Mantis Spam Accounts?

We've been running a copy of Mantis here in the Teaching & Learning Centre to track bugs and issues in our projects for a couple of years now. And over the last few months, there have been a couple of accounts created per day in an attempt to proliferate spam. They create an account, with the URL pointing somewhere spamworthy, and then never post any content.

Does anyone know why someone would try to target spam at Mantis? I can't see how that would gain them Google juice, so I'm boggled that someone's taken the time to tweak a bot to hit Mantis. 

I'll occasionally go in and prune out these orphaned accounts, and make sure they haven't lefk any content, but so far it's been a strange but harmless(?) exercise. 

Twittering

Until last week, I hadn't heard of Twitter. Then Cole blogged about it, and the ETSTalk Podcast folks talked about it. They're looking at Twitter as a tool to facilitate shared awareness of organizational activities.

Twitter is essentially nanoblogging (I just made that word up) – stuff that is more of a quick "I'm doing this right now" kind of status update rather than a blog post. You create a set of "friends" and get to see updates in almost realtime of what they're up to. Right now.

Cole's investigating this from the perspective of "how would a tool like this affect teaching and learning, and running an organization" I'm not doing anything quite so lofty, I'm just playing.

What's kind of cool is that it makes it easy for me to track what I'm doing, so when it's time to do the Dreaded Procrastinated Timesheet Entry mere hours before the payroll cutoff, I could just spider the list of archived updates.

I'm not sure if there's any value in Twitter per se. Other tools have been doing this, from full-on blogs to tools like Facebook and MySpace. Do we really need a separate tool for this? Maybe it's a good thing because it's so tightly focussed…

The design of Twitter might be a bit overly simplified though. There's no way to define the audience for an update, although you can set a global flag that affects all of your updates. It'd be handy to have a private/friends/public distinction, so I could track stuff that nobody cares about, only my Friends, or everyone else. Also, the ability to tag updates, either as categories/keywords, or even with contexts ala GTD, would be handy, along with an interface to filter by tags (show me all things done @Work wih the tag "drupal" in the last 2 weeks) 

The Twitter website needs some serious love, too. The UI is painful (tiny icons for "friends" and the only way to get a name is to rollover and wait for the tooltip. ick. etc…) and it's often really…. slow….. but it's usable with the addon tools like Twitterific.

Regardless, I'm dnorman on twitter. Like that's the first time I've been called a twit. 

Workshop Ideas for 2007

In a recent project meeting, we were tossing around ideas for workshops to conduct in 2007, and I've taken on a series of topics that could be loosely described as "new tools and strategies". Here's the current short list of workshops I'm planning to develop (and later conduct) through the TLC. Any glaring omissions?

  • Creative Commons (copyright and IP in general, and how they affect sharing and reusing available work)
  • Flickr. As a source of Creative Commons images for use, and as a potential tool for teaching and learning.
  • Google Earth. Basic overview, as well as an intro to some of the cool add-ons (geology, politics, etc…)
  • eXe – eLearning XML editor (for ePortfolios or personal websites)
  • WordPress.com (setting up a blog for free in seconds)
  • weblogs.ucalgary.ca (participating in the blog community on campus)
  • Drupal for websites and communities
  • Moodle (? this might be counterproductive, given Bb's role on our campus…)
  • Social bookmarking (del.icio.us for distributed tagging of resources)
  • Google Docs

I've left off a couple of items on purpose because I want to be doing things that aren't already running in full hype mode (podcasting and secondlife are fine on their own). I'm hoping to be showing stuff that might be flying under the radar (at least to most faculty on campus – many of the items on my list are completely taken for granted by tech types)

Google Earth Geology Screencast

I promised to do a quick screencast showing what we demoed to one of our Geology profs for using Google Earth to help teach geology (specifically, plate tectonics). Here's a really quick runthrough, using some of the awesome Google Earth add-on layers provided by the San Diego State University College of Sciences.

I should warn, though, that since I am not a geologist (I don't even play one on TV) and since it's first thing in the morning, I do get some stuff mixed up. Just cringe, push through it, and look at the bigger picture – an interactive 3D geology simulation powered by Google Earth and freely available information.

