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I’m a bot over WordPress and just want things to be a little easier. I started blogging at Teach and Learn Online and stayed there happily for 2 years. Now after 3 years here, I think I’ll quit it.

But when I started work at Otago Polytechnic and starting showing people how to blog, it became controversial with some of Otago’s IT people. I decided to get to know WordPress in anticipation of IT saying, “ok, we’ll support blogs but only on our own install where we can control it”. Thinking WordPress would be their logical choice I thought I better start getting to know it and encouraging staff to use it so their skills would be transferable.

But to their credit IT have not moved in any of that direction, and I think I might like to go back to Blogger. I’ve never really liked the usability or speed of WordPress, nor the amount of spam and bot action it seems to get. I’m as worried as the next person about Google everything, but I’m not all that precious about content either. Easy come easy go really. There are lots of ways to back up and regenerate content I’ve found. Creating a book from my blog is one of the most rewarding of them all.. I’ve been meaning to do that again these past couple of months, there’s about 3 years of blogging that needs to be brought into a third book just so I can have something tangible on the shelf for all these words. Its a good process to go through, reviewing old notes and reformatting them.

So anyway, I’ve set up a new blog on Blogger. Leigh Blackall. There’s nothing on it for now.. and I’m not entirely sure when I’ll start writing there.. perhaps when I finish the book version of this blog.. that might be a good start. I won’t bother exporting and importing.. its sadly not easily doable from WordPress to Blogger, but nor is it necessary. This blog can stay, as does Teach and Learn Online. All links in tact. Apart from the URL and the template, you could view these 3 blogs as I do.. 1 big blog fluidly distributed across the Internet as though it where one big platform.

Can anyone think of any good reason why I shouldn’t stop this blog and go to my new Blogger blog? I don’t care about loss of readership. I’m confident the ones that count will update their feeds 🙂


Greg Evans, editor of InterfaceNZ magazine has asked me to write a regular column on video – starting with vlogging.

So what is vlogging? Well, I don't want to limit this to text – so how about we start by watching my little video I just made: What is Vlogging.

You can probably tell by the quality of my video that it took me all of 15 minutes to make.. including recording, compressing and uploading. Ironically it will take me about an hour to prepare the supporting text!

And that's the beauty of Internet video these days. Thanks to services like Youtube and many others, you and I and everyone are able to publish video at next to no cost, in hardly any time, and with very little technical ability. That's a media revolution right there! With so many of us taking advantage of this opportunity, there is A LOT of video out there. With so much video, the chances of each of us finding something that is interesting, useful or unique becomes very likely, so we are now a lot more ready to forget about questions of quality because we have rediscovered what it means for a video to be interesting, useful or unique. That's another revolution right there! We've learned to accept that its the content of the video that matters, regardless of the image quality and cost of production. Even TV news is less interested in "broadcast quality" images, and seem quite happy using footage from Youtube at 320×240 compressed and at 15 frames per second. So the barrier of entry is now low on all fronts – access, cost and expectations.

If you want more to think about on this, I'd highly recommend Michael Wesch's presentation to the Library of Congress: An Anthropological Introduction to Youtube

Ok, what about vlogging?

Vlogging combines the words video and blogging. Regular readers of Interface should by now know what a blog is, but in case you're new to it – here's my attempt to explain a big thing: A blog is a website that is regularly updated with new content by the same author/s. Each new addition of content is called a blog-post or post and appears at the top with old content moving down the blog. A blog provides readers with subscription features that alert them when posts are added. Most blogs today include options for readers to add comments as a way of encouraging discussion and feedback with the blog author/s. Many journalists and social commentators use blogs, as do some teachers and politicians.

A video-blog or vlog then, is simply a blog that uses video as its primary media in each post.

I wonder if you can now guess what an audio-blog is? What about a moblog? The first 10 to send their correct answers in to Greg the Interface editor, will win a years subscription of Interface… I just made that last bit up.

Ok, so now you know what a vlog is, and maybe some of you want to set one up. Well, that's easy and wont cost you a cent! (Except for the woefully expensive monthly Internet charges in NZ).

First step is to create an account on Youtube. It doesn't have to be Youtube, there are other video publishing services, but let's keep it simple.

Your next step is to post your first video to your Youtube account. There are 3 ways:

  1. Upload a video you have from your computer
  2. Record a video directly onto Youtube by way of your webcam
  3. Record a video with your mobile phone and send it to your Youtube account via its own email address.

Youtube has great help videos for learning how to do any of these things, and more.

That's it! You have created your first post to your Youtube vlog. Other people can access your vlog by going to

Some people take vlogging further by setting up a blog on a service like Blogger, and then either linking their Youtube video into their blog, or uploading a video directly into their blog with Blogger's video upload features.

