communication tool accessible to student users enrolled in the course for enabling asynchronous communication amongst the student users.

44. The method of claim 36 further comprising the step of providing a synchronous communication tool accessible to student users enrolled in the course for enabling synchronous communication amongst the student users.

The entity Blackboard Inc managed to patent walks like a VLE and quacks like a VLE…

Why it’s a bad patent, and the HE e-learning community’s respons

Alfred Essa (Associate Vice Chancellor and Deputy Chief Information Officer of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system) considers the patent:

Old-style conquistadors used to lay claim to land on behalf of the monarch by looking yonder and chanting some such phrase: “We claim this land in the name of God and our Savior by killing everyone who already lives here. By this land we mean all the land as far as the eye can behold and way beyond also for good measure.” These days modern-day conquistadors lay claim to “intellectual property” by going to the Patent Office and chanting the modern version of the mantra: “We claim this intellectual property in the name of Innovation and our Shareholders by killing anyone who dares use that Idea for the next twenty years.” In order to qualify as a patent the idea, at least in theory, must be “non obvious” to a skilled practitioner and there must be no “prior art” (i.e. there is no record of someone else beating you to that idea).

Indeed, read Alfred Essa’s anatomy of a bogus patent including some scenarios in which Blackboard could claim patent infringement, including:

A company builds a multi-purpose Physics Simulation that also incorporates Blogs, Wikis, and RSS feeds to foster teamwork and group projects. A graduate teaching assistant (TA) has an account in the system. The teaching assistant has the ability to modify aspects of the simulation for Electricity & Magnetism, including setting up a course Wiki. The same TA, however, does not have the ability to modify any aspect for General Relativity since she is a student for that course. Blackboard can claim that this Physics simulation system infringes their patent because it’s a “network based system” which uses as a method “multiple predetermined roles”.

Another major problem with this patent is that it’s gobsmackingly parasitical. As Brian Hawkins of Educause pointed out in an open letter at the time, Blackboard has relied on ideas which have evolved and been freely exchanged in the whole e-learning community. They are not Blackboard’s ideas, and in 2006 they were well-established (there’s plenty of prior art) and hardly constituted a leap of the imagination:

There are two core tenets behind the community concern. One deals with co-creation and ownership; the other deals with innovation. Course management systems were developed by the higher education community, which includes academics, organizations, and corporations. Ideas were freely exchanged, prototypes developed, and refinements continue to be made. The new EDUCAUSE Catalyst Award, given to course management systems this year, celebrates that course management systems “were conceived and developed among faculty in pockets of innovation throughout the world. They originated simultaneously at a number of institutions,” as stated in the award announcement. One of the reasons course management systems were singled out for this award is because of the “fluid movement of ideas and initiatives between academia and the commercial sector as individual limited-use efforts evolved into enterprise-wide systems.” Our community has participated in the creation of course management systems. A claim that implies this community creation can be patented by one organization is anathema to our culture.

The other core tenet is to promote innovation. The free exchange of ideas fosters innovation. The open sharing of ideas does not preclude commercialization or profiting from ideas. Innovation is critical to the higher education community and it is critical to corporations. Blackboard has espoused the importance of listening to customers as its source of innovation. This law suit will certainly have a chilling effect on the open sharing of ideas in our community.

We believe that Blackboard should disclaim the rights established under your recently-awarded patent, placing the patent in the public domain and withdrawing the claim of infringement against Desire2Learn. We believe this action would be in the best business interests of Blackboard and in the best interests of higher education. We do not make this request lightly or underestimate the courage it will take to implement. However, we believe it is the right action for your corporation and our community.

Nevertheless, Blackboard has sued Desire2Learn for $3.1m. What next for those of us using Open Sources VLEs like Moodle, Sakai and Bodington? Well, Blackboard has condescended to make a public pledge not to go after Open Source projects:

Specifically, the Pledge commits Blackboard not to assert U.S. Patent No. 6,988,138 and many other pending patent applications against the development, use or distribution of open source software or home-grown course management systems anywhere in the world, to the extent that such systems are not bundled with proprietary software.

As part of the Pledge, Blackboard promises never to pursue patent actions against anyone using such systems including professors contributing to open source projects, open source initiatives, commercially developed open source add-on applications to proprietary products and vendors hosting and supporting open source applications. Blackboard is also extending its pledge to many specifically identified open source initiatives within the course management system space whether or not they may include proprietary elements within their applications, such as Sakai, Moodle, ATutor, Elgg and Bodington.

