Saturday, November 10, 2007

On 'Friends' and other associations


Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at:
http://www.educause.edu/node/167285. 
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 indicated that I would write something about Web2.0, I finally get round to doing something.  Have you ever wondered about the concept of 'friends' in social networking site?  I've been thinking for a long time that they dilute the meaning of friendship and try to address this here by appeal to some Buddhist teachings, particularly the Sigalovada Sutta...

This week's edition of Time Magazine (Europe) [dated 19 Nov. '07] appeared through my letter box this morning with a copy of 'You are not my Friend' by Joel Stein, a humorous essay on social networking sites, already available online.  Whilst many articles, especially in education, have tended to focus on the issue of privacy, Stein's article identified a tendency to embellish or fabricate one's image - so I suppose this means turning them into 'vanity spaces'!  However, the main issue was concerning the lack of differentation between one friend and another.

Whilst at the EDUCAUSE 2007 conference a delegate conveyed in flowing fashion her enthusiasm for Facebook.  Having taken a look at it, I asked about privacy options and she demonstrated various controls and seemed more than content with that, but whilst I thought that looked impressive I wasn't convinced.  (For a useful walkthrough of these options see e.g. Videojug's How to Stay Safe on Facebook).
All fine, but consider the different levels of access control:
  • Only me
  • Only my friends
  • some of my networks and all my friends
  • All of my networks and all my friends
There isn't much granularity at the level of 'friend' - in terms of profile views, when someone requests to be your friend you have only the option of granting access to your standard profile or a limited profile.   It's a homogeneous view, whereby each 'friend' (assuming access to the same profile view) can look at the same content (profile, contact details etc) as all the other friends: by implication, the information you share should take the lowest common denominator of all such 'friends.'  I expect this is typically just an acquaintance.

I have wondered why the concept of 'friend' has been flattened so severely and I expect there are a number of factors, not least cultural.  Whilst in Seattle, I chatted about this with a local and he related that in the U.S. it can be customary to use this term almost as soon as you have been introduced to someone, hence 5 minutes later, "Hey John, let me introduce you to my friend, Paul."   Specifically with regard to Facebook, I find there is more to it when I consider the original context.  The physical 'facebooks' have been traditionally provided at some U.S. Universities, including Harvard, for first year students - hence 'Freshman Facebooks.'  Thus, I think they were designed for peers, who were all 'in the same boat'.   Since then, the online Facebook has grown far beyond the original scenario and remit, but perhaps the model for relationships hasn't changed much.

Wondering how the notion of 'friend' can reflect greater depth and breadth I have sought insight from another source, the teachings of the Buddha.  Most of the canonical texts are concerned with training the mind, especially through meditation practice, but a few are concerned with general lay life, including the Sigalovada Sutta, for which a couple of translations from Pali are available at Access to Insight.

In this sutta, the Buddha is instructing Sigala, a young man who has recently lost his father, on how to conduct oneself - we might say today on how to be a model citizen!  The Buddha focuses on how to cultivate a virtuous path and treats relationships, particularly how to discern between good/genuine and bad/rogue friends.  That in itself is probably very useful for any generation, physical or Net.  However, I would like to highlight here the later section that introduces 6 orthogonal relationships, which starts:
And how, young householder, does a noble disciple cover the six quarters?

The Buddha groups 6 kinds of relationships by reference to the cardinal points (East, South, North, West) plus Nadir and Zenith:
  • East: Parents
  • South: Teachers
  • West: Spouse
  • North: Friends and Associates
  • Nadir: Servants and Employees
  • Zenith: Ascetics and Brahmans
For each relationship type, there are different kinds of service that can be provided to enable the relationship to prosper in a wholesome way.  Whatever the value system, the orthogonality is important to enable these different relationships to be distinguished and clarified.

