Why Facebook (kinda) won

Mike Caulfield has a good post about how Facebook and siloed social media got traction in ways the blogosphere circa 2005-2008 never maintained. He has a good point about the user experience – people aren’t going to go look at 10, 100, 1000 different websites with different graphic designers, publishing models, and navigation structures. That’s where the simplified UX of Facebook comes in. A single stream, pulling stuff from everyone a person cares about. And that jerk from junior high.

But, if it was just about having a streamlined user experience and consistent email-like interface, RSS readers solved that a decade ago. Google Reader was that. Fever˚ still is that for me. I don’t think that’s why Facebook is where every non-geek hangs out. I think there are a few reasons why people are there:

  1. Because non-geeks don’t want to publish openly. They want to share things with their friends, and only their friends. I also see this with instructors and students – many just want to share with people in their class/section/group. That’s why the LMS is still so core on campus – it’s basically a clunky version of the Facebook UX pattern – share stuff with the people in a small context, and only those people. Ask non-HTML-syntax-nerds about how they share things. Many will say “share? Why would I do that? That’s so high school! Why would I want people to know that?” Or “OK. Maybe my friends would be interested in photos of my vacation. But I sure as hell ain’t posting them on the web!” Or some variant. Facebook soothes people into thinking they’re sharing only with people they’ve let into their groups. That’s something that the blogosphere never did, and it’s something that held back a lot of people from participating in the open blogoweb back in the olden days.

  2. Because normal people don’t want to think about stuff like domains, or backups, or updates and patches, or plugins and modules. They just want to see what their friends and family are up to, and maybe post some clever photos. And, although webstuff is way easier to manage than it was back in the dark ages, it’s still not as easy as it needs to be for dad to use it.

  3. Because that’s where everybody is. Facebook feels like a place. It’s tangible. That’s also something that the distributed blogothingy never achieved. It’s something different for every participant or observer. Facebook is Facebook. Everybody is there. Because there’s a “there” there.

So, we can either fight against Facebook and insist that everyone leave it and do things The Right Way™ – or come to terms that for the vast majority, Facebook (or the siloed design pattern represented by Facebook) is what they are comfortable with. And that’s OK. That doesn’t stop anyone from doing things more openly. The web is what we make of it. If we think there are better ways, and that openness is important, we need to continue modelling and exploring. But we can’t expect people to follow. Or to even be interested. Or to not think we’re freaks for doing things out in the wilderness.

And maybe, part of our explorations will involve finding ways to make the wilderness more approachable. Maybe we’re building trails and national parks so city folk can experience things they wouldn’t otherwise experience. I’ve got some ideas about that, and am hoping to get the chance to help build some stuff…

Resurrecting ancient CD-ROMs with VirtualBox and Windows Virtual PC

I have a stack of old CD-ROMs from projects ranging from 1995-2003. I wanted to save a few of them to add to a portfolio of projects, before the projects were lost forever. It’s ironic – back in the olden days of multimedia, we burned fancy new CD-ROMs that were sold as “100 year archive medium” – costing $30 or more per disk back then, and we figured it was money well spent. Now, just 20 years later, most of those archival “green media” disks are completely unreadable, having degraded already. Thankfully, I have several projects that were commercially distributed, meaning I have actual pressed CD-ROMs rather than DIY burned disks. These disks read just fine – and should for decades to come.

But, none of the computers I use even have an optical drive. Back then, we figured the format would live forever – I mean, 650 MEGABYTES? That’s a LOT of data! We’ll always want to be able to read/write that kind of stuff. Now, GarageBand on my iPad takes more storage. So, while Evan’s now-ancient Macbook still runs, I decided to try to resurrect the CD-ROMs as screenshots or recordings.

Step 1. Convert the CD-ROM to a disk image. I used the nearly-decade-old Macbook just for the optical drive, running Disk Utility to create the .cdr disk image from each of the disks I wanted to save.

Step 2. Copy the disk images to a computer with enough horsepower to run VirtualBox. In my case, my 4-year-old MacBook Air. Not a fast computer, but it has enough horsepower to run VirtualBox if needed.

Step 3. Download the official Virtual PC Windows XP appliance from Microsoft.1 Microsoft offers legitimate virtual disk images of several flavours of Windows to allow for easy testing of Internet Explorer. But, they’re full copies of Windows, so you can also do things like run CD-ROMs…

Step 4. Set up a new virtual computer in VirtualBox. Import the appliance file downloaded in Step 3, and it will set up a new virtualized Windows XP system to run.