If you want people to be able to download your videos so they can play them off the Internet, or so you can turn your vlog into a podcast, then you'll have to use a different service than Youtube. I use It offers you all the features of Youtube (less the popularity) plus some significant extras, such as file download, and cross posting your video to other sites like the Internet Archive.

So there you have it. Take the time to watch the help videos. Its a great way to learn. If you want to find out all there is to know about vlogging, then the Wikipedia article is a great place to start.

See you next issue with another how-to on DIY video.

Warning! This is a 4am sleepless rant.

Portuguese Man o War Gulf Shores Alabama. By Joey Eads

Portuguese Man o' War Gulf Shores Alabama. By Joey Eads

When I was younger, I used to find time to surf. Just now I’ve been trying to think of something that would capture the feeling I get from work sometimes… out of the blue came the blue bottle sting.

I know… not a good sign right? To be lying awake at night thinking mostly about work and the thing that comes to mind is a blue bottle sting…

I’ve been stung by my share of blue bottles. They’re not pleasant. Once I copped one around my head, tangled around my ear, round my neck, in my eyes and even in my mouth! A real beauty too. Big and shiny, with a stinger several meters long. The hideous thing about blue bottles is that if you get tangled with one, getting it off makes the sting worse. Its a sawing feeling as the stinger drags along your body, spreading its pain to new levels. This particular sting interrupted my breathing for a while actually.. on that beautiful summer day with a cranking great shore break, I thought I was going to die by blue bottle sting!

Sometimes work can feel a bit like that, less the drama of a life and death situation in pain of course.. oh, and certainly no good surf – none. I started the year in high spirits. Sunshine and I had a good holiday, and I returned with rosey glasses on ready to try my forth year here.. omg! Things seemed set for real progress and smoother sailing (that’s the summer’s day/good surf bit). I’m afraid it hasn’t taken long to encounter a few stings, and trying to get out of it only wants to make it worse, and that constricting feeling comes over me like I’m finding it hard to breath.

What are those stings? Well a small part of it is the self censoring feeling I get writing this.. I can’t really say what it is or it will only get worse. It mostly boils down to communication. There isn’t effective communication. You’d think in this age of information and communications technology we wouldn’t have such a problem, but its clear we do. Its troubling that I can have better communication with people on the other side of the planet and in free time, resulting in some quite innovative and productive stuff, but struggle on a day to day basis in my own local to even hear and be heard.

This problem has a lot to do with a collision between 2 systems in communication and the culture that goes with them. The first being an older and way more common system based on hierarchy and centralisation, departmentalism and privacy, long term personal relationships and control politics. The readers. The second being significantly less hierarchical and anarchisticly distributed, participatory, transparent and documented to the extreem, and open to anyone at anytime. The writers.

I’m not trying to describe these two in ways that suggest one is “better” than the other, but its clear to me that there is a seemingly insurmountable barrier between the 2. Some commentators reckon it to be generational – I disagree. Others boil it down to old left/right politics – maybe. What ever it is, its there and  there are problems.

Given that I am one of only a small number who seem to communicate by the 2nd group of principles, perhaps this is just my problem and I should relearn what I unlearned (yes, I spent some time in the army). Thing is, method 1 has too many problems in itself for me to want to do that.

OK, this culture clash is discussed ad-nausea in the edublogosphere, so I’m sorry for this addition. The thing is, there is no “web2 revolution”, flattening of the world, cluetrain manifesto, “discussion”, paradigm shift, power redistribution, or any such thing in the education sector, so long as this clash exists. Its not a Weinberger vs Keen style debate either, nor is it a question of one being better than the other. Something unforeseen will emerge from the tension – some call it the middle ground, but that’s not it either. Its more a 1 + 1 = 3 kind of thing.

And its rather disempowering and more than a little disappointing to realise I don’t know what it will be and won’t be here to see it when it does emerge clearly.

Now, where’s that vinegar?

Mike Caulfield posts an interesting observation about 2 different types of openness. There’s openness with re usability as a primary design principle, and then there’s openess with transparency as another design principle. Mike suggests that re-usability can create drag on transparency, and I have to agree.

At Otago Polytechnic we have been trying to achieve both at the same time, and some may have noticed that I use the term “open educational resources and practices” to encompass that intensive approach. There is a sense urgency in our need to update skills, awareness and policies to a point where we able to offer quality services in open (flexible) education arenas. But as Mike suggests, there is observable drag in doing both.

