Sunday, November 12, 2006

Post poster reflections: openness and open courseware

Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time.

It's already a month since Educause 2006 finished and it feels like it happened only a few days ago.  However, that's time enough for me to stand back a little and reflect on why I went in the first place and particularly what - if anything - has emerged.

One of the main reasons for my attendance was to promote Bodington through the poster session.  A bit of rush at the last minute, but eventually my colleagues furnished me with enough to weigh me down - laptop, CDs, posters, leaflets etc, resulting in a pot pourri presentation - lots to see, but perhaps not so coherent (this was at the end of the session and remarkably two Thornton mint chocolate creams remain).   If I ever get to do another poster, I shall endeavour to bring someone with me because once the doors opened, there was a constant flow of people, so no time to take a look at the other stalls.

I had various conversations, distributed lots of fliers about the Bodington 2.8 release, gave a few demos of the system, and handed out quite a few WebLearn bootable CDs.  What about the topic 'From Personalized Learning to Open Courseware: Learning Management Systems Can Be Flexible'?  I didn't receive a single query about personalized learning, which I found a bit surprising, though it may be that the term has been much more widely promoted in the UK than elsewhere, because of high level UK government support.

However, the title got spotted by a group from the OpenCourseWare consortium, and several of them came over, curious to know what I was presenting and seeing an opportunity for another member!  I subsequently attended their panel session and came back to the UK with plenty of enthusiasm.  However, since then my enthusiasm has waned as I consider a number of issues.

  1. Institution backing
    OCW requires institutions to participate.  In Oxford that means going through various committees etc. That would require considerable impetus and, I expect, take a long time to progress...
    With the already highly distributed nature of the University, it seems to me more natural for departments and their staff to make their own decisions as to whether or not to offer such materials online in such a way.
  2. ResourcingJoining OCW is not a trivial matter - institutions devote FTE staff to it.  MIT who pioneered OCW got started with Mellon funding and the Open University's OpenLearn received a large grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
    Resources will be needed on an ongoing basis to maintain the content so that it doesn't fall out of date.  Contributions don't need to be on a large scale (10 courses minimum), but it will need explicit resources.  Having said that, one could be optimistic about financial support for Oxford's sharing it's academic wealth.
  3. IPR and commercial exploitationIf this is an institutional venture, then decisions are taken at institutional level and that includes IPR.  It's not an area I know much about, but my general impression is that as something becomes institutional, there are more processes, they become more formalised and generally have a higher order of complexity.
    Further, within the institutional sphere, we are expected to give due financial consideration.  We have Oxford University Press, which is publishing more content in electronic format.  One means of doing this is to produce content in IMS standard packages (e.g. SCORM and IMS Common Cartridge) to accompany some of its books.
  4. Alternative open publication meansI think this is a key issue.  This year has seen a dramatic growth in institutions joining OCW, so it may be tempting to project exponential growth, but the numbers are still small.  OCW is very particular about what qualifies as OpenCourseWare, in terms of IPR and what constitutes courseware, whereas when I was using the phrase 'open courseware' for my poster, I was really just addressing the question of enabling delivery for Web-based course content that is not closed!
    Assuming the institution does want to publish openly, then are there suitable alternatives that may be cheaper?  At the institutional level, in the UK there is JORUM an online repository for teaching in FE and HE, a free service.  However, it's only open to staff at these participating institutions, and the content is more granular than a course and sits outside by any particular institution.   Also, it appears that the outputs are not that considerable as Andy Powell wonders how well used it really is

With the rise of Web2.0, I'd recommend consideration of the relative merits of lightly structured informal versus more heavily structured formal processes.  It depends what you want to achieve and the effort that you are prepared to put in.  An academic might wish to share knowledge, grant more opportunities for others to learn, but also to connect with others in the field and build up a peer publishing community; whereas a marketing department might see it differently as a chance to enhance the institution's image and attract more students, and give it the edge over competitors.  These views do have some aspects in common, but the processes, and especially the nature of involvement, are radically different.  I see the former as more self-directed and organic, whereas the latter is predisposed to central co-ordination and may impose too many formal hoops to go through.  However, would the latter keep a better shape and endure better in the longer term?

I think both approaches can work: the debate around the academic integrity of Wikipedia highlights the importance of authoritative sources, quality control etc.  However, successful publications of the Web have in recent times been characterised by rapid organic growth achieved by making things simple and easy to participate.
There are other issues, but I think there's already enough for a few teas and coffees.  It's not so straightforward as I initially thought.

Answers can be sent on a postcard to ... or else comments are welcome. :-)

Friday, November 10, 2006

Moblog doodle support

Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time.

Whilst carrying out some moblogging as part of the RAMBLE project, I sometimes wanted to do quick sketches to augment the text input on my PDA.  Now that Firefox 2.0 has been shipped with improved support for SVG, I'd like to revisit the idea of supporting doodles, especially as more smartphones are now coming with styli.  Anyone interested?

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Official opening of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, London

Today was a very special day for the Thai temple I support in Brookwood, Woking. The Vice-Abbot Phrabhavanaviriyakhun (Ven. Dattajeevo Bhikkhu or simply 'Luang Phor') came all the way from Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Thailand to officiate at the ceremony, culminating in the unveiling of a new name plate at the front (facing the roundabout!) at around 11a.m. Our temple is now called Wat Phra Dhammakaya (London). In the morning session there was also meditation, chanting and the offering of robes, providing many opportunities for people to cultivate bright states of mind.

In the afternoon Luang Phor Dattajeevo gave Dhamma instruction. He's very popular in Thailand and has given many teachings, including broadcasts over the radio. He seems very interested in education, especially knowledgeable - he's been up to Oxford and spent hours in various bookshops looking for books that can help him improve the way he communicates (when he came to Oxford he was mainly interested in the way the content was expressed and was particularly looking for 3D representations).

Indeed Luang Phor has previously given Dhamma instruction in English using quite a lot of visuals on OHP to describe the functionings of the mind. However, this afternoon he was more conventional, using mainly words to treat the subject of Kamma. The basis of his discussion today was the Cuulakammavibhangasutta in Majjhima Nikaaya, which translates as a shorter classification of actions. In the Pali Text Society edition it's MN 135 Book III, but the Thai numbering systems appears to be completely different. Thai and English translations were distributed, the English one coming from

Thanks to Phibul Choompolpaisal, a group of us received very useful translations from Thai. We thus heard how the Ven. Dattajeevo's explanations of kamma were rich and varied, with many illustrations, yet all contained within a coherent whole. I'll only quickly paraphrase here. Every volitional act creates kamma; to know which is skilful and which is unskilful requires a neutral mind, but this in turn requires cultivation. It doesn't happen by itself; it's important to develop sila (precepts), and practice chanting and meditation every day. This helps to refine the mind, so that gradually it can assess things in an unbiased way, with an intuition for knowing what's right and what isn't even though the results may not be immediate, rather like planting seeds, that may take a long time to bear fruit (of course, planting seeds is not sufficient by itself - they need nurturing through sun, water etc). And you can apply this to many spheres, including employment.

Practising good deeds generates punya, which is roughly translated as 'merit', which is like a pure form of energy that can fill and empty, in the same way as fuel. Every time you breathe in, you're using up some merit, because life (at least in human form) is meritorious. Thais seem intuitively to know the value of merit very well and hence the Sangha has been well sustained (and, it's claimed, why Thai food is so tasty!) If you do not cultivate merits across a broad front it may mean that even if you try to practice intensively, you may not have the right supporting conditions. (In a similar way at my mother's cremation service the late Ven. Dr Rewata Dhamma also emphasised the need to make and transfer merits to the deceased - like providing good soil for a seed to flourish.)