Step 5. Start it. I set mine to use 640×480 resolution so the CD-ROMs would play full-screen.

Step 6. Attach the .cdi disk image of the CD-ROM to the (virtual) optical drive. If the CD-ROM has auto start, it kicks in right away. If not, right-click on Start menu and Explore. Launch the installer or application on the CD-ROM.

Step 7. Revel at how horribly most CD-ROM interfaces look in 2015. Take screenshots. Use Camtasia etc. to record demos.

Step 8. Repeat as needed, with different CD-ROM disk images.

Some screenshots of the process:

Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 12.20.32 PM
Setting up the VirtualBox instance, after importing the appliance image from Microsoft.
Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 12.21.13 PM
Windows desktop, with instructions provided by Microsoft for how to renew the license on the demo VM if needed.
Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 12.21.38 PM
It’s a full version of Windows XP – Start menu and everything. So… install some CD-ROM retro goodness…
Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 12.22.09 PM
Running the CD-ROM installer from the Windows Explore interface.
Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 12.22.56 PM
Behold! Multimedia awesomeness from the year 2000!
  1. It’s the same VirtualPC brand – Microsoft bought it a few years ago []


I’m not going to write a year-in-review post. It’s been an epic year on many fronts, and next year is already shaping up to be bigger, more amazing and even more exhausting. In great ways.

So. What about 2015? For me, it was a year that I became more internally-focused. I traveled less. I worked more on the local campus context. And that’s a great thing. I plan to travel even less in 2016. I think the biggest impact I can have is in helping to foster active networks and communities on my own campus, and to connect people across faculties and contexts.

The biggest thing for me this year was working with my team to figure out what we’re doing, and to grow. We added two team members, and one left. We’re still planning to hire another in the next month. The team is focused on supporting the learning technologies used on campus, on building and evaluating new ones, and now on building a strong community through the coaches program and other initiatives. The addition of the community facilitation role is a fundamental shift as we get ready to transition into the new Taylor Institute in the spring. We can’t possibly be everything to everyone. We can’t possibly know everything. Or everyone. But, we can help promote communities and foster connections.

Things I’m thinking about for 2016:

  • We’re still in the early stages of the biggest shift in communication in history. It’s accelerating, and we need to step back and see what this really looks like. I think we’ve been so deep in The Work™ that we haven’t seen the bigger shifts. We see smaller pieces, and we work on projects. But these are all part of an incredibly large shift. Our students now are different than when we were undergrads. Not the digital native nonsense – but content is no longer scarce. It is no longer “verified”. We can either resist that, or make sense of it and try to figure out what that means to the learning experience – and what it means to education and The University. My team can’t explore the shift in communication, and specifically in learning technologies (since that’s our direct mandate), if we don’t carve off time and space for that to happen.
  • It’s time to disrupt disruption. I’m tuning out of the Silicon Valley Narrative. It’s corrosive. The story that innovation only happens as a result of angel investors and Venture Capital Unicorns is insane. Higher education is where many of the innovations that make up the digital communication shift come from. There are so many important research projects going on at our campus – we need to find them, work with them, and showcase what we’re all doing.
  • Community is key. Local campus communities and broader ones. We need to nurture these. To connect them. And showcase the great things that people and the communities are doing. I’m hoping to work on some projects in 2016 that act like catalysts and incubators for communities, to bring different people together and to build what Nancy White describes as “intellectual estuaries”. That’s where the magic happens. It’s not individuals and heroes. It’s organic and evolving communities, coming together in new ways. It’s interdisciplinary research. It’s communities of practice that exist outside the structure of faculties or departments or institutions.
  • Supporting rapid and cheap prototyping. We’ve had early success with letting instructors borrow gear to try out – stuff they wouldn’t be able to do without getting their own budgetary approval otherwise. We’ll have many opportunities for this kind of rapid prototyping – and I’m hoping we’ll be able to do the same kind of thing with the new technologies in the Taylor Institute. Provide a sandbox for the community to come together to try new things. Without everyone having to buy a bunch of stuff.

Anyway. Bring on 2016.

Giant Walkthrough Brain

I was lucky to have been taken to a masters’ student seminar by Tatiana Karaman yesterday1, to see some work on a number of her related neuroanatomy projects as part of the Computational Media Design Program at the University of Calgary.

Tatiana sat through a 45-minute MRI head scan in order to get high quality 3D data to work with. She took the data and made a series of slices, which she then fed into a 3D printer. The quality of the prints weren’t quite what she was looking for, so she massaged the data and fed it into a laser cutter to make more robust plastic pieces. And wrote software to let people scan QR codes on the physical slices to get more information. As one does.