The video is available in small H.264 format,which will work fine in iTunes and on iPods. It's also available in original large H.264 format and MPEG4.

SecondLife Concerns

I want to preface this post by saying I'm not trying to attack SecondLife, nor any of its supporters. My sole intention is to identify what I see as some important issues that need to be addressed when individuals and organizations investigate moving into SecondLife. There are many people doing very cool work in SecondLife, and I respect them for it. I now pull on my asbestos underoos… 

I've been following much of the SecondLife cheerleading over the last year, watching as it got hyped higher and higher as The Next Big Thing That Will Change Everything. And I've been getting more and more nervous about it. As a piece of technology, SecondLife is really amazing. It's a seamless integration of multiple virtual realities, providing ways for individuals to come together and interact, create, and play in a pretty impressive 3D environment. My issues aren't with SecondLife, per se, but its elevated status on top of the hype pyramid as something that will revolutionize business and education.

Imagine! My campus can have a virtual space, so students can get together and learn in virtual reality! My company can have an immersive online store experience, where shoppers can walk through the product line and buy stuff right there! This is going to change everything!

Except, it isn't. It's just a shiny 3D environment. That's all. We've had that before. VRMLHotSauce. Both of those where The Next Big Thing in Virtual Reality, over a decade ago. eWorld was supposed to change the way we interact with networks and communities. Heck, even Gopher was hyped (albeit with less fervor) as The Next Big Thing (20 years ago). I remember playing with each of these as they came out, and the feeling was quite similar to the excitement around SecondLife today.

But what, really, is SecondLife? It's an economic system with the sole purpose of driving revenue to the company that owns it, Linden Labs. That is the only reason for SecondLife to exist. All other aspects of the system serve this goal. Including education. It is not open, nor Open. Yes, you can write scripts, as long as you stay within the boundaries imposed by Linden Labs in order to protect the economic viability of the system. Copybot was an attempt to bypass the artificially imposed economy of scarcity, with one based on open abundance.

So, as long as we're willing to colour within the lines, and behave according to the laws mandated by Linden Labs, then we're able to use SecondLife. Which is fine, except you need a place to hang your hat "in world" and that costs money, both in "Lindenbucks" and real hard cash. This can range from $5US to $195US per month to rent a parcel of "land" to build your home on. If you want your own island, as many companies and organizations do, it'll cost you $1675US to create the island, then $295US per month to keep it.

So you could wind up spending thousands of dollars to essentially rent some drive space on a Linden server somewhere. Which means only the rich will be able to own land, setting up a nice class or caste system. Rich landowners get to make the rules, homeless paupers get to wander from region to region until they find a place that works for them. Even things as simple as choosing your own in-world name can cost you money. There are stores to buy new skin, hair, clothes, even coffee. You can actually pay real money for virtual coffee.

Now, LindenLabs has made a giant leap in releasing the code for the SecondLife Viewer application, making it possible for the community to enhance and extend the functionality of the SecondLife interface. But, they haven't opened up the server. We can modify the source for the client application, but we're still chained to their economic engine if we want to do anything with it. 

Linden is essentially building a new 3D world wide web, controlling the entire network themselves to maximize profit to the company. They control the horizontal and the vertical. And we're welcome to play (and pay) as long as we follow their rules. 

For interactive 3D environments, especially for education, I am much more interested in the Croquet Project -  an open source platfom that allows anyone to create their own world(s) for free, and to easily create hyperlinks between them. Anyone can run their own server. Anyone can run the client, and create anything they are willing and able to create. For free.

Sure, the Croquet system isn't as mature as SecondLife. It's not quite ready for prime time, but it's getting closer. 

Paradox of Choice

In yet another episode of TedTalks synchronicity, immediately after writing the post on Digital Natives and the spaghetti sauce varieties, the next session I watched was Barry Schwartz on The Paradox of Choice.

