Monthly Archive for January, 2010

What I’ve starred this week: January 26, 2010

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

Automatically generated from my Google Reader Shared Items.

MASHe review: Mobile technology, mobile connectivity

In this second MASHe review I’m going to look back at some of my posts on mobile technology. This is obviously a very broad topic, elements of which were covered in the first review on electronic voting systems, but I’ve identified some specific areas including mobile connectivity; and mobile hardware (phones and netbooks) to theme this post. 

Mobile connectivity

Connectivity is tied to the hardware you use to connect. Broadly mobile connectivity is being achieved through phones or dongles. In September 2008 I posted ‘I don’t need your network, I’ve got Mobile Broadband’, which highlighted that students were potentially less reliant on wireless networks provided by institutions, instead using either their phone or mobile broadband dongle.

Since then networks are beginning to show the strain as they start reaching capacity, not helped by the popularity of streamed media like on demand TV. Interestingly whilst mobile data usage is up it is thanks to the phone and dongle and not, as highlighted in my original post, built-in to laptops which are still the domain of the ‘pro-user’.

One device which wasn’t around back then was mobile wireless routers such as Mi-Fi. These make it possible to create your own wireless network using mobile networks for the data connection. So if you were worried about students accessing dubious content whilst on campus via their phone, now they can do this and share the Internet connection with their friends (hopefully this will mean institutions will focus on e-safety rather than relying on blocking sites).

Mobile and VLEs

A couple of months later I revisited this topic with the post Mobile Internet, Mobile Life, Mobile Learning. This post highlighted the increasing popularity of accessing the Internet through mobile phones. This is further evidence that staying connected is increasing important particularly as we require more ‘on-demand’ access to media, our social networks and data we store ‘in the cloud’.

The ‘on-demand’ culture is influencing education with flexible delivery and blended learning, but as I highlight in the ‘mobile internet’ post certain systems like the virtual learning environment seem ill prepared. There have been some developments in this area and Blackboards announcement last year of a mobile version of their system is probably evidence that manufacturers recognise that mobile optimisation is a must have feature.


I’m probably pushing the ‘mobile’ theme with the inclusion of netbooks, but for me it a very interesting market and one that I’m surprised hasn’t really taken off with students. For the uninformed netbooks are laptops which have been on a diet (slightly smaller, lighter, not as powerful). They first appeared on the market in November 2007 and now virtually every computer manufacturer has a netbook range.

I’ve visited netbooks twice on MASHe. First in September 2008 in Ultra mobile, ultra cheap – Netbooks and then again 6 months later in Ultra mobile, ultra cheap – Which netbook now?. If I was going a follow up post now it would probably be called ‘Ultra mobile, reasonably cheap – Which tablet netbook?’ and in 6 months it would be ‘Ultra mobile – Which tablet?’.

So why haven’t netbooks taken off as a student owned device? Probably because they can get a better spec’d laptop for a similar price and whilst student ownership of laptops is high very few bring them on campus (for various reasons including: storage, lack of desk space with power, using campus desktops instead, not part of teaching/learning).

So it appears manufacturers have realised there market is in the middle ground. Not the high-end titanium clad portable powerhouse  or the low-end portable and cheap, but a medium priced portable second PC which looks nice and has a touch screen. Gong by a recent consumer electronics fair (CES2010) manufacturers are betting on tablet netbooks as filling this market (which maybe of interest to academics looking to replace their conference PC ;)

So if netbooks and tablet netbooks are going to be of limited appeal to students what about ebook readers? Probably not for the foreseeable future. I would argue that the majority of students are looking for multi-function media rich devices like their phone or iPod. 


A potential challenger to Apples dominancy is the Google backed Android operating system. This is an open source project and the community is working hard to compete against iPhone/iPod Touch. Already a number of manufacturers have phones (and even tablets and netbooks) running Android and the platform potentially has a lot to offer. In August last year I wrote Android Mobile OS: Pandora’s box of accessibility opportunities, which gives an overview of the Android project and it’s philosophy highlighting what is already possible in terms of accessibility. Just as there have been a number of educational ‘apps’ for the iPhone, Android is already being used in this area (one use which I covered in the last review was for electronic voting).

Mobile futures

So what has this review shown? Mobile technology has been and will continue to be an important part of life and learning. This is highlighted in the recent Horizons Report, which reconfirmed mobile computing as having a large impact on teaching and learning and I’m sure it will be a topic I’ll revisiting again and again.

Creating a PDF or eBook from an RSS feed (

A couple of weeks ago I was interested to read Joss Winn’s blog post on  Creating a PDF or eBook from an RSS feed in which he highlights using the FeedBooks service. This was ideal timing as we are always looking for new ways to make RSC NewsFeed readable in as many formats as possible.

The post has generated a number of comments, in particular, James Kwak at baselinescenario mentioned that a limitation of FeedBooks was that it didn’t include the post author or date in the automatically generated eBook.