I had also been invited to join another special ceremony today at the Oxford Buddha Vihara, the Kathina robe offering ceremony and 3rd anniversary. Fortunately, my cousin Jo, was able to come to the rescue and be my representative. We both enjoyed our respective occasions :-)

P.S. I'll see if I can obtain some photos - I didn't have a camera with me.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Post conference: brief reflection

Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time.

Between sessions - outside the arena at the Dallas Convention Center

The dust is now settling after Educause 2006 came to Dallas, Texas. It was the first time I had attended and I enjoyed very much those few days of heightened activity - the Dallas Convention Center was an excellent venue, the presentations were varied and informative, some quite entertaining; the chats were friendly and stimulating, the hotel was comfortable, even my cell phone arrangements worked out fine.

It's tempting to think that when a conference closes with its final keynote, that you can slowly wend your way home and have the luxury of gently pondering all that's gone on. I was back in Oxford on Friday, so at least I had the weekend, but I used up a fair amount catching up on sleep and I spent the greater part of Sunday just tidying up the copious notes I had jotted. I knew that once I returned to the office I wouldn't have much opportunity to tidy them up much further, especially as the conference took place during Week 1 of Michaelmas, our Autumn term, not an ideal week to be away!

So it's back to user support queries, teaching preparation (rather more than expected), ideas for e-learning projects and funding applications, and more queries generated by the important Tetra announcement and so on. At least I managed to share my notes with colleagues and do a debrief, with the lava pen provided by Best Buy being a big 'wow' - now everyone wants one! Well, this one is going to Kate, our resident floaty pen collector :-)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Onwards and upwards

Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time. Apologies for any broken links.

Can you guess where this is...?

people walking into a blue sky with light clouds

It's inspirational and aspirational - I hope the rest of this week will be likewise for all participants in Educause '06.

Today - Sunday - has been my first full day in Dallas, with a chance to start exploring the city, probably the only chance during my brief stay this week.  I took the opportunity of registering in the morning, whilst it was quiet, and then proceeded to head towards the Arts District a little to the NE of downtown, within walking distance of the hotel where I am staying.  I spent several hours at the Dallas Museum of Art and what struck me was the spaciousness, making the art galleries I'm used to in the UK seem rather poky in comparison.

I took the above photo at the Nasher Sculpture Center. The artist is Jonathan Borofsky.  I think it's very clever; at least everyone who walked in its vicinity gazed up for some while in reflection - few other sculptures seemed to receive the same acknowledgement. I think the clouds create an interesting effect, more interesting than simply a blue sky. Does anyone here play the game of spotting patterns in cloud formations...?

I've uploaded more photos in my MyWebLearn area - showing further sculptures and some of downtown.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Open Courseware in a few clicks

Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time.

As the abstracts for poster sessions could have a maximum of 50 words, I've been posting here to explain in more detail the background behind my forthcoming poster session about WebLearn, the centrally hosted LMS at Oxford University, based on the Bodington software.

The last bit I need to talk about is 'open courseware.' This can have many conotations, but here it refers simply to course content has been made freely available to the public and does not require guest access or visitor login. Many academics were keen that their materials - especially in teaching - could be indexed by search engines, to help promote their courses. On the other hand some were concerned that Google would sneak into areas they thought were private, so we had to be sure of all exposed URLs and circulate that as a list beforehand.

Before April 2006, as with most VLEs you needed to press a 'log in' button to gain access to anything, which was felt unnecessary for those resources that were meant to be openly viewable. So the barrier was removed. Now if academics want to enable access for Google and friends, the general procedure - which applies to most resources in the LMS - is as follows:
  1. Log in.
  2. Go to the resource you wish to make public
  3. Click on the link 'View Access' at the bottom of the page.
  4. In the following page go to the pull-down menu 'Allow..' and select 'Public' to 'look at' this page.
  5. Click on the [Add] button to enact.
Here's an illustrative screenshot (minus mouse pointer):

illustrative screenshot of simple access controls in WebLearn

This is taken from my bookmarks area in MyWebLearn.  At the moment, it's private as only the system admin and myself can see it, but if I were to click the [Add] button, anyone would then be able to see it. 

With the fine-grained accesss, you can choose any selection of resources public, so you could have samples from one of more of the following, in any combination: from just one or two handouts or a lecture through a module, course or even a degree. Each time you grant public access, that resource becomes open, so if you make every course resource open you have open courseware. Just allowing access to content is not providing the same educational experience as an Oxford student, but there is actually scope for more than reading since many of the tools allow for visitor interaction - so you can have public surveys, open discussions with prospective students and so on. If privacy is needed, administrators (we call them 'Floor Managers') can create and manage additional user accounts.

For those interested in some stats, before opening up Google had indexed only about 100 pages (most of these URLs coming about via links from other sites). On removing this restriction opening up access, the number of pages grew steadily to over 10,000 pages and the Web access logs show a huge variety of searches landing up on the site. I monitored Google's crawling in some posts on its gradual exploration (with 2nd and 3rd posts - the latter wondering about internal/external searches).

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Bodington 2.8 released - now with Apache license

Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time.

On Monday 2nd October, there was a new release (version 2.8.0) of the Bodington VLE software, now under the Open Source Initiative (OSI) certified Apache 2 license. New features include support for the MySQL database, display of RSS and Atom newsfeeds, with various ways of rendering them and a Peer Marker Tool, whilst other tools have been improved/brought up to date, such as the support to import and export of IMS Content Packages. Further details are available from the official release announcement.

If you want to get up and running quickly, go to the file releases are available from SourceForge at
and select the bodington-quickstart_war, which is a preconfigured version of Bodington consisting of an archived package that you can upload into a Web application server like Tomcat.  The language is technical, but actually there are only a few steps involved, so it only takes a few minutes. It's designed to get you up and running with Bodington with the least possible effort. Instructions are provided in the download.   If you want the very latest builds for Bodington you can obtain them from CruiseControl running on one of our development servers (also available for WebLearn).

To make it even easier to sample a Bodington-based VLE, I'll be bringing to Educause some bootable WebLearn Live CDs based on the Ubuntu Linux distribution, which you can just put into your IBM-compatible PC and boot up. I'll give some out at the poster session on Wednesday evening.  Hope you enjoy the free VLE :-)

However, perhaps of most significance is that Bodington now comes with an Apache 2 License. In practice, there's hardly any change at all in how the software is developed and the conditions attached to it. However, it's actually a very important change and I'd advise any educational establishment(s) wishing to share their software freely to make sure if at all possible that from the outset they have an OSI approved license. Otherwise, you may have to subsequently jump through hoops to transfer to one at a later date or else pay lawyers to establish the case for this being a new OSI approved license on your behalf following the approval process.

The base of Bodington may be instructive here. Bodington was released by Leeds University as open source software in 2001. I remember hearing how Jon Maber and Andrew Booth took the Apache software license and made a few tweaks to ensure that it would satisfy the University's directorate. I don't know what differences they made, but when an open source expert came to examine the license, they said that he didn't recognise it, though strangely it appeared to him more like a BSD license. Although the code was freely available, any legal department of an organisation could not be sure that was indeed legally open source software and the simplest thing to do is to turn to the OSI list and see if it belongs to that list. If not.  So we decided to make a change in the license, requiring consent of all copyright holders involved, which included signatures of those involved in contributing code, so a lengthy process.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

From Personalized Learning to Open Courseware: Personalisation in MyWebLearn

Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time.

