Monthly Archive for January, 2009

What I've 'starred' this week - January 27, 2009

Here's some posts which have caught my attention this week:

Automatically generated from my Google Reader Starred Items.

Twitter in higher education

Barack Obama @ Twitter
Barack Obama @ Twitter
Originally uploaded by comicbase

There has been a lot of discussion in the office recently about micro-blogging,twitter in particular, and its place within education. This discussion was started after I reported back to the team about my experiences at the at the CETIS / Eduserv VW2009. While I’ve been following the use of micro-blogging for some time this event was my first opportunity to be in a room where I could follow the live ‘tweets’ from other delegates including some of the presenters (this was only made possible by the organisers specifying a tag which delegates could choose to include in their tweets to make tracking easier).

It was very intrigued to see how various people used twitter. Firstly there were the conference organisers tirelessly bashing away to provide a minute-by-minute summary of what was being said (to such a degree that one of them was frozen out of twitter for making too many posts in one hour). Then there were the presenters, some who bravely listened in to the conference tweets as they delivered their presentations while others posted tongue in cheek threats to the ‘twittering’ audience to behave during their slot. Finally there was the audience providing their immediate thoughts and reflections. As you will see from the cevw09 tagged tweets the discussion has also continued beyond the event.

Back in the office we discussed how twitter might be used in a lecture environment. The initial model I suggested was for students to use twitter to post questions tagged with a unique code during a lecture. The lecturer could then follow these in real-time choosing whether to verbally respond there and then or follow-up after the class. Having a tagged twitter feed could also be used as a communication channel outside the classroom.

It’s fair to say opinion was divided. The biggest concern was it would be too big a distraction not only for those ‘tweeting’ but also the people around them. Its true to say at the VW2009 event there were times when I was more interested in what was going on in twitter, I would however argue that this was not because twitter was a distraction but because the presentation was so poor that I was looking for any distraction!

There is of course an entirely separate issues of the physical distraction of students typing during the class (very recently I was observing a 1st year lecture which was stopped by the lecturer until all laptops were put away). With the increasing affordability of this type of technology it’s inevitable that laptop usage in class will increase. Will we see the segregation of classes into laptop and non-laptop areas? I hope not, but it is hard to see what the solution is.

A better model for twitter integration was suggested which I quite like. This would involve defined periods when students were encouraged to ‘tweet’. For example, 20 minutes in you say to the students “for the next 3 minutes discuss with your neighbour the issues raised so far (or have a specific question you want them to answer). Please feel free to ‘tweet’ your thoughts or questions using the tag #xxxx”. The lecturer could then choose to take a couple of minutes to respond there and then or follow up after the class.

The above model is probably still not without its issues but is there a role for micro-blogging like twitter in education? Yes, but it won’t be for everyone. There are probably two broad strands. There will be students who already use twitter, or similar, and I’m sure as well as organising their social life or telling the world what soup they just ate there will be some who us it in their studies. It might be to co-ordinate projects, looking for support/advice from their friends, sharing their inspirations at the end of the day it will be just part of their personal learning environment.

The second strand will be led by the e-learning champions. There are probably a number of factors to consider to maximise the benefits of micro-blogging. The golden rule is to make sure usage is appropriate. I don’t believe micro-blogging is for everyone and I see it as more of a supplemental tool. I would hate to see a classroom of students being forced to ‘twit’ (possibly with the exception of journalism students for which twitter is becoming an essential tool). Probably the ultimate challenge continues to be that with the disaggregation of the tools students choose to support learning how does the institution stay engaged.

If you want to get some more ideas on how to use micro-blogging in education Professor David Parry has an interesting post on twitter for academia. Another great post by Alan Lew on Twitter Tweets for Higher Education (posted in August 2007! Now that’s what I call early adopter) contains some good resources including Educause’s 7 things you should know about twitter.

What I've 'starred' this week - January 19, 2009

Here's some posts which have caught my attention this week:

Automatically generated from my Google Reader Starred Items.

