Archive for the 'Software' Category

Educational Firefox Extensions - Juice

I originally put this post together for RSC NewsFeed, but thought worth reposting here:

One of the great features of open source software is the potential for the wider community to start rapidly developing and integrating new features, in many ways utilising the power of the crowd. The web browser Firefox is a great example. Its origins lie in the developers frustrations of developer driven feature creep. Creating an open project has resulted in a staggering number of add-on customisations. Currently there are  over 10,000 official add-on are list on the Firefox site. Whilst many of this extensions haven’t been designed with educational uses in mind many lend themselves to potentially enhancing the student’s learning experience. One such example is the social research extension Juice.

Juice basically allows you to pull up additional research information from a web page by using a simply mouse gesture. The information is then presented in a sidebar so that you don’t have to navigate away from the original page. Juice has a degree of ‘intelligence’ when discovering search results. For example, names of people or places are referenced by Wikipedia while movie names might return results from YouTube or IMDB. This in itself is a great achievement but the makers of Juice have gone one set further by offering the opportunity to link your research results to your Facebook account adding a whole additional social dimension. The clip below explains all:

Meet the new Juice from Thijs Jacobs on Vimeo.

Visit http://grabjuice.com/ to get the Juice extension

If your campus doesn’t support Firefox don’t forget you can download a portable version as part of the EduApps suite, this will allow you to run it from a USB stick. If you are interested in other ‘educational’ extensions for Firefox we’ve created the Educational Extensions Collection which contains some more add-on you might want to tryout yourself or recommend to students.

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 (http://view.samurajdata.se), 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 ;-)

Evernote - Notetaking in the 21st Century

Notetaking is an inevitable part of any students life. It might be taking notes from lectures or books, planning essay structures, to-do lists and much more. Arguably the most mobile notetaking form is pen and paper. While this medium has many affordances such as micro-mobility, read-write-rewrite and personalisation, there are a number of notable limitations. For example, written notes aren’t easy to index, organising them can be time consuming, sharing notes for collaboration is limited, transportation of large amounts can be troublesome. More students are using electronic devices to supplement  ‘traditional’ notetaking and there is a growing number of specialised notetaking software and web services. Many of these solutions also appear to dovetail nicely against new study styles and ways of working.

One such solution which I’ve been recently test driving is Evernote. Evernote is designed to allow you capture notes (including typed text, handwritten notes, web clippings,  photographs, sound recordings and much more) on a wide variety of devices and platforms, allowing you to synchronise with their online web service. The basic signup is free which gives you a 40MB monthly allowance, which is more than enough for me. Your notes remain private and there isn’t currently a system to share them with other users, you can however email them to friends or theoretically directly to other web services like Flickr and Google Docs (I was unable to directly email from Evernote to Google Docs. I think Evernote is struggling with the upload email address provided by Google).

It is possible to organise notes by tagging them and putting them in different notebooks. All of this information is accessible and searchable by any device with a browser and an Internet connection. Even text in images is indexed where possible making it searchable.

There are of course other note taking tools and other web services you could use. For example you could use a basic text editor and use your email inbox as a repository. There are also standalone packages like Microsoft’s OneNote which you can synchronise with a Window’s Mobile device. What I like about Evernote is they way they have tried to cater for multiple platforms and devices integrating it with an online service which gives me access to my notes anytime, anywhere.

About

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

mhawksey [at] rsc-ne-scotland.ac.uk | 0131 559 4112 | @mhawksey

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