Here's my second post to explain the poster session that I'll be hosting in Dallas.

There's been a lot of promotion of 'personalised learning' in the UK, strongly encouraged by the government, and this is reflected in funding available to JISC projects. Within JISC itself, CETIS has a PLE project. On the 6th and 7th June 2006 there were a couple of meetings organised up in Manchester to explore the area.  I was invited to attend the first one and then subsequently required to submit a short paper. Although a bit of an inconvenience, it did provide a prompt for me to step back and try to make sense of what's going on. My experiences from the RAMBLE project had already pointed to looking at a student's daily routine as a whole and this very general view stayed in my mind as I wrote on 'PLEs as Environments for Personal and Personalised Learning'  The set of papers as a whole showed a huge diversity of views and my impressions at the meeting itself indicated that there's little consensus on what all this means in practice.

In terms of software, personalisation seems to mean the ability to customise and work with information flows - there are a plethora of tools, to read, aggregate and process, including PLEX, which has emerged from the CETIS PLE work. But how do these tools relate or even integrate with HEI systems? I think that's the major challenge. The answer at the moment seems to be generally "they don't" so I see them as floating largely unanchored; without appropriate guidance on their use, it's questionable what learning and instructional value such tools can provide. Yet, it's generally acknowledged that most institutional systems are fundamentally constraining, not providing sufficient means to pool information freely from different sources, to share, interact and so on.

As institutions have to address this problem, they will be scrutinising what resources they have and if they're limited, they might naturally ask, what can be done with our present systems that may move us in the right direction? This is the kind of view we took at Oxford: WebLearn's access controls (as introduced in my previous post), don't have a fixed concept of role, so any user can be granted the rights to create resources. WebLearn also situates content in a hierarchy. Putting those two together, we decided to create a User area for any University card holder - both staff and students - in which they could create their own areas, using most of the tools available .

Enter ... MyWebLearn!

You can think of MyWebLearn operating in a similar way to personal Web space that many HEIs offer, but there are quite a few features that make it distinctive:
  • fine-grained access controls - this allows for the same content to be partially viewable by the public (no accounts), fully viewable by account holders, editable by class mates, managed by a small group.
  • file uploads are just point and click - there's no need for ftp as file management is through Web forms. There's also a somewhat quirky Java applet that has a few extra niceties.
  • tools available: these can set these up for any individual needs, as would a staff member do in a course area.
However, WebLearn lacks some features often available to some extent in personal Web hosting, for instance you can't write your own programs or scripts.

The structure comprises three areas:
  • Public Space - space for content accessible by everyone.
  • Private Space - space for content accessible only by the MyWebLearn space owner.
  • Bookmarks - for convenient storage and revisiting of any WebLearn address.
Some of the suggested uses are as follows
  • Students working on a project could create an area private to themselves, and upload and store drafts of essays and other working documents. You could use the Messaging Room to do this in a conversational framework
  • There's a newsfeeds tool supporting RSS and Atom to read in and aggregate favourite newsfeeds.
  • The Logbooks tool can be used as a personal learning diary, which you can selectively share and allow others to post. At the moment, it's probably the nearest thing we have to a blog.
  • You can run your own surveys, with varying amounts of anonymity using the Questionnaire tool - so you could have a tear-off public survey open to the public.
  • Create a public-facing Web site advertising your portfolio... HTML is ubiquitous in the system and most tools have a little wysiwyg widget to support authoring.
We have a basic guide which describes in more detail what it is and how to get started.

I'm conscious we need to develop more use cases, oriented around activities, but perhaps these will emerge. We already see scope for further development work: ways to search for browse areas, internal messaging, FOAF-style communities, sharing data through syndicated newsfeeds and so on.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

From Personalized Learning to Open Courseware: VLEs and Access Rights

Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time.

I have a little poster session coming up at Educause with the rather loong title of 'From Personalized Learning to Open Courseware: Learning Management Systems Can Be Flexible', reflecting many elements that I'd like to convey. I hope to elaborate in the following posts.

The watchword is flexibility, as this is what really matters at Oxford. In 2001/2 a working group with broad representation from academics, IT staff, and administrators undertook a lengthy procurement process for an LMS (we tend to call them VLEs in the UK) - a list of documents is available from the LTG Web site. We evaluated about 30 systems against both a features checklist and a more probing set of requirements encapsulated in two mock courses. It was the latter that proved most illuminating because for all their features, bells and whistles, the commercial offerings were unable to fit our needs: ranging from simple things like terminology to more fundamental issues with the data model. They also seemed designed for substantial investment of resources so that if you used just one tool, your 'course' would contain lots of empty space, whereas we wanted a very gentle transition for academics, who could start tentatively by simply uploading a lecture handout without need the help of an IT officer. And with the commercial systems there were the licensing fees to consider.

The only system that allowed our ways of working Bodington, which had the considerable benefit of being open source (now under the Apache 2.0 license) - free of license fees and free to develop further according to our needs. I recall how Prof. Andrew Booth and Jon Maber came down from Leeds and gave an informal presentation, quickly establishing rapport as they related their experiences at various levels in their HEI that met with ready nods of understanding. When it eventually came to choosing between Blackboard and Bodington, Bodington gained close to 100% of the votes. A pilot service was launched soon after, became production in May 2004 and has grown steadily since.

The system developments are driven mainly by user requests, but some developments are done a bit independently as we try to be forward-thinking. This year there have been two key developments and the poster session is to illustrate, but to describe them properly I need first to try to explain a little about the access control system because it underpins both.

Access Control Management

When you enter WebLearn at the root, you are presented with a Web site that presents its pages in a hierarchical structure using a physical metaphor, with the top level initially with a list of Buildings and underneath Floors, Suites of Rooms and so on, the labels providing a number of conveniences beyond having merely folders and files. If you log in, there's little difference, except that as you explore the site you will find that what you can see and do has changed. It's a completely different paradigm from the flat structure typical in many other VLEs - you don't have a 'my courses' view as such.

There's no explicit concept of role (as in admin, course designer, instructor, marker, student, etc.) - rather the key concepts are groups of users and access rights (see, view, post, record, mark, etc.) Each resource in the system may have a set of groups and access rights assigned. Thus the notion of roles becomes implicit based upon who can do what and where; as one can belong to any number of groups, each assigned multiple rights per resource, everyone has effectively their own set of authorisations, i.e. their own roles.

Such granularity makes it easy to set up varying levels of participation, ranging from simple involvement such as moderating a discussion board, through to administering an area containing dozens of courses. It also readily supports change and can accommodate all of the following scenarios:
  • A Continuing Education student in creative writing requires access to course material in the Faculty of English
  • A graduate student needs access as a student to study materials, yet may also need to serve as a tutor for undergraduates
  • A member of teaching staff with certain rights as a lecturer may require further rights as a course co-ordinator.
  • A student studying Philosophy is advised by her tutor that she should consult some materials on Logic provided by the Computer Science department
  • Students from two colleges set up a shared project workspace and then find that they need to share with students from another college plus their college tutor.
It's one of the trickiest things to digest - even technical developers who have had a chance to work with Bodington, examine its source code have often not fully grasped the richness of the granularity! It's not that hard, just different, I think. You can gain further idea in an overview of access rights.