2009 - the year of the API

What is an API some of you may be asking. API stands for application programming interface and is a set of functions or commands used to control a computer programme. Control can be within the existing programme where the API has been created, but importantly an API can be used by external programmes to  allow them to communicate with each other (Wikipedia has a more technical explanation of an API). 

Having a public and freely available API is becoming a must have for new and existing web services. Technology Magazine has a list of almost 700 Web2.0 APIs, which includes offering from Facebook, Google and even the BBC. This list is long but is not complete and there are new APIs coming out on a weekly basis.

Until recently my knowledge of APIs was concept only with no practical experience. This all changed over the festive break when I decided to roll up my shirt sleeves and push some code. I was spurred on by the discovery of a great web service developed by Hewlett-Packard called Tabbloid.

Tabbloid allows you to submit your favourite RSS feeds it then pulls all the stories together and formats them in a ‘tabloid’ format. The resulting PDF is then conveniently emailed to your inbox either daily or weekly. I was interested in this service because we were looking for a way of automatically creating an attractive PDF version of our fortnightly RSC NewsFeed. [I can also see educational uses or this service. For example, if you have a group of students generating assessed blog posts having a PDF version allows you to automatically create an irrefutable snapshot of the posts.]

While exploring this service I noticed they had a developers page, which within a couple of clicks gave me access to the Tabbloid API. The API allows you to control the RSS feeds you want to include and to make a Tabbloid PDF on demand.

My first experiments with the API were with a standalone application to make a NewsFeed tabloid. It worked well and I could have continued down this line but thought it would be more ‘fun’ to integrate it into the WordPress blog we use for NewsFeed. This required more shirt rolling as it would require coding a new plugin for WordPress using their API. Not satisfied with just trying to get my programme to talk to two APIs I added one more into the mix with integration to Viewer (, a web application which generates images from PDF documents.

A couple of late nights later ‘Make Tabbloid’ was born. As a courtesy I emailed the developers of Tabbloid and Viewer, just to make sure I wasn’t doing anything naughty. To my surprise to project manager for Tabbloid got back to me asking to chat. They were very appreciative of my endeavours and were interested in any feedback I had for their API. In the course of the discussion I mentioned I had a problem removing feeds. This turned out to be a bug in their code, which they were quickly able to fix.  

So what can we learn from this and what are the implications for higher education? The Internet continues to become increasingly mashable. Openness is allowing huge creativity allowing developers to pull and push together lots of different web services into custom applications. This flexibility is making it possible for educators to develop learning environments which are no longer inward looking but instead integrate themselves with the wider web (e.g. SocialLearn).

This model isn’t without its risks. Only today Google announced that it is axing several of its applications including Notebook and Video (full story on Google’s axed services here). With no service level agreement there is also no guarantee that a 3rd party service will be available when you need it. While it’s hard to mitigate against such circumstances I think the risk of not engaging in this area has greater implications.

I’ve now turned my theoretical understanding of APIs into practical application, and I have to say its quite addictive. Since publishing my plug-in I’ve monitored downloads (182 since 06-Jan-2009) and I’m embarrassed to say I’ve even email fellow WordPress bloggers who have previously highlighted the Tabbloid service.

But what makes a good API? This is my blatant opportunity to plug the JISC funded Good APIs project. This project “aims to provide JISC and the sector with information and advice on the factors that encourage use of machine interfaces, based on existing practice”.  As part of this they are looking for respondents to a research survey. More information is here on their blog.

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future, but I reckon 2009 is set to be a big year for educational uses of APIs ;-)

What I've 'starred' this week - January 12, 2009

Here's some posts which have caught my attention this week:

Automatically generated from my Google Reader Starred Items.

What I've 'starred' this week - January 5, 2009

Here's some posts which have caught my attention this week:

Automatically generated from my Google Reader Starred Items.


This blog is authored by Martin Hawksey e-Learning Advisor (Higher Education) at the JISC RSC Scotland N&E.

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