1xb0HvRl0J2esoyeccGspo0-NUSxKYFxre8jgspMB6w-e1405619906703But, before getting to that stage, she was involved with a project to create a virtual Giant Walkthrough Brain, based on Joseph Bogen’s design from way back in 1972. He proposed a 60-storey model of a human brain (30 storeys above ground, 30 below) to allow people to walk through the brain and see various bits up close. Strangely, that didn’t prove to be feasible. Until Tatiana and her team built it in software, using the LINDSAY virtual human data.

Jay Ingram took that 3D model on tour in 2014, presenting an interpretive tour through the brain, complete with live music by Jay Ingram and The Free Radicals (and Tatiana running the brain tour live on the big screen). It was part of Beakerhead in Calgary that year, and won the 2014 Science in Society Communication Award from the Canadian Science Writers’ Association.

Since then, the Giant Walkthrough Brain software has been updated to include support for Oculus VR:

And for use in an immersive 3D CAVE environment:

I have to say – what a fantastic student project. Innovative science. Making art. Collaborating with peers. Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work. Amazing.

  1. thanks, Leanne! []

UCalgary ePortfolio platform

We have been doing a lot of work on ePortfolios within the Educational Development Unit. The most visible result of that work is the EDU’s in-development department ePortfolio. As we talked about what we wanted to do in order to document the activities of the department, and to connect these activities to our strategies and priorities, it became clear that an ePortfolio was the best way to do that. And it also became clear that we needed more flexibility than was possible in the D2L ePortfolio tool. So, we built it as a site on UCalgaryBlogs, which runs WordPress.

We learned a lot about collaboratively authoring ePortfolios in WordPress, while simultaneously supporting the D2L eP tool. The problem with the D2L eP tool is that it’s an enterprise-class tool. Apropos of nothing, the protagonist narcissistically quotes one of his own blog posts:

Enterprise Solutions kind of suck for individuals, and for small-scale innovation.


The use of blogging software for student ePortfolios is not new1. There are some truly fantastic examples of blog-powered ePortfolios:

Common themes for these great examples? All published openly (which is how I found out about them), and all published with WordPress. Each one looks completely different – although being published with the same underlying software, they take on the personality of the person, not the tool. Interesting. Of course, lots of people use different tools, but the range and flexibility of WordPress is impressive.

Publishing on the open internet changes how people write, giving the opportunity to formalize thinking about concepts, as well as personal reflection:

…the fundamental quality of putting one’s narrative online gave students new perspectives on how they assessed themselves.

— Nguyen, 20132.

And the nature of the ePortfolio needs to be an individual, as opposed to institutional, space:

…ownership of the ePortfolio should be solely with the student

— Roemmer-Nossek, B. & Zwiauer, C., 20133

Roemmer-Nossek & Zwiauer go on to describe three potential purposes for ePortfolios in higher education, all of which are kind of obvious and intuitive, but it’s handy to have them explicitly stated:

  1. support of individual learning (ePortfolio as process)
  2. participation in the production and publication of knowledge (presentation of content and artifacts)
  3. as a means of supporting development of ones own voice within the university (community of learners)

All three of those potential purposes are important. How best to address them? If we simply roll out The One True ePortfolio Platform™ and compel students to use it, it breaks what we know about the importance of ePortfolios as being individual and personal spaces. If we don’t provide a common platform, it has the potential to become a chaotic and unsupportable hot mess. The trick is to find the balance in the middle.

The guiding principles we are working with are that ePortfolios need to be owned by the student, that they need to be personal spaces, that they need to be flexible enough to do whatever the student needs to do in order to document their learning and to support their ongoing practice of reflection, and that the practice is grounded in current research and literature.

So, providing access to multiple ePortfolio platforms – some institutional, some personal, others completely independent of the institution – is how we believe we can best give students the flexibility to build their own ePortfolios in whatever manner makes sense to them based on their personal interests, abilities, and comfort levels.

As a result, UCalgary currently has two major components of an ePortfolio platform. We have the D2L ePortfolio tool, fully integrated into the Brightspace learning management system. And we have a more loosely integrated ePortfolio platform powered by a streamlined WordPress multisite installation.

My personal belief is that the WordPress ePortfolio platform will provide much more flexibility for students, and will also better support them as they integrate their university experience with lifelong learning – they can take the ePortfolio with them when they graduate, and use it anywhere they’d like, since it can be exported and imported easily into any WordPress instance. The eportfolio.ucalgary.ca platform is a really nice way to get started in building an ePortfolio.