I think it's also worth considering whether the nature of roles also has resource implications - I think that once you start fixing labels on people it can reduce flexibility and with the lack of fluidity you can't share workloads so easily, things can't work organically. The more designated roles, the more complicated it can become.

If anyone is interested to trying things out, I'd be happy to help - there are (of course :-) various ways of doing this.  I shall probably create some WebLearn test accounts for Educause.

Building community in learning environments – what about teachers?

Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time.

Having extolled the virtues of sharing, my blog has been void of any further contributions. I'm sorry about that and aim to post a few entries in the coming week, especially as I prepare for the Educause conference in Dallas. At the very least I should elaborate soon on my abstract for my poster session on Wednesday evening.

In the UK there's been a lot of discussion and debate around the notion of personal(ised) learning environments (PLEs for short), with further funding available from the JISC in their latest call (04/06 Capital Programme) - see e.g. e-learning strand Call III. All this has raised fundamental questions about the nature of learning as individuals and within communities, let alone what this means in terms of software systems. It can be a heady and contentious mix and in all of this I wonder what about the role of teaching, guidance and so on? Is it being devalued?  So here I'm going to reflect on my brief experience with an online venture where personal spaces and community were closely connected, with occasional pauses to refer to learning environments. However, in this case I'm thinking especially about involvement among academics (faculty).

About 10 years ago (Autumn '96), I received an email out of the blue responding to my personal Web pages on Buddhism. The message invited me to "take the site to another level" and join a new online venture. Was I interested? Even then before spam was suffocating Inboxes, I was somewhat wary, but out of curiosity I sent a reply. Soon after I received another message, this time from someone else, who expanded a little on what his 'associate' had expressed before. I was informed, "This is going to be the biggest thing to hit the 'Net!'"

For one with English sensibilities, a touch of understatement is considered slightly more appealing. However, when some elements about the venture explained to me, it seemed to me a good proposition. The basic premise was that hitherto to find a quality-controlled and edited guide to resources on the 'Net there was little choice beyond the impersonal Yahoo-style directories. This venture was to change that by creating a kind of directory service with real people serving as expert guides to the resources.

I eventually joined as one of the first 'Guides' for what was then called The Mining Company, later My task was basically to maintain and develop an area in their site on Buddhism, publishing an original article at least weekly and growing an edited links directory. The article could be a news item or topic of interest, so not dissimilar to a blog entry. Further, there was a requirement to foster community, mainly through synchronous discussions. How personal could this area be? How much did it have to conform to corporate demands? There was considerable freedom - you could write on the topic of your choice; the input from others came largely on the style of presentation, writing with the audience in mind, with the aim of establishing rapport. I enjoyed the work and I think most others did too, and that is one of key factors of its success.

The connection between the individual and community was built on personal interest and enthusiasm on a topic close to one's heart and there's ample evidence that it worked well. It wasn't just the model that was well designed, the whole infrastructure that supported the Guides was excellent – regarding the technical setup, content creation was straightforward using ready-made templates and any processes (e.g. file transfer) were well documented. However, there was another layer of support readily available behind the scenes within the organization, which had a feeling of a synergetic whole – whether it was to do with administration or the mentoring received when building your area. I found the mentoring particularly attentive and encouraging.

However, I had a very basic problem - access to the 'Net. A convoluted story, but it ended up with some forlorn investigations into mobile wireless access, which would prove prohibitively expensive. I also had to write up a doctoral thesis, sooner rather than later, so with considerable reluctance I gave up the work, before even the official launch! My articles are still available, just in my personal space, starting with the First Noble Truth .

The way the system gelled, across personal and technical spheres was altogether impressive and I often wonder what those of use involved in online learning systems, particularly in HEIs, might learn from this. On a structural note, the Mining Company's site was quite regimented, largely static content, with only a handful of templates, though considerable scope to use HTML as you wished. What a visitor is likely to notice about the site is:
  • there's someone who is looking after the pages personally
  • it's informative
  • it is kept up to date
  • on sending a query, you receive a prompt and helpful response contains a lot of instructional material and I'm thinking about it almost as a virtual academy with hundreds of academics who are very engaged online. That's not a huge number, yet has been in the top 10 in terms of Web traffic – don’t think it was the biggest thing to hit the ‘Net, but it wasn’t far off! It shows that there is a natural thirst for knowledge that can be served remarkably well through a special synergy.

If I now glance over to WebLearn, the institutional Virtual Learning Environment that I currently administer, what observations can I make? It's quite busy with thousands of staff and students accessing it more than occasionally, with probably more staff contributors than Guides. We have discussion lists, discussion boards, user groups, lots of interactive tools and various other ingredients. There's a lot of help documentation and a widely publicised email address for help, to which colleagues and I try to provide a prompt and helpful response.

After all that, the environment is often described as "useful" in terms of access to information, but I've not seen much online community. A lot of the content is to do with adminstration, is provided in large batches, updated infrequently with little indication of what's fresh or topical. Academics are as passionate as anyone about their own subjects, but compared with Guides, they are generally less enthusiastic and nowhere near as engaged online. Perhaps it's not surprising given that an Oxford education is largely face-to-face, epitomised by the tutorial system, where networking is done inside the walls of colleges and departments. Yet it's is evident among students that there's scope for online engagement to mediate physical communities - an entry in Facebook is apparently sine qua non.

There are actually well-known limitations of Oxford's face-to-face networking because academic connections seem to be quite often the outcome of serendipity more than anything else. The limitations are perhaps more obvious when considering that increasing amount of research is interdisciplinary in nature. In fact, even the most recalcitrant professors are using the Web and email frequently, so I think we're missing the right means or environment of online communication; there ought to be better means of fostering the expert teaching community. Perhaps it is just a matter of resources? Perhaps academics are under too much strain, so can't embrace anything beyond what they're doing now? Or maybe I'm just naive - I once tried to encourage an exchange of ideas between two dons who both had an interest in software for teaching logic. The response was frigid!

The work on PLEs, at least as I've encountered it as sponsored by the JISC, is focused on students, but that's only part of the picture – or just one side of the equation when considering 'learning and teaching'. The relative lack of engagement among academics indicates to me that a greater emphasis is needed on teaching, tutoring, mentoring and guidance and through that more academics may become fuller contributors online.
So does that mean we need to look at the Personal Teaching Environment (PTE) or the Personal Instructional Environment (PIE) or the Personal Guidance Environment (PGE)? But then what about the Personal Research Environment (PRE) and the Personal Administration Environment (PAE)? As someone who favours a holistic approach, there seems to be a serious risk of fragmentation that I don't find very appealing, even though each probably have distinctive characteristics.  The problems become manifest when you try to build systems - there's a temptation to build distinct systems for each.   It’s already problematic to distinguish between a VLE and VRE - and if there are significant differences do you go and build completely separate systems for each?    It's early days, though I gather that some patterns have been established in the JISC-funded Building a VRE for the Humanities.

There are actually numerous alternative online educational environments that lend themselves more to personalisation and community that may support the teaching side more. Pete Robinson, one of my colleagues in the Learning Technologies Group occasionally asks me have I taken a look at Elgg. I've always replied that I’ve only glanced at it, having never been able to allocate time to explore, but feeling I really ought to make time. Yet where might I find the time to consider even some of the issues this raises within an institutional context...?

Monday, August 07, 2006

The value of sharing

Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time.