How may we apply this to social networking sites in the educational context?  I would suggest that a more universal (and robust) system would reflect this by allowing one to identify one or more relationship dimensions - what these are I don't know, but although society has changed enormously on the surface, I expect that underneath there is little variation.  You could make these specific, more granular, so for the educational context determine what kinds of relationships are characteristic of the educational environment? Some examples:
  • Peer
  • Mentor
  • Supervisor - supervisee
  • Lecturer - student
  • Tutor - tutee
  • Fresher - final Year student
Then consider the kinds of activities that might be modelled in learning environments.  How can relationships be fruitfully nurtured?   How might this be implemented?   When registering you'd perhaps check one or more boxes for relationship type.  From then on, how one communicates, the options for  sharing etc. would depend on the relationship type.  As a simple example, in the profiling information, a tutor might provide a phone contact for a tutee, but email for a class.

Another aspect is depth of association, which can be at many levels.  The following 7 level model shows progressively closer and closer associations:
  • Meeting up
  • Getting Closer
  • Feeling a liking for one another
  • Respecting the other
  • Moral Support
  • Joining In
  • Influencing and instilling behaviour in one another
[This is taken from a section on associations in Chapter 1 of 'A Manual of Peace,' teachings based on the Mangala Sutta ('Blessing of life')]

It seems sensible to me to share differently with those colleagues we know only slightly compared with those we have known for many years.  Some actions would be more appropriate only when you know others after quite some time, especially those that are disruptive and otherwise invasive.

How might this translate online?   There are a couple of aspects: the first is again concerned with the registration process - some marker can be indicated to reflect how well you know someone.  A series of questions might be asked and based on the responses a suggested level might be proffered. Although it is extra effort, it should save in the long run.   In addition, a longitudinal element may also be introduced whereby the options available evolve according to how a relationship develops, similar to how boxes on the BBC Web site would get darker the more you clicked on them.

If the right structures are put in place, I think a system like this could lead to more dependable social networking-based approaches to many systems.  For example, it should allow appropriate lines of authority as needed for a research genealogy project similar in output to individual projects like the Mathematics Genealogy Project . It might indeed herald a FOAF-based approach suggested by Stuart Yeates that should be far more sustainable - present approaches don't scale very well, as mentioned in some ponderings.

Submitted by Paul Trafford (University of Oxford) on June 25, 2008 - 2:03pm.

Complaints directed at many present systems relate to third party commercial organisations gaining unintended access to private data.  As individual users, we often have to read a lot of small print and still we don't really know who will have access to what, how and for what purposes.  Further, many changes can be made to our personalised environment and often we don't realise how our choices affect the access to our data, especially when expanding the use of tools available.

To address these concerns we can extend the orthogonality above into another dimension (the 7th as it happens!) and reserve this for [especially commercial] organisations.  There can be different groups reflecting the types of organisations, ranging from makers of the social networking site, through your alma maters and charities you support to others you've never even heard of.  In a similar manner to relationships with individuals, you can define what access these classes of organisations can have to your data - it should all be clearly accessible, albeit with suitable abstraction, where you can drill down to identify the details of any organisation that has access to your data and clearly see at a glance what they can use.  All system features (such as applications that you plug in) should be dependent upon these settings.  If you are offered an app from an unknown organisation, then various details about the organisation should be readily available and what the use of the app [not just by you, but by anyone] will mean in terms of access to your data. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Linking sites with social bookmarks using special EDUCAUSE tags


Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at:
http://www.educause.edu/node/167169. 
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.


This is to share an experiment in social bookmarking for the Seattle conference, in which I hope others will join.  Allow me to describe below...

Paul Davis and I are due to give a pre-conference seminar on LMS vis-a-vis Web2.0, details of which are provided at: http://www.educause.edu/E07/Program/11073?PRODUCT_CODE=E07/SEM06P.  In the spirit of the seminar's theme I'm trying to make use of social bookmarking (del.icio.us) to connect related items, but don't have much experience of this.  There is an officially recommended tag for the conference as a whole, 'EDUCAUSE2007', which I shall adopt for pages that describe seminars, meetings, thoughts etc about the conference, including the page above.

However, I'd like also to point from pages describing such sessions to related sites that are external to the conference.  So I've devised a tagging convention - I took a look at the URL above and just took the event and seminar codes as the basis, resulting in e.g. 'E07SEM06P' (I don't think the case really matters).  So in connection with our seminar, supposing I wanted to bookmark a Web2.0 feature, I would bookmark that site and add that tag to the to the bookmark's tag list, "E07SEM06P web2.0..." etc.   Hence if someone wishes to explore sites related to the seminar, they can simply search for bookmarks with that tag, as listed at: http://del.icio.us/tag/E07SEM06P.

