Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Further surface update :-)

My surface arrived yesterday afternoon - much quicker than expected!

It feels very solid, and looks great. Not had a gret deal of time to play with it yet, but a few initial thoughts:

  • The flip out stand makes it a bit too close to vertical for me - more suitable for watching a video than using it as a laptop replacement. A specs case underneath sorts that out, and lifts the keyboard to a nicer angle.
  • The touch keyboard works -  I don't think I'd type an essay on it, but fine for notes, or short blog posts like this. The track pad and right mouse button are a nice addition to touch screen functionality.
  • The screen is excellent.
  • One complaint I saw in a review was that it doesn't use a mini-USB for charging - my last non-intel Windows computer (a Jornada 620) broke when it fell of a table and the power connector damaged internal connections. The Surface's magnetic connector avoids this risk.
  • Size is slightly longer and narrower than an iPad, and similar weight. This won't fit in my jacket pocket, so I suspect my Archos will still be in use at conferences.
Further thoughts later...

Monday, October 29, 2012

Surface update

Still no Microsoft Surface :-( - Microsoft cancelled my order due to the bank suspecting fraud, and refusing payment. Although I phoned Microsoft within an hour of this happening, and subsequently sorted things out with the bank, my order could not be reinstated. This means I'm back at the end of the queue, and probably won't get my Surface for two or three weeks.

I also tried to get a copy of Windows 8 for development this morning - rather than an iso download I ended up with an installer, and it won't install on my VirtualBox VM. I'll have to try with a different host machine, but I'm rather irritated that I wasn't given the opportunity to download an iso image, which would make that easy.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Windows 8 and the Surface

I don't have a Surface yet :-( - apparently U.K. customers are only getting them shipped today, while North American customers were getting theirs dispatched to arrive today. However, I've have been playing with Windows 8 for a while now, and have set it up on a VM so I can do development for the Surface. I initially disliked Windows 8, which going by on-line comments seems to have been most people's reaction, however I'm beginning to appreciate it now. The key thing to realise when using Windows 8 on a standard PC is thet you need to use the keyboard more and the mouse less - and that is great for productivity. I can't quite see the point of Window Store apps on a desktop (or decent laptop) computer - I'd rather have an option at install time to have a Desktop or tablet orientated default interface, however the new tile start page is actually a big improvement on the start menu when using the keyboard. Of course, having Windows Store application support does mean that the Surface Pro can use an identical OS to desktop and laptop computers, which makes a lot of sense.

The main criticism of the Surface and Windows RT so far seems to be the lack of apps, however these critics are rather missing the point. Of course there are very few RT applications when most developers couldn't get their hands on an RT machine for testing before today! However, creating applications for MetroWindow Store and Windows RT should be relatively painless. The previous ARM version of Windows (WinCE) which I used on a couple of HP Jornadas required major rewriting of not only the user interface, but also C++ libraries to port an application from the desktop. With Windows RT standard C++, C# and VB libraries will all work unmodified, and only the user interface aspects of an application need changed. If your code base is well designed, with nice orthogonal modules and well defined tiers then creating an RT version of an application should be fairly straight forward. Although the Windows Store is fairly empty at the moment, just like the Android and iOS ones were when they started, I expect it will fill much more quickly, and more importantly, and the quality of the initial offerings from the ISVs who're just getting their hands on test machines today (or on Monday for those of us in the U.K.) are likely to be serious quality applications because they can build on existing code.

Anyway, I might blog about how good or bad the Surface and Windows RT really are next week, when I (hopefully) will actually have one...

Friday, September 14, 2012

LTI stuff

I've just blogged about my LTIQuizzes application on the QTI support blog, something I should really have done several months ago when we started using it for demonstrations of how IMS Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) could be used to link in a QTI assessment player to Moodle or Blackboard. Over the next few months I expect to be doing quite a lot of more LTI development, which will involve finishing off LTI tool library code in PHP, Java and C# and creating a new test application which will be more convenient to use the IMS test code, and potentially could be used as example code for adding LTI support to a VLE. I'll write more about this tool soon, once the first prototype version is ready for other people to try out. I think this will probably also be the first LTI application that I put through the IMS certification process, as it will be important for people using it to test their own tools to know that it is the correct implementation of LTI.