This is very easy to do using Yahoo Pipes. Here is my ‘feedbooks pipe’. You can either run this pipe entering the url of the RSS feed of your blog. This will let you get the RSS feed required for FeedBooks (step 4 in Joss’s instructions). Alternatively you can just enter{enter your blog rss feed url here}. Feel free to clone this pipe if you would like to experiment with other manipulations. I’ve already created this extended version for WordPress users to only include last months posts

feedbooks pipe[All this pipe is doing is taking the feed url, copying the pubDate (item publish date), then using Regex to edit some of the post items. The first regex replaces the long date format (e.g. Fri, 15 Jan 2010 10:03:54 +0000) by extracting the pattern ‘digits character digits’. The next 2 entries modify the post description by putting ‘the author {dc:creator} | the date {date} plus break return’ before the existing content]

What I’ve starred this week: January 19, 2010

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

Automatically generated from my Google Reader Shared Items.

This week’s solutions: export twitter followers, auto anchors for WordPress and shortening urls in twitter badges

Thought I’d share some solutions I’ve found for problems I’ve encountered this week.

Problem: How to export a table (*.xls or *.csv) of twitter followers?
Solution: I first tried which was good because it didn’t ask for twitter account login details, but the results are limited to 100 entries. I then tried which did the job (but does require twitter username and password)

Problem: Adding anchors to WordPress blog?
Solution: This problem was asked by our e-learning accessibility expert, Craig Mill. He wanted to make some of his longer blog posts more accessible by having a table of contents at the top. The solution was very straight forward as MindWireMedia have created the Auto Anchor List plugin which does exactly what we were looking for. The plugin scans though posts and pages looking for headings, automatically creating a navigable contents list at the beginning of the post. To see it in action check out Craig’s e-Inclusion Blog

Long url problem on twitter badgeProblem: How to reformat long urls in twitter badges? We had a problem with urls in the @rsc_ne_scotland twitter badge which we use for News announcements on our site
Solution: Using help from this how-to on Taco Quest and code from sevenofnine on I came up with the code below. If you would like to use it just grab this JavaScript file to replace ‘ blogger.js’ (this method of creating twitter badges has changed but here is an explanation for adding an old widget):

function twitterCallback2(twitters) {
  var statusHTML = [];
  for (var i=0; i<twitters.length; i++){
    var username = twitters[i].user.screen_name;
    var status = twitters[i].text.replace(/((https?|s?ftp|ssh)\:\/\/[^"\s\<\>]*[^.,;'">\:\s\<\>\)\]\!])/g, function(url) {
    var lm = 28;
    var strD = url.split("");
    var strB = "";
    var strT = "";
    var breakChar = "...";
    for(var i=0; i < strD.length; i++){
        strB += strD[i] ;
        if(strB.length >= lm){
            strT += strB + breakChar;
            strB = "";
    if(strD.length < lm){
        strT = url;
      return '<a href="'+url+'">'+strT+'</a>';
    }).replace(/\[email protected]([_a-z0-9]+)/ig, function(reply) {
      return  reply.charAt(0)+'<a href="'+reply.substring(1)+'">'+reply.substring(1)+'</a>';
    statusHTML.push('<li><span>'+status+'</span><br/><a style="font-size:85%" href="'+username+'/statuses/'+twitters[i].id+'">'+relative_time(twitters[i].created_at)+'</a></li>');
  document.getElementById('twitter_update_list').innerHTML = statusHTML.join('');

MASHe Review: Electronic voting systems (clickers)

As we start a new year now seems like an ideal opportunity to revisit some of my old posts, pull out some common themes and reflect on what was and potentially what will be.

For my first theme I want to revisit electronic voting systems (EVS). EVS has been used in education for a number of years. This particular technology has had a well documented positive impact the learner experience, particularly attainment and retention, yet still hasn’t received mass adoption. One of the reasons is probably the cost of bespoke hardware and software. With the increasing mass adoption of mobile phones with Internet connectivity via 3G or campus wi-fi networks there is increasing potential to use student owned devices for in-class voting.

Cans and strings

Over the past 12 months I’ve made a series of posts on how this model could be used. First was the very experimental ‘DIY-PI’. The thinking behind this was to run a local web server with very basic web based voting software which students could then interact with over a shared wi-fi connection. The result was very much a ‘two cans and a string’ solution and never intended as a final product. The post, DIY: A wi-fi student response system, outlines the argument for using mobile phones as voting handsets and containing links to a short demonstration video and the source code used to create DIY-PI.

One of the issues with DIY-PI is, whilst it uses existing open source technology, it requires custom coding to handle the voting and it is fair to say my efforts are very rough around the edge.