I also wish to connect related seminars, each of which has its own URL, and can be bookmarked, but I wonder what kinds of semantics are appropriate for social bookmarking?  I'm trying an experiment: for this purpose I'm introducing a new tag 'E07link' to connect conference events, particularly sessions.  So to connect our seminar to 'Tomorrow's Students: Are We Ready for the New 21st-Century Learners? (E07FS05), I bookmark the page:
http://www.educause.edu/E07/Program/11073?PRODUCT_CODE=E07/FS05
and include the following tags list: 'EDUCAUSE2007 E07FS05 E07link E07SEM06P'.

It means that I can see at a glance all such conference connections via:
http://del.icio.us/tag/E07link (I've only done two links so far!)  Further, for seeing the connections from a particular event, I use:
http://del.icio.us/tag/E07SEM06P+E07link

If that sounds reasonable, then it would be nice if others could try tagging like this also, especially those running sessions.  It's largely aimed at them, because the coding system has largely internal meaning (the codes are not generally memorable!)  What I'm hoping may emerge is a map that shows how people view the connections between various seminars, say.  We could then usefully tie into other data and create mashups, e.g. using the session codes, you might be able to extract schedules, and draw a directed graphs - socially-created conference paths or tracks, as it were, based on sequences of session links.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Quest for Sustainability in Open Courseware


Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at:
http://connect.educause.edu/blog/pault/thequestforsustainability/44767. 
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've been reflecting recently on the subject of open courseware and, more specifically, OpenCourseWare following the keynote for the Sakai conference in Amsterdam delivered confidently and enthusiastically by Hal Abelson (a podcast is available). In this post I'll briefly recap some of the core aspects as I understand them and then go on to explore this area, based on personal experiences and ideas I've been formulating at Oxford.

Abelson took a broad view, inviting the audience to go back 25 years and defined programming as a "novel formal medium for expressing ideas." Against that, he got us to consider the aspirations and expectations that we might have had then, encapsulating this in 3 predictions for 25 years thence (i.e. today):
  • a global encyclopaedia
  • TCP/IP global
  • collaborative educational resources
It's the third that has yet to be properly delivered. Starting from consideration of why not, he then developed the rationale leading to the MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative and the more recent Creative Commons Learn (ccLearn).

Abelson described OCW and ccLearn as means to building infrastructure for sharing academic pursuits, covering platforms and materials in Sakai, policy structure and media structure, designed in such a way as to protect academic values. The need to beware certain kinds of commercial activities was drilled into the audience: such concerns are, he argued, keen on monopolising and overcharging us. So, in the face of impending monopoly, it was argued that we need OCW, shared repositories etc, in order to be taken seriously at national and international levels. The IPR issue highlights a tension between the commercial and academic world. He urged everyone that we shouldn't leave it to the publishers to control, and by way of illustration mentioned that universities can have a policy on publication that insists on the right to retain rights and publishers should be sought that allow reasonable IPR.

Enter Creative Commons' ccLearn:


Our goal is to make material more "interoperable," to speed up the virtuous cycle of use, experimentation and reuse, to spread the word about the value of open educational content, and to change the culture of repositories to one focused on "helping build a usable network of content worldwide" rather than "helping build the stuff on our site.

It's new to me and one month on I've subsequently tried to find out more. I certainly haven't searched far, but ccLearn still seems largely hidden, with little information available: someone who hears about it might well type cclearn in Google and would find cclearn.com, the 'Center for Creative Learning,' which has also taken the domain cclearn.org. I found it difficult to come across much of substance regarding ccLearn - just a few snippets, e.g. a mention on Stanford's Center for Internet and Society. Of course, as it's a Creative Commons project, you could go to the creativecommons.org site, but when I entered cclearn site:creativecommons.org in Google only one match was returned! At least it informs us that they now have an Executive Director - Ahrash N. Bissell - congratulations to him :-)

The presentation itself flowed swiftly with ease until ... there was a big anticlimax at the end when the economic realities became evident - in Q&A at the end he admitted that the average cost of preparing an MIT course the OCW way is around $15,000-$20,000, mainly down to legal concerns apparently.