While Malcom Gladwell (and Howard Moscowitz) were describing the need for different varieties addressing different preferences, Barry Schwartz warns about the far side of that slippery slope. Having too much choice is paradoxically not a freedom-inspiring situation. Instead, an overabundance of choice does a couple things:

  1. Paralyzes the individual. With so many choices, the perceived need to make The Right Choice makes the decision(s) more difficult. This is easy to see – just take a kid to a fancy(ish) restaurant and hand them the menu. Odds are, they'll wind up making a big fuss about not knowing what they want, even as the waiter is waiting beside them for their order. They can't cope with that number of choices. All they want is macaroni, but they're offered Chicken Penne, Stuffed Rigatoni, Pasta Carbonerra, etc… Too many choices results in an inability to choose.
    Barry's example was the relatively recent shift in our relationship with medical doctors. Long ago, if you went to a doctor and had something wrong, they told you what needed to be done, and it was done. Now, you are provided with a series of options, each with their own pros and cons, and you are expected to make the decision. But you have no medical training. And are likely not in top form, so probably shouldn't be making Big Decisions anyway. And the doctor is a medical expert, but is deferring to an untrained amateur.
  2. Internalizes blame for unhappiness with the choices made. If a person can only choose from 2 options, they tend to be either happier with their choice, or less distraught about a bad choice ("Hey, what could I do? There were only 2 choices…")  If there are 100 options, then a person blames themselves for making a bad choice. ("Stupid! You made the wrong choice! Your life would have been so much better if you had picked option #67 instead of option #43. Moron!")

So, what does this mean for education? If we need to address variability in preferences, as demonstrated by Howard Moscowitz' work, we need to balance that with the need to avoid paralysis due to an overabundance of irrelevant or equal choices. (some of his examples really showcase problems with capitalism run amok – arms races between competing companies, resulting in 100 varieties of blue jeans, 1500 perfumes, 600 models of cars, etc…)

I would suggest that both perspectives are critically important, and that the product of reconciling the two is that we must identify key variables and populations and develop appropriate options to effectively address those variables. But no more than that. Any more variability would lead to false options. It would have the appearance of improved freedom and choice, but the result would be decreased satisfaction with the experience.

What does this mean? It means that we shouldn't be leaning toward infinite variability. It means we shouldn't be leaning toward monolithic solutions. We need to be finding an appropriate middle ground. Maybe that means having 2 LMS options supported on a campus. Maybe that means supporting 5, 10, 20 different social software applications and a handful of ways to integrate them.

I think we need to be working to develop a series of best practice guides, and figuring out which clusters of individual preferences can be addressed together, and by which strategies. Of course, the first logical step is to properly identify the clusters of preferences and predispositions, and determine which groups are defined by these clusters. Then, we need to find strategies, pedagogies, and techniques that effectively address the needs of these groups and clusters. Then and only then can we properly design, develop and integrate platforms and applications. This isn't rocket surgery. It's just a matter of taking the needs of students (and teachers, and parents, and the community) seriously rather than dictating the One True Solution, or feeding them an infinite number of options.

We need to pick up the role of the old-school medical doctor, acting as benevolent expert and guiding the novice through a field of choices. We can do this by designing and developing a select range of effective choices, and helping our studends and teachers to select the one that best suits them.

Digital Natives and Spaghetti Sauce

Brian wrote about about the EDUCAUSE ELI web seminar on net gen learners , and after reading that post and the great comments, I got to thinking about the overgeneralization of the mythical "Digital Native". Fast forward to this morning's bus ride, where I'm watching Malcom Gladwell's presentation at TED2004. Now, Malcom is the author of The Tipping Point , so I was expecting some discussion of how small changes build up to affect large, even transformative effects. But, he wound up talking about something so much more interesting, and likely more important to my perception of students. Spaghetti sauce. No, really.

Malcom told the story of a friend of his named Howard Moscowitz, who was hired in the 80s by Campbell Soup Company to help revamp the Prego spaghetti sauce. They wanted to come up with the perfect sauce, to gain market share against Ragu. Instead of trying to whip up a bunch of batches of prototype sauces to test on volunteers in order to find the perfect sauce, he identified a series of variables (things like sweetness, saltiness, chunkness, spicyness, etc…) and took the resulting 30+ combinations on the road. He gatherred hundreds of volunteers, giving them each 10 small bowls of spaghetti with a preselected sauce variety on top. He then had the volunteers rate the sauce on a plain old Likert scale, winding up with reams of data that didn't look like it made any sense. Until he started to analyze the relationships between variables.