Twitter for voting

The model of voting via student owned devices was one I revisited later in the year with TwEVS. TwEVS removes the need for custom coding, instead it mashes existing free web services including twitter to allow electronic voting style interaction. The two posts which cover this are Twitter + voting/polling + Yahoo Pipes = TwEVS (The Making Of) and Electronic voting and interactive lectures using twitter (TwEVS).

This work culminated in a presentation at the University of St. Andrews for the eLearning Alliance. Even though this solution removes a lot of the techie programming it still requires a degree of knowledge to create and embed custom urls into PowerPoint.

Shortly after I made this presentation I was made aware of work by Timo Elliot which used the same concept of conducting votes via twitter but he has a much more elegant twitter integration with PowerPoint.

Voting via text (SMS)

One of the advantages I highlighted about using twitter for voting is that users can setup their account to update messages on twitter via text messaging (SMS). This means even the most basic phones without wireless access can be used, but it still requires students to register for twitter accounts. In the midst of my twitter-for-voting research I came across some other solutions which allow voting via SMS.

The first came courtesy of Sean Eby at This service is specifically designed to make it easy to create and administer voting via SMS (as well as giving users the choice to respond via the web and twitter). One of the feature I like about Poll Everywhere is that they make it very easy to embed polls into your existing PowerPoint presentation. If you have less than 30 people responding to a poll then the service is free (perhaps not enough to test it properly in-class, but still a service worth looking at).

Along similar lines my colleague Adam Blackwood demonstrated how an application for Android mobile phones could be used for voting/polling. More details of this solution are here: ALT-C 2009 I: Mobile technology – proximity push and voting/polling on Android. This solution is slightly different to Poll Everywhere in that votes are administered from the tutors phone using their existing mobile number to collect responses.

A factor which will probably mean SMS voting won’t see mass adoption in the UK is the cost to students for sending a text message although changes in the way mobile contracts are promoted (bundling text messages) may be enough to convince more people to try this solution.

Future trends

It’s unlikely that voting will be for everyone but there is some examples of institutions using student owned phones for collecting responses. The trend appears to be using multiple means, integrating a number of social networking sites, dedicated web interfaces and SMS. An example of this is an application developed by Purdue University, which I highlighted in Hotseat: Any Mobile Will Do. This solution, whilst not explicitly used for voting, also highlights another future trend in this area. The move towards continuing in-class discussion outside the classroom, extending the time students spend actual thinking about new concepts and ideas.

[Final thought: I've been out of the loop with what EVS/clicker manufactures have been doing with their voting software (other than virtual handsets), but I'm sure they must be looking at a similar model of aggregating votes from different sources.]

What I’ve starred this week: January 12, 2010

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

Automatically generated from my Google Reader Shared Items.

A real-time education (etherpad, mindmeister and cacoo)

One of the themes I expect to see for 2010 is more collaborative real-time interaction web applications. I’ve obviously written a lot about Google Wave, but there are a number of other web services which have offered and continue to offer the ability for users to have real-time interaction across the web. I want to highlight a couple of these which could be helpful in making web based learning more engaging.

Word processing - Etherpad

etherpad I was late in finding out about the (really) real-time collaborative text edit site and a couple of weeks after I did it was a bit of a blow to here it was going offline after being bought by Google. Fortunately Google decided ‘to do no evil’ and quickly announced that people could still use the site until March 31st 2010 and that the code for etherpad would be made open source.

The code for etherpad is now available for download and other users have already started hosting their own etherpad sites. This might be particularly appealing to institutions as they can take responsibility for logins, backups etc.

If you are interested in going down this route a couple of posts you might find useful are a very detailed installing etherpad guide and a discussion thread on ldap user authentication, which includes some patch code from one of the original etherpad developers Elliot Kroo (just to say it is fantastic that etherpad are helping other developers use their code).

Mind mapping - Mindmeister

Mindmeister is an online collaborative mind mapping tool. The interface is very easy to use. Like mainly other web services it uses a ‘freeium’ model so the downside is that students will only be able to have 3 mind maps on the go at one time (but these can be exported as image, PDF or RTF). Below is a great video by Thomas N. Burg which highlights mindmeister’s basic functionality (nodes which flash red have been created by a co-collaborator).

Diagrams - Cacoo

Cacoo looks like it would be a great tool for computing students with ready made icons for networks, office equipment and design wireframes (and UML if that is your thing), the site may also have wider appeal with more generic shapes. As well as enabling real-time collaboration Cacoo also has some very useful other features like snap-align and connecting shapes together. The video below has a nice overview:


The web has a reputation of being a dynamic environment but when you think about it most of the time you are looking at static pages. It’s only when you hit the refresh button that new content appears. There are obvious exceptions such as desktop video conferencing but even supposedly synchronous tools like instant messaging only update when the return key is hit. Learner isolation is potentially a factor in terms of retention and motivation and the real time web could be a useful tool in combating these issues.

What I’ve starred this week: January 5, 2010

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

Automatically generated from my Google Reader Shared Items.


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

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