Take for example our use of MediaWiki on the Wikieducator service. Certainly not the easiest wiki to use, but one that does offer considerable amounts of re-usability in terms of MediaWikis. So.. do we support and endlessly motivate staff to use MediaWiki.. or do we start with something easier and focus on transparency alone? Most say start with something easier.. and true, that would get more of us going sooner, but the later workload in redevelopment for re-usability would be pretty sizable.

In saying that though, perspectives change over time, and what may be considered best practice for re usability today, may change tomorrow – which is only another point that at first glance supports the notion that its a bad idea to go for both forms of openness at the same time.

My only hope is that by working towards both at the same time, we are in fact addressing all aspects of openness at once and achieving a deeper level of understanding. By doing both at the same time, some of us will reach that tipping point sooner, a point where we are in fact skilled and aware of what it takes, and not merely cosmetically transparent.

But underneath it all in this approach is a worrisome level of low uptake and motivation caused by that big basket we call “too hard”. If more people toss to that basket, we may in fact never reach that typing point and always be at odds with mainstream operations that are not satisfactory…

I’m just thinking out load here… Thanks for teh food for thought Mike

borrowed time | demi-brooke

Mouthing off. CCBy: borrowed time | demi-brooke

The incredible ability of the education sector to seperate itself from reality is just incredible. I guess we have to accept that it has been common practice in education for a long time. Rather than teach in the real world we taught in the classroom, and with rules and regulations to sustain that very system. So its little wonder that the same embedded cultural drives in the sector will cloud over the development of new practices and absorb innovation and subversion so that no change is possible.

This is another hissy fit about LMS, VLEs, PLEs and now ePortfolios.

I remember when the backlash to the LMS started brewing back in 2004 as the social web star rose.. defendants of the LMS started side stepping and compromising with a new definition to Managed Learning. Definitions that described the LMS/VLE as a process rather than a product. A process described with a variety of tools at hand to do the thing, rather than necessarily a single central tool like say Blackboard or Moodle.. Nice one, that way we all got to keep our jobs and didn’t have to explain the great waste of resources into LMS development and content. The obvious success of social media services compared to the giant failure of educational technologies should have resulted in mass redundancies, but it didn’t. Instead we find people flogging that dead horse with open mimicking within broken toolsets.. MyLearn comes to mind as an attempt to keep those very costly resources somehow relavent…

Next, when the social media affordances starting to dawn on the education sector in 2005, some bright spark programmers in the education sector thought they’d try and “invent” something that would attach them to the giant nipple of the education cash cow.. they brought us the Personal Learning Environment (PLE). It was going to be a solution to the chaos of the social web, it was going to give all those slack education managers something to spend money on so they could say they were on to it, and help with assessment, validation, auditing and mind control.

But then the likes of me and a few others started shouting “snake oil” and thankfully the PLE movement side stepped it again and described it more as a process rather than a product. Another win for freedom, flexibility, personal choice and financial savings.

Now, the “ePortfolio” just won’t go away and we have products like Mahara knocking at our door today, getting big public money grants, and distracting our teachers and students from just jumping into the Net and learning core transferable skills such as managing RSS, editing Wikipedia, loading to Youtube, using Google Docs, Maps, and learning how to manage their online identity across all the platforms they are REALLY going to use (and yes, including that abomination called Facebook!)

I’m still waiting for the side stepping from the ePortfolio crowd, the bit where it becomes more about the process rather than the products.. in the meantime it seems like everyday I am having to explain to colleagues that the word ePortfolio is a sales pitch gimmick for something we already freely have access and do!… since, well.. the Internet.. but more realisticly 2004 when Google bought Blogger etc.

One such colleague who I constantly harass with this gripe (poor thing), is Sarah Stewart. Thankfully, I think she is agreeable to my brain washing now and will be a loan voice over in Brisbane for the Australia ePortfolio Symposium (trade show?)…

Man! When will these distractions and money diverters cease! Probably when the education cow stops waving its teats around and focuses on reality. There is a life time of usefulness and need to know right here on the WWW of information and communication that we need to be showing people how to use  well. We have a real world of it to learn in and we don’t need classrooms to put up technical and designed barriers to it, or delete our presence when we stop payingtheir fees, or say something unsavoury. We don’t need, and shouldn’t want some out-of-date-before-its-off-the-shelf product to interface with our use of the Net just so education bean counters can have an easier time assessing, validating and reporting to audits. Just get in there and use the web as it comes, and learn to use it intelligently, and help education managers learn how to save a couple of million dollars on software gimmicks and adjusting job descriptions to suit the “changes”.


Update: Just found this post from Derek Wenmoth relevent.VLEs slow to take off.

Ah well – I guess we’re still embarking on the journey. What I’d hope we’ll see though is an equivalent amount of energy, effort and expense put into understanding the pedagogical value and opporutnities of a VLE/LMS/MLE as we are seeing go into the development (and sales) of products, systems and applications.