Monday, July 23, 2012

CAA 2012

The week before last I attended the 15th International Computer Assisted Assessment conference in Southampton. This was the fifth time I've attended CAA, and for the second year our QTI projects were running a preconference workshop the day before. We made use of my LTIQuizzes QTI system during the preconference workshop, and were able to develop questions in Uniqurate and demonstrate them being delivered in Moodle using LTIQuizzes. As Paul has already mentioned in his blog this exercise was quite useful for finding minor problems with the software, and LTIQuizzes will be benefiting from that.

Sarah and Paul have both beaten me to blogging about the conference, so I'll keep this short try and avoid repeating what they have said.

I was involved with three papers and a poster, though my co-authors did the majority of the presenting. The first of these to be presented, “Peer Assessment Assisted by Technology” co-written with Sarah Honeychurch, Craig Brown & John Hamer was unusual for me in that it didn’t mention QTI. Sarah did the majority of the presentation with me helping out. At the end of the conference we found to our huge surprise that we'd won the Joanna Bull Prize for Best Paper!

Our poster, “Integrating Standards-Based Assessment into VLEs” co-created with David McKain & Sue Milne, was one of just five posters there. It covered recent work on QTIWorks and my LTI connector. This picture shows Sue describing some of the finer points to Sarah...

On day two one strand was almost completely taken up by QTI related papers from collaborators on the JISC funded QTI-PET, QTI-DI and Uniqurate projects. The first was Graham Smith's paper describing our QTI support website, originally set up under QTI-IPS and being maintained under QTI-PET. Paul then described the latest developments on QTI authoring with Uniqurate. Sue presented our paper "So Who Uses QTI?" which has a look at some of QTI projects in other contries as well as commercial developments, and the final QTI paper was Dick Bacon's presentation demonstrating several useful question types that can be shared by our QTI systems.

Other interesting presentations included Melody Charman and Chris Wheadon's paper on "(Mis)adventures in E-Assessment" which covered a variety of work varying from small pilots to major studies. One interesting thing they mentioned was the idea of using large numbers of comparisons of pairs of artefacts such as e-portfolios to rank them rather than marking. This is based on the work of Donald Laming coverede in his book 'Human Judgment: The Eye of the Beholder'. I struck me that this might allow a computer mediated grading system for open access courses, with students doing comparisons of their peer's work. Sally Jordan's presentation 'Short-answer e-assessment questions: five years on' looked at automatic marking of short answer questions used in the online assessment component of the OU's S104 science course. Although the initial work was done using complex commercial software, she has got equally good results with simpler marking algorithms, which are now available in Moodle.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Dev8ed (day 2)

Dev8ed (day 2)

After the presenter pitches at the beginning of day two of the first session left me in a bit of a quandary - there were two presentations that I really wanted to see at the same time. One was from Adam Hyde, the project lead for BookType, which is a piece of software which is used by the free/libre/open source software (FLOSS) community to collaboratively create software manuals. BookType could be thought of as a mash up between Google Docs and Wikipedia - basically it is a tool for distributed groups of people to collaborate online to create conventional books. Books created using BookType can be published in all the standard electronic publishing formats or exported directly to Lulu for publication as a print on demand book. The world publishing is rapidly changing as more and more information is made available under free to reuse licences such as Creative Commons, and the future of university textbooks may well be with tools such as BookType that allow a group of authors to collaborate on rapidly producing books. Although Adams talk title of "How to write a textbook collaboratively in five days" was intriguing I decided that I would learn more by attending Diana Laurillard's session on learning design.