Commitments to limit potential patent protection are uncommon, particularly for enterprise software companies. The Patent Pledge — in terms of its sweeping scope, strong commitment and public nature — is unprecedented for a product company such as Blackboard.

But who’s convinced? Not many people – the achilles heel of this pledge is the “bundled with commercial software” part, as explained by Lev Gonick in an interview for Inside Higher Ed:

Lev Gonick, vice president and chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University, wrote on his blog Thursday that Blackboard’s pledge wouldn’t mean much over the long term because of the way technology is changing. “In a narrow sense, the threat of a frivolous lawsuit to keep lawyers employed has been avoided regarding the stand alone platform issue,” he wrote.

But he predicted that “over the next five years we are likely to see significant tension associated with this pledge” because “the history of community-based and open source initiatives is anything but a binary choice between open and proprietary systems. As so-called open source initiatives evolve over time they will continue to have proprietary pieces in their DNA and perhaps more importantly, there is a near 100 percent certainty that none of today’s open source course management systems will survive in the marketplace as autonomous offerings.”

He continued: “Whether in reaction to Blackboard’s position in the market (a defensive posture) or in attempt to preempt, there is a a significant likelihood that today’s open source solutions will evolve, over the mid-term, first as ‘open source’ course management platform strategic partners with proprietary enterprise integrated software solution providers and within a version release or two become tightly integrated into the proprietary software code. How Blackboard and the higher education community respond to that probable scenario is not a matter of if but rather when….

“Blackboard should take one more look in the mirror and realize that it is not its patents that will protect its near monopoly share of commercial course management software (full disclosure Case Western Reserve University is an enterprise customer of Blackboard) but rather its ability to demonstrate a true commitment to innovation and responsiveness to the higher education marketplace. Today’s Blackboard announcement is a short term ‘fix’ on an unfortunate journey that starts with the anti-intellectual position of seeking a ‘patent’ on a 21st century version of a ‘whiteboard and a marker’ in the 20th century or dare we say a 19th version of a ‘blackboard and chalk.’ “

Sounds like sense to me.

What can we do?

Carry on collecting and documenting prior art. Stay informed and prepared to explain the ways in which Blackboard’s acts are against education and favour only its own shareholders. Try to avoid using Blackboard. Have a look at the Software Freedom Law Centre which supports Free (i.e. Open Source) Software – more on their philosophy in this substantial ZDNet interview.

To get up to speed on Blackboard’s antics see Alfred Essa for background and Seb Schmoller for recent developments around the Texas ruling – both these blogs are good sources for keeping up with this in general.

I realise what I haven’t done here is adequately discuss the merits and drawbacks of software patenting. The idea behind them is that they foster innovation. To debunk this, look at the Free Software Foundation and its End Software Patents campaign (including 2008 Report on the State of Softpatents).

Hat tip: Stephen Downes.

Flesh meets an iRex

This is a long and somewhat involved piece about my new iRex. Despite the frustrations described below, I’m very pleased with it. In fact I was so comfortably engrossed in David Hirsh’s Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections that I got on a Loughton train and only realised at Woodford. And it didn’t even matter because I can now read in gloves in high wind.

I took it down the Pole to show off which was dangerous because D, K, A, B and V were tanking tequila on account of it being Christmas. It took a few swipes but we survived. Sysadmin loves it – she now has me down as a pioneer with money to burn. Veg (if you are up to reading this after all you’ve been through in the past days) knowing how you feel about eInk you’d be really excited about this.

But does it go? For £435 it is absolutely imperative to make it do my bidding.

Preliminaries

  1. Created an account at iRex (https://myirex.irexnet.com) for downloading upgrades etc – important to make sure the email address and password on iRex and the device match.
  2. Downloaded the Companion Software (for more advanced stuff like annotating PDFs, merging the annotations etc) to my laptop. It’s only for XP (they need to sort that out). There’s PDFCreator too if you need it – the optimisation instructions relate to PDFCreator so if you need those it would probably be a good idea to install it.
  3. Downloaded the manuals for the iRex and the Companion Software to have open on the laptop while tinkering with the iRex – although this turned out to have been unnecessary because
  4. I should also have immediately upgraded the software – see below.

iLiad Settings

I could only find 6 pages of iLiad Settings when there were supposed to be 10 (according to the screenshot in the manual) and consequently I didn’t have an option to calibrate my stylus or configure Start-up Settings or try to get the device and laptop synchronise instead of (as currently) the device overwriting the contents of the laptop’s iRex folder.