We were all then convinced that it was necessary for us to speak, write, and print as quickly as possible and as much as possible, and that it was all wanted for the good of humanity. And thousands of us, contradicting and abusing one another, all printed and wrote – teaching others. And without noticing that we knew nothing, and that to the simplest of life’s questions: What is good and what is evil? we did not know how to reply, we all talked at the same time, not listening to one another, sometimes seconding and praising one another in order to be seconded and praised in turn, sometimes getting angry with one another – just as in a lunatic asylum.

Leo Tolstoy: A Confession. 1882

CogDogBlog with photo sampled from Farhang.

A lesson I learned from a mentor a long time ago is that as a facilitator, an organizer, our prime role is nothing more than to create a reasons for people to come together. Once they are there, great things can happen. CCBy: CogDogBlog with photo sampled from Farhang.

Facilitating Online Communities has come to an end for the year.

When the course started in July, we had a flattering 84 expressions of interest for participation from a wide range of countries:

  1. Solomon Islands
  2. Philippines
  3. Spain
  4. Switzerland
  5. Argentina
  6. Poland
  7. Israel
  8. Portugal
  9. Norway
  10. Nigeria
  11. Brazil
  12. Australia
  13. United States of America
  14. India
  15. Pakistan
  16. Canada
  17. United Kingdom
  18. New Zealand
  19. Mauritius

As expected, a little over 15% of those initial expressions of interest saw the course through to the end. In some ways I found the open course was a little like busking. A crowd attracted a crowd, most people were passers by who were willing to show support for the effort. Very few stayed around for the full show, and understandably fewer were interested in paying a fee for formal services such as personal support, assessment and certified recognition. I’m now rethinking the financial model for the course, and am interested to see if I can work out a way to make it entirely free.

In the end we had around 6 formally enrolled people complete the course and receive certified recognition for their efforts, and we had at least 9 informal participants complete the course and who could receive certified recognition in the future should they ever be in a position to pay a fee for the assessment, and should they ever consider it to be beneficial to them. A certificate of participation is on offer to those people, and so far one person from Pakistan has nominated themselves to receive that. The certificate of participation will be helpful to them should they opt for formal certification in the future as it will show the assessors in the future that they completed the course. If I can work out a way to offer the course for free, non of this administration and assessment process need be such a concern.

Since the 2008 course has finished, we have had 2 expressions of interest from the USA for formal participation in the 2009 course. As the 2009 course will not start until July, these 2 people will start the course self directed, and take advantage of the socially constructed learning interactions come July. It may well turn out that they will complete before July, that being the case they will simply require assessment and certified recognition for their completed efforts.

In the future, I hope to negotiate partnership with other institutions where if people from countries other than New Zealand participate in the course, they will be able to obtain formal certification from the partnering Institution in their own country. It could be that a new financial model exists in partnering institutions being able to offer our course in their advertised services…

As the facilitator of the course, I spent 110 hours over the 17 week course and the 5 weeks preparation – total being 110 hours over 22 weeks, averaging out to be 5 hours a week. This is an estimate and the exact number of hours will be known in mid January. At least one participant felt that my time with the course was too little. I feel that 17 weeks is too long for the course, and too many topics were put into that length of time. I also think that it could be possible for my facilitation time to be made less time each week, without adversely affecting the progress and support levels for participants. At least I think I should test it.

The combination of length of time, pace of the course and intensity of communication at various points, were key factors contributing to drop off in participation and increase in facilitation workload. I think it will be possible to reduce the number of topics without compromising the quality of the course, and minimise inefficiencies through smarter design of activities and combination of topics.

For example, the start of the course was a hellish workload for everyone as the first couple of weeks relied on the use of an email forum to coordinate and communicate. The initial number of interested people overwhelmed the email forum with technical preparations and introductions, as well as repetitive questions and some off topic or inappropriate suggestions (innappropriate considering the wide range of experience levels among the participants). Next time I will design a buffer period at the start of the course so as to absorb most of this initial flurry and spread it in a way that creates less noise and stress to people entirely new to the technology. Rather than centralising communications in an email forum at the start, my thoughts are to decentralise and make it appear as though its a very quiet and individual start, but slowly bring it together through activities over the following weeks (and eventually to an email forum if required). This could more successfully demonstrate the idea of networked communications. This approach should allow people to focus on tasks as they attempt to master fundamental tools like their blogs. This buffer period would need to involve unique and interesting activities so that technically experienced people are presented with an engaging enough start that will occupy their enthusiasm in a more helpful and constructive way for the people with less experience. I’m considering the use of Youtube for initial introductions from everyone in video forum mode… as suggested by Craig Hansen. Using Youtube in this way is commonly perceived as a technically difficult task, but is in fact a simple process – probably resulting in a confidence boost for many participants.