Indeed in a subsequent session, 'Open courseware, pedagogy , Social Practices and Tools,' which elaborated on OCW initiatives, major problems with the current OCW were identified:
  • too expensive to create OCW sites
  • little or no automation
  • no connection to CLE
  • only large institutional commitment can get OCW off the ground
OCW is a meritorious activity and undoubtedly makes a major contribution to making more visible the academic enterprise - the Webometrics 'World University Rankings' provide some indication of this with MIT sitting on top of the table (whereas Oxford lies many places beneath). It can be argued that these are very limited measures, but Web visibility really does count.

Given that it's worthwhile, but costly, how might there be economic sustainability? One might look for inspiration to open source software (OSS) generally and follow the example of seeking revenue from support, certification etc., but I expect this has already been covered. More specific to the educational context, the Open courseware session expressed the hope that the next generation of OCW, dubbed OCW2, will reduce cost by employing graduate students, trained to understand licensing, and enabling them to share in the academic sphere. To enable this, they are looking at incentive structures, trying to get early buy in. The graduate helpers are called Digital Scribes whose engagement can work positively to foster "co-creation" and "communities," but I think graduates may well swap and change how they earn enough to get by, so can't always be depended on. We also heard that from another point of view, OCW may be regarded as filling out the long tail of publishing (a phrase coined by Chris Anderson), as illustrated by Amazon, which is able to sell at least one copy of every book, no matter how obscure, thus offering a chance to support specialisms (J.R. Hartley would be pleased!) and I guess Lulu is another good illustration. However, overall, I'm not convinced this will be much better.

So what would this small person from a small island suggest as an alternative approach?

Allow me to start with a quote from one of last year's extraordinary debates on the governance of Oxford University. It comes from Donald Fraser, Professor of Earth Sciences, who as reported in proceedings from Congregation , 14 November, 2006 stated:
Dynamic knowledge-based businesses are moving away from large, centrally administered monoliths, towards small, self-organising entrepreneurial cells, flexibly connected and practically self determining—just look at the campus models of companies like 3M, Google and Apple.

What does that mean to me as someone who works in academic support? The message I read (and readily agree with) is that academics rather than administrators are the ones who, along with their colleagues and peers, are in the best position to determine what they should do with their academic activities - in terms of how it can help them, their department, their field of study and their students. In the context of the debate as a whole, he was arguing against the motion because it contained proposals that were seen as increasing central control over the academics in ways that would threaten their independence and autonomy. From this, I infer that essentially that academic endeavour starts internally and is facilitated by an inter-networking mode of operation. If you look at the origin and flow of ideas, it often starts wthin one individual, spreads to a group and then more widely. It's a fact not just of research, but of teaching and of any other activity. Institutions need to support this as best they can, particularly as individuals are becoming increasingly mobile, moving from one institution to another.

This view of academic freedom doesn't deny the institution and its overall mission, but it does ask for a light touch, in terms of how academic enterprise is directed and also in terms of general bureacracy, particularly the legal aspects. I guess this is one of the major issues of OCW and I wonder if OCW2 really lessens this. I think a basic lesson to take from the governance debate (I'm not sure I could grapple with many of the subtleties) is that we should seek first to clarify principles: the professor is the academic authority who should drive the decision-making subject to the authorisation of the institution. In order for this to work effectively, the authorisation should be devolved, which is actually the traditional way in which Oxford works. If it's not suitably devolved, then you get a lot of overhead, so that institutional approval becomes necessary for very small steps, making things very expensive.

Such a devolved view can then transfer much of the responsibility to individuals, requring them to focus especially on basically two main issues:
  • appropriate use of content that you haven't produced yourself
  • deciding on the rights you wish to grant to content you have produced
If these issues are addressed as early as possible in the course creation lifecycle - by determining what's needed in the way of permissions and what should be granted in the way of rights - then that should save a lot of resources later on. With the right training, by the time materials are published the first time in a course management system, the main licensing issues and policy should already be resolved so that when it comes to making available as open courseware, the main effort is technical. This is dependent, I think, on authorisation at the highest level established as early as possible, ideally at the outset, so that it is quickly devolved. The kinds of authorisation I have in mind is a policy document on the kinds of licensing that are permitted, how the University is identified with each publication, specifically giving academic members the rights to publish according to Creative Commons licenses subject to various terms and conditions. Gaining authorisation itself may not be easy, though, as the institution will likely require strong arguments as to the benefits of making content free to use and repurpose - ICT staff may already have had a taste of this in trying to persuade their institutions to let them release software under an open source license.