The eportfolio.ucalgary.ca project is a really great example of how collaboration works in the Educational Development Unit – all of the groups came together, pitched the idea, did the research, built the tool, developed documentation and resources, and launched it. Technology Integration, Learning and Instructional Design, Educational Development. All jumping in without having to strike a Project or committee or working group. The end result is really great, and the model of collaboration is something we see all the time. Best. Team. Ever.


A simple, streamlined, and common platform that gives a structure or framework to help students get started. Without having to click 15 times to add something from a course. With some really good resources to help people get situated.

It’s integrated with campus systems only for authentication – there is a link within the D2L “My Tools” menu that brings students (well, anyone – it’s open to anyone in the UofC community) right into WordPress without having to login again. If they don’t use that tool link, they can login right at http://eportfolio.ucalgary.ca and use their UofC CAS account to login. Easy.

And that’s where the integration stops. Content will have to be copied/pasted or screenshot from other places, or re-uploaded within the ePortfolio. This makes publishing content an explicit act by the author, and not some magic automated tool. Everything that is added to a person’s ePortfolio is done manually, hopefully with thoughtful reflection on what, why, where, and how that content would be displayed. Automated “push this to my ePortfolio” tools short-circuit that.

And, of course, people are encouraged to find the platform that works best for them – that may be one offered by the university, or it may be something else. The goal is to support student learning, and the best way to do that is to make sure that students own their work, in whatever way is meaningful to them.

  1. MacColl, I., Morrison, A., Muhlberger, R., Simpson, M., & Viller, S. (2005). Reflections on reflection: Blogging in undergraduate design studios. Blogtalk downunder conference 2005. Retrieved from http://incsub.org/blogtalk/?page_id=69 []
  2. Nguyen, C. F. (2013). The ePortfolio as a living portal: A medium for student learning, identity,
    and assessment. International Journal of ePortfolio, 3(2), 135-148. Retrieved from http://www.theijep.com/past_3_2.cfm []
  3. Roemmer-Nossek, B. & Zwiauer, C. (2013). Hoe can ePortfolio make sense for higher education? The Vienna University ePortfolio framework taking shape. European Institute for E-Learning, 206-214. Retrieved from http://www.eife-l.org/publications/eportfolio/proceedings2/ep2007/proceedings-pdf-doc/eportfolio-2007.pdf []

2015 week 44 in review


Our new Online Learning Environment Specialist started on Monday! We’re now almost fully-staffed – I’m still looking to hire an AV/media/tech specialist to run the fancy stuff being installed in the shiny new Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning building.

I took some HR workshops this week, on “Enhancing a Culture of Respect and Engagement in the Workplace”, and “Rewarding and Recognizing Employees”. Some really good ideas – the workshops were interesting and I’ve got some ideas for how to improve as a manager.

It looks like progress toward having a campus media hosting platform is starting to happen – it’s now an Official Project™ in IT. I’m really looking forward to having a stable place to have people host the content they produce, without having to worry about YouTube inserting ads or privacy-intrusion tracking codes (or changing the terms of the service unilaterally), or having to pay for individual Vimeo Pro accounts. I don’t know anything about timelines for launch, though.

We did a soft launch of the new UCalgary ePorfolio platform. It’s a streamlined WordPress multisite server, tied to D2L and CAS for authentication. So, anyone with a campus account can create as many ePortfolio sites as they want, using WordPress as a simple-but-powerful website management tool. We’re really looking forward to seeing what people do with it – lots of people came to us, looking for viable alternatives to the D2L ePortfolio tool. As a result, Kevin put this together. And I have to say – what a beautiful site. I want to build stuff on it. That’s a completely different vibe than the other ePortfolio platform we have on campus. I’m putting together a demo ePortfolio myself. My new ePortfolio still needs lots of work, but as a demo it’s a good start.

The campus announcement about the Provost Star Awards went out, and my inbox did the kaboom thing. blush

I finally gave up on using Apple Mail and Calendar with our campus Exchange server. It mostly works, but there have been enough funky wierdnesses that I’ve gone back to Outlook. Thankfully, Outlook 2016 is actually pretty decent.

The construction fence around the Taylor Institute was removed this week. Construction is done! Now, Matrix is going to be busy installing the AV and tech in the building, to prep for our move-in date of April 2. Which is coming up REALLY quickly.

taylor institute spine study





My mom turned 75 yesterday. My dad turned 80 in August. Holy. We went out to celebrate at Tony Roma’s, as 75- and 80-year-olds are wont to do. They had a coupon, of course.