A successful activity in the course was the course miniconference. The measure of success is not in terms of numbers of participants, but in the clarity of learning outcomes evident in the blog posts of those who took part in it, such as Elaine. This activity seemed to greatly benefit a number of people’s understanding of key theoretical points discussed in the course. Without this activity, we are sure that such understanding would not have developed. Kay Lewis suggested that a dummy run of the online conference earlier in the course would have helped develop understanding sooner and thus given her the opportunity for deeper learning once the proper mini conference took place. I’m still thinking about how to work two conference activities into the course without loosing other important topics, but and tending to think that given the overview nature of the course, I’m not sure if anything beyond an ah-ha moment is needed… hopefully that moment would be enough to motivate the participants to go out and seek their own opportunities and test new ideas for themselves once the course is over.

Over all the course was a success both in terms of learning outcomes for participants, feedback obtained so far, and my own learning while developing and testing this new models and the techniques needed to facilitate it. There is still some work needed to be done with the administrators of the course to make sure they understand how it is run (very differently to the Blackboard they are used to), what they need to do to support the course, and discussion on how we can accomodate the internationalisation better. Thankfully they have been quite open to the developments so far.

Thanks to all those people who took part and helped carry FOC08 through to the end.


free 'sweet' hugs ccby: kalandrakas

Tertiary education in New Zealand is publicly funded through a system known as Equivalent Full Time Student (EFTS). Basically, the government gives money to a course on a per student basis, with the amount determined by the credits or points value of the course, how many learning hours there are, and what the equivalent is in full-time weeks. Different institutions add a fee on top of the EFTS funding for each student to pay… apparently to cover operating costs (or even make profit).

I don’t yet know what dollar value 1 full EFTS is, but lets say its $10000.

If I run a course for 10 weeks at 5 hours per week, the EFTS value might work out to be something like .04 EFTS as it is less than a full time course.. if my guesstimate of 1 EFTS being $10000 is near right, then the funding available for one student doing my course would be .04 of that, or $400. How many students do I need to run my course on EFTS only? How much does it cost to run my course?

My course goes for 10 weeks, and requires a facilitator to commit 5 hours per week to run the course:

Facilitator: 50 hours at $50 per hour = $2500

It also needs promotion, a little printing material, and some administrative assistance:

Marketing and administration= $1000

And I need to ensure that there are learning support services available to people, such as access to Community Learning Centres, student support services, and library services (if ever the library gets with the times).

Student services levy = $500

My course is a distance learning course, meaning I don’t need to book rooms or use classroom equipment. I use freely available Internet services to conduct the course so I don’t need computer labs or IT services. So lets call it at this point:

The running cost for the course = $4000

So I need a minimum of 10 formally enrolled, EFTS bringing students to run the course. At $400 per student, this would bring in $4000 to the course. With 10 students, my course breaks even.A pretty lean ship, but afloat non-the-less…

If I can run this course on the EFTS funding only, then the course is effectively free to those 10 students, because I am not charging a student fee on top of the EFTS funding. If they formally enrol, I get .04 EFTS for each person.

Now how do we make it free for everyone?

If the 10 people are not having to pay a fee, then they won’t mind if other people do the course for free. I could accept 20, 30, 100 people into the course if I knew I could still run it for the $4000. As long as I have my minimum 10 people formally enrolled and bringing in that .04 EFTS each.

These 10 people must be New Zealanders. So once we have 10 New Zealanders enrolled, we can start the course and open it up for anyone else to participate. Anyone from anywhere, for free. From the New Zealand Government’s point of view, 10 New Zealanders are getting educated. From my point of view, 20, 30, 100 people are getting educated. If the Government take issue with tha idea, they could think of it this way: 20, 30 or 100 of these people are not New Zealanders, not only should this not matter because they have only paid for 10 NZers, but we now have 20, 30 even 100 international (and local) people engaging in New Zealand education which could well lead to future investment, migration or other international exchanges. I have witnessed this very thing emerging out of the Facilitating Online course for example.

If I can work out how to run a course on EFTS only, and then make that course openly available to anyone without it resulting in higher running costs, I would be making that course available for free to anyone in the world provided I had the minimum number of New Zealanders formally enrolled to start the course in the first place. The example budget I put here was based on 10 people… I wonder if the course was free whether we might not attract 15 New Zealanders and thus a little more funding. Could we invest that extra $1250 in staff training and resource development?