Assuming processes can be put in place, what does this mean for implementation?

The OCW presentations I've attended have conveyed the sense that OCW is a long way from just open educational content - I certainly got that impression from the Educause '06 presentation Open Sharing, Global Benefits - The OCW consortium where open educational resources - were defined in terms of digitised materials offered freely and openly to use and reuse for teaching, learning and research; whereas open courseware are specific kind of educational resource materials, which have to be organised around a course, though the duration is open. There's a lot of emphasis on process and, in particular, OCW requires that content must be IP-cleared: every contribution gets passed through and checked - sometimes it is removed or replaced where it is felt that copyright has not been granted on at least some content. When I stepped back to reflect on openness in open courseware, I could see quite a few severe hurdles to surmount, some of which seemed unnecessary. Such a heavyweight approach has led to some consideration of sustainability in terms of a few institutions managing the processes, hosting OCW content, and selling this as a service: Wolfgang Greller sees this is an opportunity for OpenLearn, the OU's version of OCW.

However, I have reservations about the hosting provision at such institutional level through third parties and, in any case, my view is that we are dealing essentially with another output, one that results from existing internal processes to which most resources have already been devoted. Rather, institutional ownership can be expressed naturally through their own LMS, which can provide many organisational benefits, not least a single point of access to all study resources for students and for external examiners. However, If we are to support academics individually as originators of content, then the LMS system needs to support personalisation, a flexible environment in which to organise and publish. Indeed, I feel that the way Oxford is run in a devolved and self-organising way points to more organic and sustainable means that make sense particularly with the host of Web2.0 technologies are available. Hence, I now feel more confident that an LMS can provide valid linkage between personalisation and open courseware, as intimated in my poster at last year's conference in Dallas.

I think we should try to envision how it would work for an academic. I imagine a Professor accessing a LMS and going straight to their personal area, in which they have inter alia options to create, review and share content. For Oxford users it means using MyWebLearn, which makes available all the tools necessary to author a course. Sharing the material can be carried out literally in a few steps:
  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.
This simple mechanism has already been used to some extent in WebLearn, evident in Google with a few thousand resources (pages) indexed compared with fewer than a hundred pages from another institutional VLE with the same name! However, this process only enables the materials to be put in the open. From the academic's perspective, there needs to be added to this the means for specifying the licensing. Assuming a suitable policy and process were in place, then options could easily be added. Overall it needs to be very easy to use, ideally as easy as contributing to a blog.

On the other side of the coin, materials published this way as courses need to satisfy certain organisational and structural requirements - the content should be sourced from departmental areas, which need to be planned and designed into the system. Also, to be discoverable they need to be indexed with suitable metadata; and interfaces need to be provided that pull together all the relevant information in a meaningful way. We can achieve this by mapping to institutional structures, e.g. the LMS can automatically insert meta data about department, so that subsequently presenting the courses on offer as a whole, can be achieved by aggregation, say. Here I think we can learn from Warwick blogs, an institutional blog hosting service in which staff and students are able to write freely and connect with others. However, they have linked in with their institutional NDS LDAP directory, so that you can browse blogs based on department and even module of study. WebLearn already uses the institutional map in that it is hierarchical in structure, with the top two levels controlled centrally as far as departments and colleges. However, once at that level, areas are managed locally, i.e. content creation has been decrentralised, allowing natural growth.

The issue of quality control should already be handled in the processes of preparing the courses at the institution; what is being provided is largely a snapshot of the materials that were used in live courses. Whatever the processes, I think it is important that the decisions about releasing such content are devolved as much as possible and that the mechanisms for effecting it are as easy as the illustration above. I understand that for OCW(2) processes are being developed for Sakai to make publication a smoother process, so perhaps the production of Creative Commons licensed content may be an option in future, though I wonder how devolved it is and whether it revolves around MyWorkspace. Also, until Sakai has hierarchy, in comparison the technicalities of generating such materials appear far easier in Bodington (and I suspect developing pipeline processes to go with them might be easier also).