Diana, along with Patricia Charlton, was presenting a tool called Pedagogical Pattern Collector which is used to collect and abstract learning designs which can then be adapted and reused. This is nothing to do with the IMS learning design specification, but a much more teacher orientated concept of a learning design. Software developers will mostly be very familiar with the concept of design patterns, established solutions to frequent types of problem which may appear different due to their context but have structurally similar solutions which are best achieved by following the established patterns. Diana is attempting to achieve something similar with teaching practice, and provide a way of scaffolding teachers planning of lessons and courses, and helping teachers make creative and effective use of technology enhanced learning. The software runs online, and has two modes: a browser of which lets you search for and look through existing learning designs, and a designer that let you adapt designs or put in new ones from scratch. I felt that the software could be excellent as a way of helping training of University teachers and GTAs, and also for student teachers, and Patricia told me that they have already used the software for this purpose. Unfortunately the URL of the online demo we used looks very temporary, so I will not link to it here. There is a different (older?) version available here. I'm sure that Diana and Patricia would be delighted to show the current version off to any academics in the UK who wish to play with it.

The next session I attempted to attend was "Learning Technologies and Historical Perspective", but the presenter didn't show up so it ended up with me, Simon Booth and Guy Pursley sitting discussing mathematics education, and the way that by practising solving mathematical problems the brain seems to develop an ability to recognise patterns, and therefore apply the correct solution. There is a lot of similarity between mathematics and software development, and maybe also with teaching.

The final session I attended was on XCRI-CAP, a specification for sharing course catalogue information online in a machine readable format. XCRI-CAP is a bit like Atom or RSS in that it allows a college or university to publish their course information in a form which can be used by an aggregator to make larger course directories, very much like the way that Atom and RSS allow aggregators to pull together blog feeds. XCRI-CAP is backed by JISC and is likely to become a British standard very soon, so it seems likely that if the not very distant future it will become essential for Universities to provide XCRI-CAP descriptions of courses to help with recruitment of students. Adult and continuing education departments are likely to need to make use of XCRI-CAP aggregators to get access to students who are using the public interfaces of these tools to search for courses by location rather than by institution.

Dev8ed (Day 1)