Obviously my course is designed to run on the smell of an oily rag, but I reckon there’s a few courses that could run more this way. Apart from the issues of getting teachers skilled up to run courses on oily rags, the concern is that this is political. I seem to be the only one trying to think of ways to make New Zealand education free for anyone, and that most people see EFTS as a subsidy rather than full funding. I’m sure there will be political blockages all over the place in this…

It seems that most people in the NZ tertiary education sector have become very comfortable with a user pays education system, to the point where an egalitarian system like in Scandinavian countries now seems very distant, and that 10 billion dollars in student debt is acceptable! Despite the fact that the managers and teachers behind this current education system are majority a generation who enjoyed access to free education when they were students – at a time when their generation swelled the demand significantly!

If we could do it then, why not now? We have technology that enables us to scale at little extra cost, we have just enough government funding there to be able to run a few courses at least, but is there a political will anywhere to set New Zealand education apart and make it free.. for everyone who wants it!

L4C Workshop in Tuvalu. November 2008

L4C Workshop in Tuvalu. November 2008

In Tuvalu I experienced my first OLPC reality test. I’ve touched them before, drooled over them at an expensive conference in Wellington while I stuffed my face with Atlantic salmon and caviar finger food one morning… but up until now, I had never had the opportunity to see or use them in the context they were designed for. What follows are my notes on such an opportunity, using brand new OLPCs in a wiki training workshop for teachers in Tuvalu, a small Island nation in the middle of the South Pacific.

The setting:

The workshops I’ve been running here are for the Tuvalu Ministry of Education. They have me here for a Wikieducator initiative called Learning for Content (L4C). Many primary and secondary teachers from around the Islands of Tuvalu are here, as well as people from non government organisations and service areas in Tuvalu. The organisers and I thought it would be a good idea to run the session on the new OLPCs, and expose the teachers to what was coming to their students.

We are working in a large room on the second floor of the Government building, over looking the Funafuti atol. It is very hot in that room all day, and I try to keep prime position in front of the only fan. There is a wireless network set up from a main satellite connection and distributed through a Linksys wireless router situated in the room with us. The OLPCs were fresh out of the box and the IT person had only had the afternoon before to familiarise herself with them.

The OLPC experience:

The first thing I noticed (but already knew about) was the radically different operating system interface is. It doesn’t look anything like any Linux distribution I have used before and it certainly looks nothing like any Windows or Mac OS. This operating system is out on its own again, a 4th operating system if you will, and while I at first was mighty impressed by it back in Wellington while eating caviar, I have serious reservations about it here in Tuvalu…

The next thing I noticed was the browser. At first glance it looks a little like Google’s Chrome, but less than 3 clicks around you soon realise that its not of course. I couldn’t for the life of me work out how to get new browser tabs happening, and I suspect that tabbed browsing is not possible! The apparent absence of such an important browser feature had me seeing doubts about the approaching workshop. If I couldn’t even work out the browser, let alone the operating system, how the hell was I going to run a workshop for 40 odd people through it over the next 6 days?

Its funny, it only takes one peculiarity of a thing – compared to what we’re used to of course, and we start to look out for more and see only the faults. I started to notice the differences a lot more from this point on, not in terms of innovation – though on reflection I can see many aspects of the software that could be seen as innovative, but more in terms of usability and limitations to what we needed to be doing.

I couldn’t work out how to save and recover files from a USB. Admittedly I was by now very short on time and didn’t look long or hard for it, but I was continuously thrown off by new icons I hadn’t seen before, trying to work out what signified what and where, and how long a thing took to initiate, how to quit a thing, or how to swap windows. As with most things that require patience, I had to walk away from this one and get the classroom ready for a workshop I was now dreading.

Soon we had somewhere near 20 people in the room for day 1. The nice little charm of the OLPCs turning on started filling the room.. great, everyone found the on button. The IT lady was running around connecting everyone to the wireless network, but each computer was taking a dreadfully long time to connect, often hanging once the access key was entered, or just dropping the connection soon after it found it. I needed a projector to demonstrate things in the workshop, but couldn’t plug an OLPC into the projector. The only other device on hand was a standard 17 inch laptop with Windows Vista on it 😦

I filled some time raving about the OLPCs and how much I was stoked to be in a room full of them, and how they were the thing that inspired Asus and others to start putting out great little things like the Eee PC.

Eventually we had enough OLPCs connected to proceed, and we packed up the 3 or 4 that just didn’t connect or misteriously turned themselves off after a few seconds.

After I had given a little show and tell on the projector it was now a job of going around and showing each person how to find and start the OLPC browser and bring up the wikieducator website.