Since the much-publicised granting of a patent to a large corporate vendor of LMS software I've been reflecting a little about what it is that I value in education.   The following recollection came to mind.

A few years ago I attended in London a presentation about a Sri Lankan charity called Sarvodaya Shramadana, which means something like 'The rising up of everyone to vigorous sharing.'   It conveys in my mind an image of the sun rising and sharing its light right across the landscape; and here everyone is meant to be the sun!

I took my seat a few minutes before the evening's proceedings were due to begin.  The programme had indicated that the founder, Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne, was due to speak.  I looked towards the stage, but could see no signs of activity.  Where was the speaker?  Yet, no-one in the room seemed at all concerned.   Then a little old man, whom I had hardly noticed, got up from his seat on the first row and walked carefully to the front.  It was Dr. Ariyaratne.

He started with a minute's meditation practice to dedicate metta (loving kindness) to all and then gradually unfolded the history and purpose of the organisation he had founded.  He explained how his social awareness had grown in his early working life as a science teacher.   During the 50s he started to formulate a system of economics based on shramadana that enabled people to help themselves through service to others, a system he continued to refine over the coming decades.  It is a very organic and integrated system operating at successively wider levels, starting with the individual, then the family and radiating outwards.  One of the principles is trust - if someone demonstrates they can use funds wisely, then they become entrusted with more funds and can act as a small bank, responsible for allocating funds to others.
Many aspects struck me that evening, including his style of delivery - it seemed completely natural, not controlled; the stories flowed with the tone in his voice sometimes going up and down very quickly in excitement.  But not a hint of aggression.

So he set up Sarvodaya Shramadana (now just called Sarvodaya).   Today this has resulted in projects helping thousands of villages.  It has been the largest movement working for rehabilitation following the Indian ocean tsunami at the end of 2004CE, as you can read on their site:

Although I don't know the details of how the movement works, there are many facets that seem to ring true to me, which make me feel that we could learn a great deal.  I imagine the way the organisation operates at both micro and macro levels probably means there are insights that apply at many levels - from the architectural design of interoperating systems through to sharing of online educational resources.

But the wisdom from a page about the founder alerts us to quite a challenge:
"In the cybernetic age where busyness and popular culture sap our energies, Sarvodaya can offer something sadly lacking in our part of the world. Instead of competition, it stresses cooperation. Instead of dogged independence, it promotes interdependence and sharing. In the place of cynicism about our fellow human beings, it offers practical wisdom and hope."

Perhaps it's up to us all to make a vigorous effort ...


'Sarvodaya Shramadana' is a name full of meaning: Sarvodaya is a Sanskrit word that is the conjunction of two components: Sarva (whole, entire, all encompassing) + Udaya (uplift, rising or all-round progress).  Dana means giving or sharing and shrama means labour, energy, vigour (mental and physical).  Most of these terms are defined in online Sanskrit-English dictionaries, e.g. the Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon based on Monier-Williams' 'Sanskrit-English Dictionary'.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Archiving Pebble blogs at ramble.oucs

Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time. 

RAMBLE was a small JISC-funded project that linked mobile blogs with online learning environments. To practise what we preached, we maintained a project blog with many of the entries written offline and then posted from a handheld device.

We hosted our own blog server called Pebble, feature-rich multi-user multi-contributor blog by Simon Brown, written as a Web application in Java and released under an open source license .  Those who have deployed it are invariably impressed (saying typically, "Pebble rocks!") and it keeps getting better; it was well suited for the project because it supported the private blogs that were need for personal student reflections in addition to public blogs.

When colleagues in the department heard about Pebble, they also wanted a blog.  So we let them hop on board and blog away, even the Director, but we could offer no guarantees of service reliability.  This was - as so often is the case - a service run largely on good will and very little else!  A year or so later, with blog spam escalating at an alarming rate, we were obliged to call it a day, at least until some more resources come along.

But what about the blogs themselves?  The Pebble Web app underlying the RAMBLE blogs was taken offline at short notice and all the blogs vanished immediately together with comments etc.   Although a properly resourced service will not be abruptly terminated, this is a general issue to consider if you are providing hosting arrangements at your institution: if you are not going to maintain a blog server forever, what happens to a blog, say, when a student graduates? 

A first reaction might be to develop export facilities for the student to take the content with them.  Aside from the issue of standard formats for such data and what students can actually do with them (copy and paste is not really a practical option for more than a few entries), there is the perhaps greater issue of context.  Even for the relatively few blogs on ramble.oucs there were some subscribers to newsfeeds, trackbacks and hyperlinks from other sites to permalink entries and generally it had been established in a variety of contexts including projects, individual work patterns and daily activities.

Fortunately, Pebble's design is amenable to static archiving under the most popular Web servers: for instance, it has nice URLs, not only .html extensions for the permalinks, but also for calendar dates and so on.

So this was a real boon when it came to creating a usable archive.

Here's a technical summary of the steps taken for anyone interested in the details:

Step 1. Copied the blogs elsewhere temporarily
  1. Installed (deployed) a copy of the same version of Pebble on my Win XP desktop PC, accessed under localhost.
  2. Stopped the Pebble Web app and copied across the Pebble blogs from the original server plus associated data, all of which are contained in the file system, the blog entries being stored as XML files.
  3. Restarted Pebble on my machine
  4. Requested a few final 'farewell' messages from colleagues and posted on their behalf
  5. Tidied up the blog display, removing the comments and tracback decorators and some spam
Step 2. Created the archive
  1. Created a static archive using wget (with options -r -k l 0)
  2. Used ReplaceEm to do a recursive search and replace on references to localhost:port/path_to_blogs/, pointing them to
  3. Created a compressed archive (.tar.gz) of the generated files
Step 3. Deployed the archive
  1.  We had been running Tomcat under Apache, plus ramble.oucs was a virtual host; we removed the tie between Apache and Tomcat on the server (specifically removed reference to blog directories in mod jk2's file)
  2. Created a blogs directory within Apache's htdocs space for the virtual hosting of ramble.oucs
  3. Copied over and unpacked the .tgz file ... et voilà!
  4. Checked the result.  OK.  
The results are not perfect and there are probably many other viable approaches, but this has been a good result as a great deal has been preserved in context and at least people have been informed about where to read the next random jottings... like here :-)

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Educause Greetings

NoteThis article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and, where known, the same time. 

Hello.  Allow me to introduce this blog (and indirectly myself).

Let's start with the title, 'Educational Rice Grains.'   I'm not 'faculty' (or an 'academic,' as we say in the UK), but am employed in IT support services in the Learning Techologies Group at Oxford University Computing Services, mainly to run a centrally hosted Learning Management System called WebLearn .  However, I have a fundamental interest in education in terms of drawing out the whole person (as in the closely related term educe), though paradoxically I see the processes to do this require going deeper inwards.  So whilst the content will most likely refer to instructional technologies, particularly the LMS we run, it'll also relate to other areas in education that may be independent of technology.

Why 'rice grains'?  My contributions are small, but I hope can be part of universal food for the mind and I'm half Thai, so rice really is part of my staple diet :-)  I'm hoping also that some Oriental cultural aspects may be reflected in these writings.  Further, ideas presented in a single post may be fragmentary; only until several posts might we have something substantial enough for a complete meal.