I spent a good chunk of the week thinking about what I might want to do for a PhD, and how I might contribute. Lots of ideas. Lots of doubt about if any of them are PhD-worthy.

2015 week 43 in review


I was off for most of the week, but went in on Friday to wrap up some stuff. The whole “take a vacation but don’t actually go anywhere” thing is actually kind of awesome. No pressure to get my money’s worth out of a Big Fancy Vacation. It was the most relaxing 2 week vacation I’ve had (but I’d still rather have spent it in Kauai…)

Looks like I’m going to be presenting at the MIIETL 2015 Research on Teaching and Learning Conference at McMaster in December. I’ve never been, and am looking forward to visiting a new-to-me campus.

And preparations for Congress 2016 are starting to ramp up. Campus is going to be kind of crazy with 8500 visitors for a week or so.





I was kind of getting used to the rhythm of hanging out at home with The Teen™ and The Pup™. They’re both growing up pretty fast.

the pup

Fitbit on security

post updated with official response from Fitbit

I contacted Fitbit Support to ask them about this article, describing security vulnerabilities in the bluetooth radio of the wearable Fitbit devices. I’d sent it through their website, so I don’t have the exact text, but it was something like:

Do you have any information for Fitbit users in response to the Engaget article? (with a link to the article)

Their support team responded later that day with this:

Thank you for calling our attention to Engadget’s article.

We have clip and wristband trackers, both trackers type when are worn according to instructions are secure, pegs of the clasps should have gotten through the wristband base, in order to do this, we suggest to our customers, to press both sides of each peg with a plastic card.

However, a fall or a sudden pressure on your wrist may make the clasp accidentally unlatches

In order to add safety to the Flex clasps, there are gadget for sale through online retailers “safety rings” are called, that provide extra strength in case of accident.

How all wearable products, when possible we suggest replacing wristbands, in case they feel “loose” to the clasp pegs.

Any further question, please let us know, we are glad to assist you.

So. Um. The solution to an unsecured bluetooth radio is to make really sure that the clasp on the wristband is properly fastened. Problem solved.

Update: 2015-10-13 Fitbit has posted a statement:

On Wednesday October 21, 2015, reports began circulating in the media based on claims from security vendor, Fortinet, that Fitbit devices could be used to distribute malware. These reports are false. In fact, the Fortinet researcher who originally made these claims, Axelle Apvrille, has confirmed to Fitbit that this was only a theoretical scenario and is not possible. Fitbit trackers cannot be used to infect user’s devices with malware. We want to reassure our users that it remains safe to use their Fitbit devices and no action is required.

As background, Fortinet first contacted us in March to report a low-severity issue unrelated to malicious software. Since that time we’ve maintained an open channel of communication with Fortinet. We have not seen any data to indicate that it is possible to use a tracker to distribute malware.

We have a history of working closely with the security research community and always welcome their thoughts and feedback. The trust of our customers is paramount. We carefully design security measures for new products, monitor for new threats, and rapidly respond to identified issues. We encourage individuals to report any security concerns with Fitbit’s products or online services to security@fitbit.com. More information about reporting security issues can be found online at https://www.fitbit.com/security.

2015 week 42 in review


Nope. Well, almost nope. Had some HR stuff to finalize before our new Online Learning Environment Specialist starts on the 26th. I’m out of the office until Oct. 23.





Thinking about ideas for starting a doctoral degree. Nothing crystallizing, yet, but I have some things I’d like to explore.

Migrated a copy of our family photo library from Aperture to Photos with iCloud backup. The upload process took a few days, and went from an initial estimate of 160GB (which fit nicely in our 200GB iCloud storage) to 180GB (which would be tight, with device backups, but still room for it), to 216GB (which filled the storage, so I had to upgrade to the top 1TB tier). Seems to have worked nicely, and it’s great having every photo available on every device. But our lowly MacBook Air seems to want to cache a bunch of it on its small SSD – the library is stored on an external volume, which has lots of room, but the iCloud cache is in my home directory, which means 20GB or so of stuff gets pulled into a boot volume that has 20GB free. Which means the drive fills up and complains. Not cool. I’ll figure something out, maybe with The Magic of Symlinks™.

And, spending some time at home with The Teen™ and The Pup™ (who is working on her Chewbacca impression)

insert chewbacca roar