Dev8ed, a two day meeting for software developers working in H&FE, took place at Aston University on the 29th and 30th May 2012. Like the HEA conference there was so much of interest that it was difficult to choose which sessions to attend, but the organizers did alleviate this by having presenters doing pitches where most conferences would have had a plenary, and many of the presenters also did 'lightening talks' - 10 minute mini presentations on their work.
The first session I attended had presentations Fridolin Wild from the Open University and Martin Hawksey from JISC CETIS. Fridolin presented on Widget based personal learning environments which I suspect will be something of increasing importance over the next few years, and may lead to the merging of VLE, e-Portfolio and student portal applications into a single personalised site. Martin has been using Google Spreadsheet as a powerful data acquisition and presentation tool - his blog is well worth a visit to see some of the things he's done. Because Google Spreadsheets can acquire data from twitter this could be a powerful tool for looking at social networking behaviour.
During lunch I had a chat with Chuck Severence who moved from IMS to Blackboard about the same time that Blackboard bought moodlerooms. His views on Blackboard's attitude to Moodle and Sakai are reassuring - their interest in open-source relates to expanding service provision, not getting more customers for their VLE, and their new subsidiary companies will continue to contribute actively to OSS.
In the afternoon I attended a session on IMS Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) by Simon Booth and Stephen Vickers from the JISC ceLTIc project - they have added an LTI link to WebPA (a group work peer-review tool) and will be offering it as a hosted service that other Universities can link to using LTI links from their VLE. To me the great thing about LTI is that it provides a safe way of extending the functionality of the VLE without any risk to the core service - this give great potential for experimental learning technology projects. Stephen has written PHP classes to support LTI and during the course of the meeting Steve Lay almost completed a Python implementation. There were some questions about the possibility of a Perl implementation... Over the next few weeks I'll be liaising with Stephen and Simon to make sure my Java and C# implementations have as similar an API as is practically possible to Stephen's classes which will hopefully allow a single documentation set. Once we have solid and easy to reuse, liberally licenced PHP, Java, C# and Python implementations available I think we should satisfy the needs of most normal developers. I expect someone will create a Perl implementation for the abnormal ones.
I'd have liked to see the session Chuck presented (in his University of Michigan role) on Coursera a massive open online course (MOOC) system. This is interactive distance learning on a grand scale - Chuck's Internet History, Technology, and Security class has approaching 2000 students. Unfortunately the LTI discussions went to too long, so I joined the end of a lightening talks session instead. Malte Ressin's talk on internationalisation reminded us that there's more to internationalisation of software than language - cultural differences mean that colour choice can have quite different impacts, and images that are perfectly acceptable for us can be taboo in other cultures.
Steve Lay talked about OData, a web service data protocol that sits somewhere between the complexity of SOAP and the relative chaos of REST. The OData approach seems to be that they take the best ideas and practice from existing specifications that actually work in practice and standardise them.
The next talk was mine - I briefly described my Java and C# implementations of LTI and demonstrated setting up a quiz running on the Amazon EC2 cloud from the Services Moodle.
I was followed by Guy Pursley from Reading who has been doing interesting things with the Blackboard e-portfolio tool. They wanted a more guided approach to creating a view than Blackboard provides, so Guy has written JavaScript code that guides the student through the process and provides additional hints. Because the code is all client side it should be possible to adapt it to work with Mahara as well. Guy is also keen to get Leap2a support into the Blackboard tool, so hopefully my Leap2a validator will be of use to him.
Alex Iacconi discussed cloud platforms - particularly the ones like Google App Engine and Windows Azure - there's something very appealing about a hosting system that scales as required.
Diana Laurillard gave a brief talk on Learning Designer - more on that later when I blog about day 2 of the meeting.

Monday, April 16, 2012

HEA STEM conference 2012

The HEA STEM conference took place at Imperial College on the 12th and 13th April. The conference was divided into 13 threads covering the range of STEM subjects as well as STEM learning & teaching issues. For me, an Engineer and Biologist who works in IT and is involved in Maths support projects, there was far more of interest than I could possibly attend - fortunatly most of the papers were included on the conference USB stick.

On day one I attended parts of Biosciences thread 1 on Innovative Practice. Anne Tierney presented on how she is using ideas from Illinois Initiative on Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. I liked her approach of getting the students to think about how they extracted information from a short clip from Sherlock Holmes to help them understand Bloom's taxonomy. Cas Kramer from Leicester presented on his board game GENIE, which helps students understand evolution and genetics.

On day two I attended the BioMaths session first, and then the Mathematics and Statistics in Context session where we were presenting. The theme of contextualizing maths to ensure it is visibly relevant to the students was a key part of both sessions. Jenny Koenig's presentation covered her report "A survey of the mathematics landscape within bioscience undergraduate and postgraduate UK higher education" - I found it surprising how varied the maths entry requirements for bioscience are across UK universities, and also worrying how basic the maths understanding of those with a GCSE in maths can be. Marcus Tindall from Reading gets biology to learn maths by giving them appropriate material - his Hodgkins/Huxley example was familiar from when I was teaching in Zoology, however we missed out most of the maths. I like the approach, but I think Marcus is probably teaching students at the upper end of the entry maths spectrum.

In our session we were preceded by Martin Greenhow who demonstrated questions from his Maths E. G. database. This is an excelent resource, though sadly JISC didn't fund our plans to update and furure-proof it. Perhaps we can revisit that after QTIDI. Our demonstration of Uniqurate and QTIDI felt a bit rushed, so probably not as good as it could have been, however I was able to demonstrate QTI 2.1 being played inside a live University VLE for the first time ever. This is quite a big step towards getting good quality formative assessment more widely available.