I’d say about 1/3 of the group had used computers before, and all of those people would have used a Windows operating system. While their intuition seemed to get them at least as far as I had before the workshop, that intuition wasn’t any use beyond that point. We were into a case of the blind leading the blind. No one worked out how to get tabbed browsing going, one guy managed to get a Logitec wireless mouse working (highly recommended btw!), and no one worked out how to save and recover files from a USB. Those who had not used computers much before were not at much of a disadvantage to the rest of us. We were all using computers for the first time it seemed, and so I couldn’t rely on anyone to help others.

And here is my point. It would seem that the designers behind the OLPCs have been so carried away with their design innovation that they lost sight of something critical. That the people on the ground who are going to hand out and help administer these things are likely people who have at least some experience with computers. And like it or not, that experience will have been based on a Windows or Linux operating systems, and probably only in as much as the graphic user interfaces would offer. While I can appreciate innovation and have a high tolerance threshold for new ideas, the differences between the OLPC and any other interface are so great that it simply left me and anyone else who might have been able to assist feeling useless and unable to help, and that will be the OLPCs undoing when they hit the ground they were designed to be used on.

To be honest, I would sooner hand out $400 Asus Eees, just because they don’t need an instruction manual like the OLPCs do. EeePCs run on Linux too, but what the developers of their operating system got right was that they understood how much they could rely on user intuition, in fact I would say that this was a primary element in their design brief. If you’ve never used a computer before, you’ll be able to work out the Asus EeePC. If you have used Windows, Mac or and Linux, you’ll know how to work out an Asus EeePC. What’s more! If your first computer is an Asus EeePC you will easily work it out AND develop computing intuition along the way that will be useful for using Windows, Mac or Linux (which you will inevitably use if your job involves computing in some way, or you start inheriting second hand computers via the electronic waste management center.

The workshop still worked out OK. People got by on the OLPCs and tolerated the frustrations of dropped connection, no right click options, difficult touch pads, overly small scroll bars, and annoying uninformative browser address bars. We got by, but not without a few complaints. We put up with the limitations, and odd peculiarities that I certainly wouldn’t call innovations, and we were able to use the OLPCs for accessing and editing pages on Wikieducator.

I am still mightily impressed with the obvious innovations in the OLPCs. Things like keeping most of the hardware in the screen and so elevating the main vulnerability out of splash zones of spilled drink. (A fan, cranking full tilt around the room WILL sooner or later spill a half empty plastic cup of water across the desk or floor). And I do actually like the keyboard configuration, even without a forward delete key.

But I think it was a terrible mistake to go too far into new territory with the operating system. There are clear advantages to leveraging from experienced people’s computing intuition, but the OLPCs have decided to go way outside that realm and force everyone to learn a whole new metaphor, essentially plonking a 4th operating system on the table. Yes there are innovations in some of that software and interface design (for techno and edu geeks), but OLPC has shot themselves in the foot with mass users. The software innovation would have been better deployed on some other laptop project that wasn’t so reliant on mass take up, or wasn’t concerned with things like relevance and transferability of skills. The similarities between Windows, Linux and Apple are close enough for an intuitive person to migrate between the 3. The OLPC could have (should have) used Ubuntu and leveraged the massive support network out there, but the OLPC is out on its own and too soon… I wonder if they’ll work OK with Ubuntu or Asus Xandros on them? Hackers?

Oh, and by the end of day 2, the heat and humidity seemed to have gotten the better of at least one of the OLPCs.. its touch pad was lifting and seemed to have freed itself from its adhesive. I can’t imagine how they’ll be a few months from now, with the salty, humid air all around us… perhaps OLPCs are designed to withstand that too?


Despite all that I’ve said here, I still love the OLPC – the ideas in it at least. Like I said originally, back in 2005 – OLPCs have more to offer people in the wealthy economies than they do in poorer ones. They have forced computer designers in wealthy countries to rethink their commodities and release cheap, strong, portable and better designed computers at more accessible price ranges. They have lead us to consider the savings possible through the use of free software (at last). And they have indicated to us that it could be possible to develop very cheap computers and so conceivable that everyone have one (if we still think that to be advantageous). But from my experience in Tuvalu, the OLPCs got the software wrong for their mission. The Asus EeePC (arguably a result of the OLPC initiative) got it right, but ironically don’t share the OLPC mission.

To the Tuvaluans I would suggest selling the OLPCs on eBay and fetch the $300 you could get from collectors in the United States and Kingdom, then use that money to buy Asus EeePC or similar. That is if you can’t get another operating system working on the OLPCs.