This is not my first blog; a combination of factors have led to my setting up here:
  • Stuart Yeates, a colleague at the other end of the building, suggested some while back that I might blog here
  • I've recently registered for Educause 2006
  • My previous work blogs - on Pault@LTG and the RAMBLE Project - have come to an abrupt halt, so I need somewhere else to log, reflect and so on.
Whether my postings are irregular or infrequent, I hope you find them of some interest.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

RAMBLE Project blog - hiatus and archival

This post concerns a work-related blog I have been maintaining, which disappeared off the radar for a couple of weeks or so. This is to explain what has happened.

From Autumn 2004 until Spring 2005 I managed a small externally-funded project in mobile learning called RAMBLE, which concerned blogging on PDAs and other handheld devices and linking them with institutional learning environments. A readable overview was published in an online journal called Ariadne.

As part of the process, I maintained a project blog and the budget included all the hosting needs, but once the project had finished - as so often happens - the blog could only be maintained on good will and very mimimal resources. Even so, the blog server software, Pebble weblog, impressed several colleagues and even the Director hosted his blog there... But alas we were hit by spam, which escalated in magnitude, and it was decided to remove the service and I don't think it will come back online :-(

For a while none of the blogs were available at all, but I've found a way of creating an archive that, all being well, preserves the orginal addresses of the posts, i.e. the permalinks. Pebble stores everything to do with each blog in flat files, so I simply copied the files across to a fresh local installation of Pebble and ran a spidering tool (wget) to grab a static snapshot, and then the sys admin could copy these files to the server. As I type there's a wget-generated archive available at the moment, but it's not yet complete and retains options for posting comments etc.

Another blog, pault@LTG, has suffered the same problems, and I need to find a replacement; I'm thinking of setting up on Educause as I'm registered member, due to attend the 2006 conference in Dallas in October.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Networking Faiths in Oxford

I've lived in Oxford for a little over 6 years, not very long, but several generations of ancestors on my father's side have been in the area - particularly in Horspath and Wendlebury - during the 17th and 18th Centuries. I've been fascinated to know how the University (and thence the city) of world-reknown emerged; reading almost any history, you find that the original seed was sown by Saint Frideswide. She was the one who established it's original foundations through a priory, and since then spirituality and Faith have given real life at the heart of the city of Oxford; the Colleges and Halls that later came to be known as the Collegiate University were established for religious purposes and have given birth to many movements. You can still find places of pilgrimage in and around Oxford to reflect on St. Frideswide - there are churches named after her, her tomb, and shrines where there's a statue, such as the Lady Chapel of St. Michael's at the North Gate.

However, nowadays, some would say that St. Frideswide and her vision are badly neglected, especially at the University. From my personal observation, the institution is fastidious in keeping the role of spirituality and Faith as an individual presonal matter, being at pains not to show a hint of apologetics itself; in my work at the University I communicate with Central Administration about multifaith and interfaith matters not directly through faith per se but through my being an 'ethnic minority'! It's a world away from previous centuries. Yet this curiosity might offer a way forward because 'ethnic minorities' represent great and populous nations, where spirituality and Faith are often taken much more to heart and treated with reverence and respect; today Oxford is home to people from many nations around the world and is thus naturally multi-faith.

Whatever the University's current official stance, there's considerable activity among and between faiths, but it's not easy to know what's going on, even for someone who has the time and wherewithall to tap into the various sources. So how to facilitate something to connect and support each other better? Here I'll just mention a few personal thoughts about this process, and try to write a few points about vision, what this is all this for.

To me Oxford should have a global vision with spirituality and faith right at the heart of it that is - as has been said so often - "locally rooted, globally connected." The sense of spirituality can be variously expressed. From my Buddhist perspective, lokuttara dhamma is a phrase in the ancient Pali language that connotes the essence of spirituality, referring to transcendence of Samsara through Path, Fruition and Nirvana (a phrase I already mentioned in notes on Bohm's discussion of fragmentation and wholeness). Oxford has a very rich spiritual heritage spanning more than a thousand years, making it a well-established religious centre of major importance; more recently the influx of people from so many nations around the world makes it a microcosm of global faiths. My father noticed that even though Oxford has a small population, it has people from so many different nations, which you would only ordinarily encounter in a city like London.

If I am to start setting down a list of points, what should I put for point number 1? I think that should set the tone, so should really speak from the heart of spirituality, with which people of Faith can resonate, something that gives real meaning to life in contrast to acquisitive and mechanistic existence. So I would suggest something along the lines of:

1. Promoting spirituality and faith as a means for deeper meaning in life. Then, I think it is worth talking about shared spiritual values and there's already been a huge amount of work at many levels through the declaration towards a Global ethic: 2. The cultivation of spiritual values and a global ethic

As a simple basis for how we should conduct our lives, there are four directives in the Global Ethic: i. commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life ii. commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order iii. commitment to a culture of tolerance and life of truthfulness iv. commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women

(personally, I think this misses a 5th directive of keeping mindful by avoiding intoxicants such as alcohol, but four is better than zero!)

This has to be validated, so it seems fitting that the book 'Testing the Global Ethic' was edited by Oxford people - Rev. Dr Marcus Braybrooke and Peggy Morgan. It's not just an academic work - note the 'Call to our Guiding Institutions' that seeks to apply these values at many levels in society: And I'd continue by talking about establishing common purpose...

" finding common ground internally and externally to progress on a united front, so as to develop harmony and support each other, thereby working towards a community of friendship, mutual respect, sharing and learning among the cultures and faiths of Oxford and a source of inspiration for all." I tend to emphasise unity because the world is such a fragmented place.

So a little vision, a personal vision, with just a couple of points that I hope might be a useful contribution to any co-ordinated initiative. I hope many others will contribute theirs... How about an Oxford faiths wiki...? :-)

Friday, June 09, 2006

Oxford's 3rd Friendship walk for peace

Thursday, 8 June,evening: Part two of a day of Interfaith connections

I was fortunate with my transport connections when I returned from the Interfaith Marriage & Families Consultation at Birkbeck. I managed to get back to a warm and sunny Oxford around 6pm, which gave me time enough to grab an iced fruit crush at 'Coffee Republic' and then join the peace walk gathering at the Oxford Synagogue, which was the starting point.

It was not difficult to spot with hundreds of white balloons floating above the crowd. The format of the evening's event was simple: it consisted of prayers, refreshments and walking. At it was focused on the Middle East, it had naturally an emphasis on the 'Abrahamic Faiths' of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. However, among the generally greater numbers this year, I could discern quite a few more Buddhists, including a monk from Thrangu House, and a monk and nun chanting and striking a peace drum from the Nippon Myohoji temple in Milton Keynes plus several members of Rissho Kosei-Kai.

The organisation, mainly through St.Mary's Church, was marvellous, especially considering that the original date was around the 24th May (which actually turned out to be rain soaked) so everything had to be rescheduled from scratch.

It's a light-hearted walk, a much needed contrast to the dark heavy clouds that hang gloomily, seldom alleviated by any of the mass media. As we went along, we even got waves from the University's Central Admin offices. It would be nice if somehow you could keep hold of the good will and develop projects then and there. Although this doesn't happen (yet), there are many conncetions and people make new friends.

For myself, I bumped into Chris, new intern for the International Interfaith Centre, with whom I hope to share some ideas about developing the IIC Web site - it's time to overhaul it's ancient design of more than 8 years old, whilst keeping it informative and maintainable. At about the same time I met Martin, who it turned out had written a letter in the Oxford Magazine, to which I had wanted to respond. Now I could do so in person! We chatted a little about where there are special places in churches for meditation etc.