It took me some time to twig that I had to make an iDS (iRex Delivery Service) connection which would then upgrade the software. This should be prominently signalled rather than lurking in Chapter 14 of the manual.

But I eventually did work it out, though not before leaving a ticket at iRex which wasn’t answered (it’s the Friday before Christmas) and couldn’t be cancelled.

First make an iDS connection and upgrade the software

So once I realised I had to do this it involved making an initial iDS connection. I groped my way through setting up a wireless connection in the Device Manager, and then followed the instructions to connect to iDS for the upgrade. They want you to plug into the power supply because if the connection is broken before the software is downloaded and installed then you have an unusable iRex on your hands.

Then long-clicked the Connect button top right and managed to get a wireless iDS connection and the download/upgrade went pretty smoothly after that.

The iRex then initiated another iDS connection to get some more documentation, but the network connection broke before it finished downloading something or other. Had to restart the router and then became enmeshed in trying to delete network profiles which weren’t connecting but not being able to because it said ‘click’ OK, and all I could see to do was hit OK with the stylus and that didn’t do anything… Oh, you know.

Companion Software – merging scribbles

I annotated a PDF with the stylus and Pen tool and merged my scribbles using the free Companion Software.

  • Merging happens as a separate act from backing-up. Scribbles and docs are merged to a new pdf and the entire collection of files goes in an automatically generated folder on the laptop. The jots remain on the iRex version and any new ones are written to the merged pdf with each successive merge.
  • Remember to close down any open documents in the folder you’re working in or the merge won’t work and you might not realise why because the error messages aren’t helpful
  • If you want handwriting recognition on your merged scribbles (i.e. make them searchable) you can pay for more software.

Some of the options on the Companion Software, including Disconnect, are ghosted out. Plus the Companion Software doesn’t launch on connection – when I open it it flashes up and then disappears to the System Tray, I can go and fish it out but can’t immediately find the settings to make it foreground automatically.

Mobipocket

Mobipocket is a free install for downloading ebooks and grabbing news feeds. You can even set up the iRex to wake itself up at a given time and download news each day. The format isn’t so pretty (Harry’s Place comments and posts mingled with each other nightmarishly, but the Guardian Technology feed wasn’t too bad) but there it is.

Also downloaded a sample of Wolves of the Crescent Moon (banned in Saudi) – which consisted of reviews and author information.

All very straightforward – except I couldn’t eject the iRex, kept saying “device busy”.

Expansion cards and drives

It will take a USB drive, MMC, CF cards and, unofficially, SD cards no bigger than 1Gb. Once plugged into the laptop, it behaves like another drive, and will carry – though not read – any type of data.

User experience

Getting html, text and PDFs over is fine – I’ve been using USB. PDF format brings out the best in the iRex (handles layout faithfully, you can zoom in and out on images, and it’s the only format in which you can annotate).

The How to Make Content manual gives tips about making optimised PDFs in terms of margins, paper-size of 124x152mm, a reference for how different fonts and sizes appear on the screen etc. But so far PDFs beyond my control have resized fine and you can shave off the whitespace and reorientate to landscape if there’s a problem.

It’s comfortable to read. It’s clear, matt, black against pale-grey and there’s no backlight.

It came with a shoulder bag but in search of a more book-like experience I got a protective case for it – like for a filofax in firey pink. It and has holes cut out for every button and display – except the stylus. You have to dig around for the stylus, or try to nudge the iRex out of the case, which is hard because it’s a tight fit.

What I like though is that with 14 hours of life I’t’s not necessary to switch off – I just shut the case and open it up again when I’m ready at precisely the right spot. Like a book. You have to fold the case back on itself to use the long vertical Flipbar to turn pages, though. Not really a problem.

It’s very comfortable. And I have several 100+ page docs on there already. I’ve got a read_me tag on Diigo I can work my way through.

Stuff that could be better

I want to connect to a computer with mini-USB, not a weird ‘travel hub’.

Since downloading the upgrade I can’t seem to get a network connection – wired or wireless.

This is a big one – I can’t search for keywords in individual documents. Why?

It’s a teeny bit slower than I’d like.

If I lose the stylus there’s a lot I can’t do.

And that’s all for now.

eReader, hyperventilating with guilt – so much £, oh well…

I think I’m going to spend a significant amount of money on something I first saw on the District Line last month – an iRex iLiad Reader (second edition).