List of things wrong with OLPCs Operating System:

  1. The connectivity metaphore on start up is inappropriate for people in areas where connectivity is a long way away. The OLPC is more useful to people in Tuvalu as a device for games, media and typing before it is for connecting to the Internet, so the connectivity interface should not be the main focus at start up.
  2. That said, we were using wireless connectivity in the Government building, but the OLPCs holding that connection was flakey. We had no trouble keeping a connection to the network on the Windows machines, but the OLPCs kept dropping. Placing a Wireless modem in the room with us seemed to help the situation. Another problem relating to connectivity was the amount of time some of the OLPCs took to connect. Some didn’t at all. All of them need clearer indication of progress in connecting.
  3. The pop up menu for the operating system is very frustrating and seems to be affected by processing. Sometimes it is slow to initiate and even slower to disappear. I think its better to use the key on the keyboard instead, and turn off the mouse over feature.
  4. Need better preloaders for the software. When we clicked an icon the software takes a while to load. Sometimes the loader dialog that says “starting” would take too long to appear. The icon does appear in the pie chart indicating active applications, perhaps something in that graphic could more effectively illustrate it as loading.
  5. The browser must have tabbed browsing! If I missed where it was, then it is too hard to find. There was no right click option on any of the OLPC we were using, and I don’t know if there is meant to be. If the tabbed browsing relies on a right click then we were thwarted. Also, I think the browser needs work on its layout and features. The address bar takes up too much room and for some unkown reason wants to display the page name instead of the URL. The URL is for more useful in terms of information, and having to click into the address bar just to check the URL is just silly. The scroll bars are too small, and especially noticable when managing a website with a scrolling window inside it, like the edit view of a wiki. We didn’t try any ajax, java or flash – but I hope they are good to go!
  6. I couldn’t work out how to manage files. I could download PDFs ok, but it was a bit of a fumble to display them, and I have no idea how to save them. I tried plugging in a USB but as far as I could tell, no new icon appeared offering me access, and nowhere in the browser of the PDF display could I find how to save the file to the USB.
  7. I wonder about the touch pad. I am used to using them and use the one on this Asus all the time, but seeing as the OLPCs are so ready to think outside the square, lets rethink the touch pad. If you didn’t have the touch pad, you could have so much more room for keys! Apart from supplying a small mouse (which is infinately more easy to use) I wonder if the game controllers in the screen could substitute a mouse, as could smart use of the tab key. That little blue dial that IBM used in the middle of their keyboard had potential I thought.
  8. I reckon the operting systemm and software should completely change, and I’d suggest something like what Asus has done. I can certainly appreciate the innovations that I’ve found so far, but the extreme difference between the OLPC and other OS is too great, and will affect the usefulness of the laptops… think of it like Vista.. you are causing stress and lock in by being so different. The OLPC is not the place to experiment if your primary objective is to offer people in poorer econimies to access and exploit opportunities. Of course there is the new opportunity of servicing and adminstering the OLPCs themselves, but that’s hardly sustainable and I hope it wasn’t planned for!

I have a hunch that no one potentially knows more about “learning styles” than a good marketeer. Emphasis on good. And that education could get a whole lot more sophisticated in this area if it was to look into contemporary marketing ideas and practices.

Cathy Sierra planted that seed in my head back in Feb 2007 with her post Marketing should be education, education should be marketing. Ever since then I’ve been on the look out for a good marketeer who is ready or willing to talk about education. Next week I’m meeting with a marketing researcher which I hope will lead me to something interesting in terms of what marketing and education speak could do for one another.

Otago Polytechnic spends pretty big on its marketing and brand development.. some of it is great, some of its real bad, some of it has a lot more potential than key people realise. A lot of the problems in that marketing and branding exercise is touched on in this presentation called The Brand Gap: How to bridge the distance between business strategy and design. (Thanks for pointing it out Peter).

As with most of these things, different people will interpret it differently, and we will probably never make the time to stop and talk about the many discussion points worth having out of this slide show.. worse, I doubt the people that call the shots on marketing and branding in my neck of the woods will ever look at this presentation, let alone discuss it here. I think it would be a valuable ideas exercise to try and relate the points in these slides to the concerns branding and marketing a public educational institution…

Another thing on many people’s minds, and that some how relates to this post is Scott Leslie’s post about sharing, where he details the differences between individuals networking online, and institutions.. doing.. what is it they do again?

I reckon the subtitles in your post Scott, are the bones down for a swarvo slide presentation like that brand one above… if it wasn’t for your non-commercial restriction, I’d do it for ya 😉

  • We grow our network by sharing, they start their network by setting up initial agreements
  • We share what we share, they want to share what they often don’t have (or even really want)
  • We share with people, they share with “Institutions”
  • We develop multiple (informal) channels while they focus on a single official mechanism
  • What to do if you are stuck having to facilitate sharing amongst a large group of institutions?


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