On a more domestic note, I connected with one of artists in Art Weeks, who has Austrian ancestry and she was sharing important information about Sacher Torte (chocolate patisserie) in Vienna - there is apparently the officially designated coffee shop, but that's not where you can find the best! As we came along Broad Street, an elderly Lancastrian lady came along to join us - she couldn't walk very far "unless the weather's cold" so just accompanied us to Radcliffe Square, in front of St. Mary's. I think this was typical for the day.

We proceeded down the High [caused a few traffic jams], and finished at the Central Mosque, where there were further prayers and plenty of refreshments. Gradually the crowd dispersed, the white balloons to be seen scattered across the city as people wended their way home.

Interfaith Marriages network meeting

A few months ago, I listened to a presentation by Heather al-Yousuf and Rosalind Birtwistle on interfaith marriages, particularly about the Inter faith Marriages Network. The work is sponsored by Churches Together, which indicates that this is not a fringe activity, but has become a core concern, reflecting the fact that many marriages are with partners from another faith background.

I had shared a little of my own interest in interfaith and mixed faith background and was subsequently invited to join this consultative meeting on Thursday, down at Birkbeck College, London. [I managed somehow to get there on time, even though I got my local bus times wrong, changed my mind about catching the Oxford Tube (it's taking a long diversion to avoid roadworks in Headington), missed a fast train to Paddington; and when I came out of Euston Square tube station I headed off in the wrong direction until I looked up to see where the sun was! Anyway I arrived safely.]

It was quite a contrast to the PLE meeting I attended in Manchester on Tuesday, a quite technical meeting concerning e-learning (I work in IT to earn a living). First thing I noticed was the composition of people: in Manchester, there were about 16-17 people, all male expect for one of the organisers; and all based in (and ethnically from) Europe or North America apart from myself being half Oriental. On the other hand at this meeting in London, there were 30-40 people, a far more even balance of male/female; ethnicities covered Europe, Middle East, South Asia, and Far East. Next thing I noticed was that in contrast to Tuesday's array of laptops, there was not a single computer in sight - even I had managed to leave all my computers at home :-) However, both meetings were conducted in constructive and friendly atmospheres.

As people introduced themselves, it was also noticeable the range of backgrounds among the people, all with some angle on this issue: rabbis, imams and priests, all had experiences of members of their congregations coming up and seeking advice; a marriage guidance professional; a psychotherapist; people involved in such relationships (the youngest person to 'share' was just 3 months old!); interfaith advisors; and also academic researchers, interested in the sociological, cultural and anthropological issues.

There is enormous scope for discussion, but basically there are two broad areas: the scriptural/theological side and the pastoral/practical side. In the presentations, discussions and sharings, there was amply conveyed the tension between keeping a tradition pure and undiluted, whilst not being unduly rigid in interpretation; it's the common theme of what is really at the heart of a spiritual and religious tradition.

If sticking rigidly to rules, then some situations seem on paper irresolvable. For instance, if a Jewish girl [not of a liberal tradition] wishes to marry a Muslim boy, then rules state that their children have to be on the one hand brought up in their mother's tradition AND on the other in their father's tradition. In practice, it seems that something can work out if the relationship is not completely symmetric, but has a complementary nature (sounds ying-yang to me).

We were given a quick introduction to the work of the Inter faith Marriages Network Web site, particulalry some of the responses. It was asked how many had come from priests et al, the ones responsible for guidance. More generally, who are the ones giving advice and guidance? They too need to be well informed.

In the afternoon discussion focused on four areas:

  • Supporting interfaith couples and families
  • What about the children?
  • Civil & Religious Law
  • Spiritual life of the couple and family
I took part in the one about the children. This is where the implications of interfaith marriages really sharpen into focus, where couples need to consider very carefully. There was some attempt at trying to produce 'successful templates' but I expressed considerable doubts about this; each case is unique, but from my own experience complementary [asymmetric] relations are probably more likely to work. In practice, there's normally one person more firmly committed to their faith and that can naturally mean they take the lead in certain aspects of the child's religious instruction - the distinctuion was usefully made between the formal identification with one particular tradition and the education in both.

I sense this meeting was a solid platform for a lot more co-ordinated work in this area. Three main ways of taking things forward in the short term were:

  1. Support for couples, using the vehicle of the Internet, particularly Web, but also perhaps mailling lists
  2. Raising the profile of such networks
  3. Taking the work into communities, building links etc.
I expect there'll be published some official reports from the meeting.

After the meeting, there was a quick dash back to Oxford for the second half of the interfaith connections day...

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Friends in Faith: Oxford's 3rd Annual Peace Walk

On June 8th, people from many backgrounds will come together to join as 'Friends in Faith, Walking for Peace', a walk in solidarity across the city of Oxford. It's focus will be especially the Middle East and hence the Abrahamic traditions are leading the initiative: starting at the Oxford Synagogue, it will progress via the University Church of St. Mary's and finish at the Central Mosque. However, it welcomes and needs anyone who is concerned for peace in that region. I joined the walk last year and found it worthwhile, because it is a positive approach to engagement with a good opportunity to meet new people. I aim to join again this year and hope many others can too.

Please refer to a poster for details.

A Research Genealogy Project? (2)

I circulated the idea of a Research Genealogy Project among a few colleagues, who have offered some comments, giving me a bit more to ponder, particularly the basic question of what is this is really for? What purpose does it serve?

My tentative response to this at the moment is that the long term goal is to understand about higher levels of knowledge, understanding and insight and how they can propagate, flourish and advance. At a more mundane level, it might offer clues into the kinds of conditions that are more likely to lead to successful research activities based on a large body of genealogy data, perhaps useful for funding bodies.

In terms of a genealogy project based on formal research qualifications, I would focus initially on the relationships rather than the objects. There are many kinds of relationships and a standard each-way link without any meaning is usually not appropriate: the existing Maths Genealogy project already has some a sense of ordering or direction in which the Professor generally is the one who imparts to the student until the student absorbs and understands.

There are other inputs that could be modelled: ranging from formal instruction to collaboration, to influence. Looking back at my own Ph.D. (Use of Formal Methods for Safety-critical Systems), apart from my supervisor, I was given guidance by a few other staff and learnt from quite a number of researchers in the field. For instance, at the start I had to learn from those who had developed the formal theoretical foundations (e.g. the theory of testing equivalences of processes), whilst others provided certain contextual background (the application domain of medical device communications). When it came to applying some new theory, I used some methodologies (that applied safety analysis techniques) that adapted or built on the work of contemporary Ph.D students. All these informed and influenced me in my own research, but in different ways.

I corresponded with some of these by email, but although it might be interesting to model correspondence between researchers (nice graph theory applications), I can't see how you can dig into these emails in practice and in any case they were just a small proportion of authors that influenced my work.

It's going to be easier if you can work with what has been freely published, which brings us back to the thesis. What if they could be marked up in such a way that you can extract meaning? So you could know in a particular thesis whose work had provided the foundations, who was doing similar work. This is a task for experts in knowledge representation, retrieval and analysis. Patterns might emerge that show coalesence among some theses, where a lot of researchers tackle a popular topic and related issues; further some theses may show a lot of interconnectivity not only within subject areas but across subject areas, which might suggest making more explicit particular areas for co-operation and joint conferences. On the other hand, some research may be shown to go off on a limb and have little to do with others. Some nice visuals will make this much easier to see!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Notes on 'Wholeness and the implicate order: Ch.1 Fragmentation and Wholeness '.