It has an electrophoretic display (eInk, tiny dyed particles which collect or recede according to an electrical charge) which doesn’t refresh or require backlighting and consequently allows a claimed 14-hour battery life. It’s roughly the same dimensions and weight as a book and for me this is a big draw – I don’t like reading from regular laptop screens because of glare, ergonomics, and the matter of having something heavy in my shoulder bag as I roam round London. I find my various other devices uncomfortable for reading as well.

It supports PDF, XHTML, TXT and MP3 – at the moment that means journal articles, out-of-copyright ebooks from e.g. Project Gutenberg, podcasts, subscription services via the iRex site and a growing number of copyright ebooks too. This will suit me fine. Mostly I’m PDFs and HTML.

It has a stylus and handwriting recognition – you can use it to generally take notes and you can annotate the texts and integrate the annotations. I take things in best if I do the ‘dialogue with the text’ thing and scrawl all over it.

OK, you can’t do much else with it except read, write and draw – apart from Libresco’s subscription service (newspapers etc) there’s nothing interesting to do with the Internet connection, no animation, no colour – although there is sound and it functions as a hard drive for moving stuff around. This is more than fine by me – I usually carry at least one book and several papers with me at any one time, I have to carry the books in an old cardboard Amazon pack so they don’t get dog-eared – more weight – I take notes on paper because I draw, and then find myself separated from old pads when I need them. Now I’ll have everything on cards.

I feel extremely guilty of extravagance. But I read a lot which, besides being good in itself, reclaims the time London always tries to steal. Reading makes perfect sense of my commute. And now I can read on platforms with my gloves on. And I’m saving the trees. Besides, I am such a Cinderella of learning technology, always trailing edge – I want to be glamorous around campus and become known as an inspiring technological trailblazer.

So what the hell.

There are reviews – an early overview from Sandra Vogel, a more technical assessment from Ego Food,and a fuller more recent Sandra Vogel review. The bloke who let me play with it on the train really liked it and his enthusiasm was infectious – I’ve been thinking about it ever since. So when I came into a bit of extra £ I thought about it some more, and it didn’t seem any less appealing, nor did my purse-strings constrict. I want it – I will have it, why not?

OK, I went and bought it from Libresco, which says it’s iRex’s official distributor, the bloke was really helpful and I’ll tell you tomorrow whether I have it.

The first thing I’m going to put on it will be David Hirsh’s Anti-Zionism and antisemitism: cosmopolitan reflections. The second will be That’s funny, you don’t look antisemitic by Steve Cohen. Then the most recent issue of Democratiya, and probably all the previous ones too. I’ll probably stick the Euston Manifesto conference MP3s on it too. Then all of the AWL’s recommended reading for their week school on Marxism and Anarchism. And that will be one ream of paper saved – and that’s if I print at 4 sides a sheet.

Oh it’s going to be great.

Helmand, Kensington

I steeled myself for this exhibition on Afghanistan at the National Army Museum but in the event found steeling strangely unnecessary.

The exhibition is the story of the 16 Air Assault Rifle Brigade’s tour of duty in Helmand Province. Its members, who planned and built the exhibition, are half of Britains rapid reaction force and were the first NATO troops into Helmand in April 2006. They call themselves ‘air-minded’ – used to working with helicopters. The web site says:

“The unit is made up of assault infantry, airborne troops and helicopters. The unit’s main combat mission profiles are deep strikes into enemy territory, seize and hold, interdiction and raiding operations as well as support for Special Forces operations. The Brigade’s composition also makes it very well suited to humanitarian, evacuation and peacekeeping operations.”

It was fitting for the exhibition to begin with footage of September 11th. Then you progressed through different zones listening to (or reading) themed excerpts from interviews with polite young man after polite young man (one polite young woman from the medical corps). They talked about things like mending bombed coms cable under fire, improvising food, investigating deaths and accidents, rescuing injured mates, negotiating working relationships with the Afghan allies, receiving daily briefs, making good relations with local people, suicide bombs, finding things to do with dead time, being effectively imprisoned in enclaves, defending their bases, getting supplies from A to B in the sand, dealing with poppy farmers, coming under and returning fire, the way Afghanistan knackered their kit, the little polystyrene desert hawk toy plane drones. Remember the squadron which trod on land mines and didn’t have enough medical supplies to avoid using T-shirts for tourniquets? One of them talked about that.