Howard found that there isn't one perfect sauce. There are three. Something like "Regular", "Spicy" and "Extra Chunky". (the names were different, but you get the idea) Seems pretty obvious now, but at the time, everyone was looking to design a single perfect sauce, inspired by a typical Italian sauce (which was perceived by all as the Ultimate Spaghetti Sauce, of course). In all of the focus groups held over the previous 2 or 3 decades, not a single volunteer mentioned that they liked "Extra Chunky" sauce. They all said that they would prefer the thin Italian sauce. Yet, after analyzing his data, Howard could see that 33% of people prefer "Extra Chunky" with the remainder split between the other two varieties.

This tells me a few things that are actually relevant to my perception of students in general, and "Digital Natives" in particular.

  1. There is variabilty in preferences (whether in spaghetti sauces so learning styles) and that understanding that variation is not only expected but necessary for success.
  2. People don't know what they want. They might say they would prefer the Italian sauce, or pervasive ubiquitous online communication. But individuals either have difficulty identifying and communicating their actual preferences, or they may be truly unaware of them (whether as a result of cultural pressure or other factors).
  3. We need to better understand the variables that affect our interactions with students. It's not enough to say that students are "Digital Natives" or "Net Genners". There is no One True Student. Individuals vary by learning style, experience/comfort with various strategies (online and offline), socioeconomic status, maturity, locus of control, etc… and we need to identify common clusters of these variables and develop strategies to support these groups (and the individuals that compose them).

We're already doing much to try to address these variables (blended learning to help students that have to work 30 hour weeks to access their courses when and where they can, etc…) but I think it would be much more productive to focus on these variables rather than brandishing labels like "Digital Natives" and "Net Genners"

Camera bag fetish

I picked up a new camera case backpack on the weekend. I'd been using a small LowePro Rezo TLZ 10, which was handy for carrying the XT with the kit lens, and a spare battery. But that was it. And Janice kept calling it my "purse". It felt like a purse, too. I wound up using it most of the time without the strap, just to protect my camera when stuffing it inside my backpack. I bought the Canon Gadget Bag with the camera, which is a nice storage and transport case, but not really something you want to lug around for long.

I'd been looking for something that would be better for every day use, and for travelling. At first, I was looking at camera + laptop backpacks, which would be good, but if I'm not needing the laptop, I still need to lug around the extra case for it. So I settled on the LowePro SlingShot 200 AW. It's a mid-size backpack case with room for a DSLR (with 300mm lens attached) and up to 4 other lenses (up to 300mm) plus extra room for other gear. I was interested in the 200 AW for a few reasons: the size, the easy side access, and the all weather cover (which folds neatly into a storage flap in the bottom). The case is amazingly well designed. LowePro put a lot of thought into how the thing would actually be used. There's a scratch prevention cloth attached to the inside, where the LCD goes, to protect it. There are zipper stops to prevent the whole thing from opening up when grabbing the camera quickly. There's the media/battery storage pouch in the easy-access side flap, and more in the back. The stabilizing cross strap unsnaps and tucks out of the way when not needed, as does the all weather cover. Of course, the internal compartment is configurable through the use of velcro panels (want room for 2 DSLRs? Sure. A DSLR and a video camera? OK. DSLR and GPS and some lenses? Why not?)

 

The side access door is really handy.  I just have to slide the bag a bit on my shoulder, and I've got quick access to everything without having to stop and take the backpack off. I've been making myself carry this case as well as my laptop backpack all week – it's actually not too bad. The Slingshot also has room for me to slide my notebook in, so I've been taking it to meetings as well (leaving the laptop on my desk). You never know when something interesting will present itself (like the old memory core I was looking at while waiting for a meeting in IT).

On the up side, I've apparently graduated up from carrying a "purse". King referred to the new backpack case as my "Jack Bauer Man Purse" the other day. Hey, Jack Bauer's cool, right? So that's a good thing, right?