In this chapter Bohm asserts very strongly the need for a whole view in which knowledge and experience are as one. Without this perspective, thought is fragmented and hence the world. It's not a common view among Western scientists, at least not one generally espoused. I had read that Bohm was influenced by Krishnamurti and this is evident if you look at the end of the Appendix, in which he pays glowing tribute to the approach of Krishnamurti and distinguishes approaches and attitudes to measurable and immeasurable that he has encountered between West and East (especially India). The appendix might have been put at the beginning because the perspective offered seems to flow from the observations there.

Overall, I think the views offer valuable coherence and I want to learn more, but there seems to be a denial of the transcendent potential of human beings; that the absolute reality can be attained:

Actually, there are no direct and positive things that man can do to get in touch with the immeasurable, for this must be immensely beyond anything that man can grasp with his mind or accomplish with his hands or instruments.
I find this ultimately pessimistic, unnecessarily so. I guess if someone comes from a Western background it can be difficult to not equate a human being with the biological organism, but the biological organism cannot of itself transcend. In insisting on wholeness of the thinking and content, to include the biological [conditioned] self, and nothing beyond would imply being stuck. Actually, isn't this argument in itself relativistic?

My conviction is that the first journey is to explore what it is to be human and that alone - if carried out properly - will refute the above statement. Indeed the Buddha taught a different way of viewing, a subtle way, which contrasts the conditioned sphere as subject to dukkha (suffering/unsatisfactoriness), anicca (impermanence/flux), anatta (not-self), with lokuttara dhamma - reality that transcends the conditioned, as recorded in Udana VIII.3: Nibbana Sutta

There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.

In the appendix, there's similarly another bone of contention:

It is of course impossible to go back to a state of wholeness that may have been present before the split between East and West developed...

Personally, as someone who is half Caucasian and half Oriental, I would like to suggest this is possible, particularly if you are mixed race (East/West) and have appropriate karmic background and a supportive environment in which to develop ... as it happens, my research and professional work is in science and technology, whilst my personal interests are in religion and philosophy. :-)

And a bit further on he adds another 'of course':

Of course, we have to be cognisant of the teachings of the past, both Western and Eastern, but to imitate these teachings or to try to conform to them would have little value.
Is that so? The Buddha often used the exhortation of "Ehipassiko!" as an invitation to "Come and see!" which meant following Magga, the path leading ultimately to nibbana. I think if you were to ask a Bhikkhu (monk), they would say that the Buddha's teaching is as relevant today as it was 2500 years ago and the vinaya and suttas contain instructions that if followed can be found effective guidance for the Path.

There's a lot of attention to the divided nature of the world and critical issues, with implications for how one lives within society and not separate from it. That's evident even in monastic societies, e.g. the Buddhist Sangha and lay supporters are operating in a kind of ecosystem, supporting each other in complementary ways. However, at the same time, a bhikkhu formally renounces the world, society and all its endless comings and goings.

Something I found odd is that there's no discussion of ethics or values tied in with actions. Maybe I've missed something. But then, that aspect is not pronounced even in some Eastern traditions, with more emphasis on carrying out rituals and duty. However, it is fundamental to the Buddhist perspective - indeed, karma in the Buddhist sense is ethical, as the previous quote from the Dhammapada shows.

Nevertheless, I find it apt that he attributes great importance to how we cultivate views, how we think. I considered this issue as a prelude to some writing in the past and even took a quick look, as it happens, at the word 'rational,' but I had a narrower impression in my mind of its definition, viz as being fundamentally an activity of the brain, adding as a footnote the example of soldiers thinking/considering their battle plans. I was undoubtedly strongly influenced by lessons I received at school, which at the time of writing was not so long ago. However, Bohm conveys a deeper sense of 'measure' with a very nice discussion of how it underlies many words that have developed rather separate meanings. So I see my view was unnecessarily limited and perhaps a more accurate translation for the soldier's deliberations might be weighing up!

I considered these issues in a long series of reflections that eventually led to a book. The process of authoring that book was perhaps unusual - I would occasionally jot down on scraps of paper reflections and realisations. I had no intention at the start to write a book - I had only the will to write and reflect. Then later on there was the wish to order the notes; still later on the observation that there was sufficient to compose a book. It might appear that here was a book made up of tiny disparate fragments and thus fundamentally fragmented. But perhaps these fragments came out from the same whole and reflect that whole - unable to represent that whole in even a number of reflective writings, this was a process of unfolding over time. I wonder if merely the intention to understand was what Bohm refers to as the formative cause in this process, where the book is implicit from the intentions, or we might say that in the book there was the flow of conditions that had cause in intentions.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

A Research Genealogy Project?

The Mathematics Genealogy project provides a field to categories dissertations according to the Math Subject Class. Seeing how the selection is very broad, e.g. covering computer science, I was prompted to wonder what about genealogy projects for other subjects? There appear to be a few ideas and initiatives, including Thomas Witten's proposal for a Physics PhD Genealogy project, the High Energy Physics directory, the Software Engineering Academic Genealogy, the Theoretical Computer Science Genealogy and the Notre Dame University academic genealogy, that covers current members of its departments of Chemistry & Biochemistry and Physics.

It's a very fragmented picture, with independently developed systems, very partial coverage of researchers and yet already some duplication. It will become even more so as subject disciplines keep growing...

So it makes sense to me to take a fundamentally more integrated view that incorporates research in any field, one that can also have a richer model, taking into account different kinds of research qualifications, not just PhDs; and different kinds of relationships, not just formal supervisor-student; thereby responding to issues raised in the Mathematics PhD in the United Kingdom.

The findings yielded on this broader base will be fascinating, showing among other things how disciplines evolve over the generations, shedding light on questions such as: What happened to descendants of those who studied classics? What did the ancestors of computer scientists research? Many trends can be observed. There's a lot of talk in the UK about lifelong learning, so how about considering lifelong and generational research?

Another aspect that needs attention is the quality of entries. It's a tall order for just one central team responsible for verifying information received and compiling the database, which is the current arrangement at the Mathematics Genealogy Project. It would be better to distribute the workload and make use wherever possible of local expert knowledge, suitably authorised to update data in the areas with which they are familiar, whilst allowing for as wide public participation as possible.

So what's the solution?

I'm quite sure that the biggest consideration is organisational, not technical. It's probably a workflow problem and perhaps can be addressed by appealing to other international networks, most likely business networks. The quality control needs to rest with academic departments and it seems sensible that they should deal with information relating first to their department, then their institution and then neighbouring institutions. So I envisage an international network of genealogy research nodes where public contributions would be submitted though their nearest research node rather like, "contact your nearest reseller."

A few days ago I attended a presentation by someone who has done work for the World Wide Web consortium and he re-iterated the point that if there's one technical issue affecting software above all others it's scalability. So any proposal probably ought to design and develop a system that distributes the processing (cpu and resources) as well as the administration, though the computing power need not be distibuted per site (big companies typically use a few data centres containing large numbers of rack-mounted PCs). This suggests an application for a parallel computing grid.

I don't know what the implementation itself should look like: it could well be underpinned by a relational database or might even be a special kind of wiki (thinking about how that can really grow rapidly). However, the data model should certainly be given careful consideration. How to deploy it on the Internet? How to authenticate and authorise? Lots of questions will pop up if one investigates further!