Use of multimedia was excellent. There was a lot of ambient noise (including Green Day, Metallica, Cranberries and looped interviews) contributing to the immersive experience of an army base, but the positioning of the kiosks and the quality of the sound was like somebody talking right next to you – fine and much better than a sterile silent environment with headphones. The kiosks were like large army chests containing equipment or objects on a theme (investigating accidents, rations – 4000 kcal – lots of Yorkie bars- and day-to-day apparel. Embedded into them were laptops under persex with separate rollermouse console. The video and audio were themed – communications, supplies, combat, &tc – and chunked into short excerpts with a menu.

The photos and videos lent great immediacy. One which will stay with me was a video – maybe with a mobile phone – in which there was an unexpected explosion 100m away. The camera operator jumped so violently your heart turned over for him. The clattering and franticness of combat came across, as did the bleakness and brokenness of Afghanistan.
There were also conspicuous gaps. I don’t know whether there was bromide in the instant white tea sachets, but there was no mention of sex whatsoever. Matt explains that’s because they weren’t conscripts so were more self-contained and resourceful in distracting themselves. It may have helped that they were sleeping in pod tents made of net curtains and showering out of black plastic bags. No mention of family either. One solitary unfavourable mention of Selly Oak. Very little death, and relatively little injury, and understated accounts of what little there was.

16 Air Assault Rifle Brigade left in October 2006. They lost 19 soldiers on that tour. Since then fatalities have increased. On the journey I read that three Helmand soldiers had just been killed in US F15 (blue on blue) fire.

The exhibition was excellent for a sight, sound and feel of British army life in Helmand and definitely worth a visit.

If blog comments are driving the online education revolution, then why are they organised so badly?

Blogging in Their Own Words is a short film in which secondary school students in the US respond to the different types of blogging their teacher has required them to practise.

They seem to like it and find it helpful. But their responses give them away as – and this isn’t intended to be insulting – naive users with low expectations – none of the advantages and positive qualities either the students or the teachers identify for blogging are unique to blogging, and actually some of them are better found elsewhere. One thing I find slightly mystifying is that they’re not using discussion forums – mystifying because blogs are timebound, most recent post first – is this really the best way to organise student input? And also because although blogs are good for making individual presentations they are often poor at organising the ensuing discussion – again, if comments are presented in reverse chronological order it becomes impossible to follow any proliferating threads in the response. This kind of comment system makes blogs far inferior to discussion forums. The screenshots on the film show this – one post had 144 comments and the comments page shown was entirely flat – how are you going to find your way round that?

Blogging has a romantic appeal that discussion forums never had – in making a presentation you, common or garden citizen that you are, have a voice and people, if they respond, pay homage to you. Certainly, the layout and presentation on blogs is more conducive to an individual taking centre-stage – the preeminence of the blog post and the way it stands alone from the ensuing comments are different from merely starting and contributing to a discussion thread. There’s a hierarchy in which some voices are given emphasis over others.

That isn’t bad in itself – but part of this emphasis is an inadvertant function of the bad handling, common to much off-the-shelf blog software, of comments. Moodle’s (for instance, but there are many others) discussion forums are very helpful for getting the measure of a conversation topographically (visually). The indented threading option, combined with the ready processing afforded by each contributor’s graphical icon (as opposed to textual name) allows readers to gain an overview of the discussion, and follow arguments and/or the development of individual contributions in a way that most blog software still doesn’t. But what Moodle doesn’t do is allow commenters to reply (formally, I mean, so that a link is created) to more than one post at once – this almost certainly interferes with a learner’s ease of synthesising and weaving what is coming out of the conversation.

Another thing that most blog software has yet to offer, Moodle also allows rating of comments; in a discussion with Andrea about this he mentioned the emerging idea of inter-platform ‘kudos’ – the sum of your comments’ ratings which, with the advent of Open ID, you can carry with you between different environments. This echoes the Technorati approach to calculating ‘authority’, and accordingly is fraught with all the hazards and pitfalls of the Technorati approach – bias to the norm, bias against complexity, etc. However, it may work well in an educational environment where there is an ethos of risk-taking or experimentation in discussions, and I dare say there is research on this I’ve yet to read.

Here is an alternative (2005) response to the problem of responding to more than one post at once, which is addressed by prompting commenters to list the post (or posts – can be more than one) which inspired their comment and, if their comment inspires further posts, automatically updates the post links to the posts they inspired. Clicking the names takes you to the post. I don’t know how you link your comment to your post because the blog is no longer active. This approach is a bit disorientating (in all the jumping around you’re not sure if you’ve missed something important) and what it doesn’t do which is so important, and which Moodle and Digg do so nicely, is show you the shape and extent of a thread.

I await more alternatives with anticipation.