If another editorial layer is needed, then that can emerge from peer networks. A number of years ago I came across the Hippias search engine, a service (now merged with Noesis) that as I recall had an editorial board of experts in Philosophy whose members each maintained their own Web sites. These sites contained links to other sites and the Hippias search engine would index all the pages at the end of these links, thereby building a trusted indexed collection. I think it's a very apposite illustration of how you can combine devolved human quality control with automation.

This is obviously work in progress and much is still open to debate, but from the view I've described above, I think the focus should very much be with the academics, devolving much of the decision-making and supporting them as appropriate. Technically, this means Web2.0-like approaches should be incorporated and so I expect many elements of ccLearn could play a major role in facilitating institution-oriented OCW.
I hope to talk more about personalisation and Web 2.0 in future posts...

Monday, July 02, 2007

All aboard? Reflections on the 7th Sakai conference, Amsterdam


Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at:
http://connect.educause.edu/blog/pault/allaboardreflectionsonthe/44626. 
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.


Oxford made a decision in Autumn 2006 to migrate to the Sakai VLE with the announcement of the Tetra collaboration. Since the completion of the academic year, we've been able to focus more on the task in hand. For myself, I decided the best way to quickly gain a feel for Sakai was to attend a Sakai gathering and conveniently the 7th Sakai Conference was recently held in Amsterdam, the first time the conference had been held outside the United States. I was primarily interested in sessions that addressed system migration, deployment and support, but also keen to hear about pedagogy and usability, leaving it to my colleagues to cover the more technical development aspects. I wanted to know what approaches were adopted to move to Sakai: organisation, resources, timescales, etc.

So was it a case of all aboard...?

Silver Shadow in port at Amsterdam

Above is the luxury cruise liner, Silver Shadow, which was waiting for passengers to board. It was right next to the Moevenpick Hotel, the conference venue. In fact, it's designed to accommodate a little under 400 guests, about the number of participants at the conference, which rather suggests a dream future venue ... :-)

It's taken two or three weeks for my impressions to settle - I found the three days of the conference quite intense and took copious notes. I can say straightaway, however, that I felt there was generally a good sense of community, with a very constructive outlook across the various constituent communities, ranging from development through to pedagogy and research. Sessions were usually informative and presented well; there was a real sense of purpose and commitment It was consistent with what I've observed on the Tetra developers mailing list: although I'm not been involved in any Java coding myself, I have been seen how the Sakai developers have provided very helpful responses to the various queries raised by Bodington developers seeking to incorporate key functionality in Sakai. Furthermore, when some of these ideas were presented by my colleagues, Adam and Matthew, in their presentation on importing Bodington tool, they were greeted very positively - there is a willingness to learn. So I broadly concur with the encouraging sentiments expressed by Michael Feldsteain in his 'State of the Union' blog post.

There remain many questionmarks as expressed Ian Reid, whose responses were not so rosy: in wrapping it up, he perceived a number of weaknesses and for him fundamental questions remained unanswered. I can at least answer his first point about the product: there are certainly large scale deployments - e.g. at Indiana and Michigan. Further, many of the other points, such as the technical bias, are well known and as far as I can tell they are being actively addressed.

I have quite a number of concerns myself and among my colleagues may be the one who is most reluctant to migrate from our present WebLearn, based on Bodington, perhaps largely because I have spent so much time with it and naturally can get attached. My first query is what kind of system is Sakai? Is it largely an open source replacement for Blackboard or WebCT? At the culmination of the procurement process at Oxford in 2001/2002, we were left with a head-to-head between Blackboard and Bodington. There was a free vote and Bodington won very easily, largely because Bodington offered flexibility: in the use of terminology, in how it allowed areas to be set up, in who could do what in these areas, and in how users could navigate freely around the system. One could use it to augment existing teaching or research arrangements with little effort. WebLearn has subsequently grown organically - from the handful of resources in December 2002 to its present state of about 60,000 resources manually created and managed by thousands of users (staff and students) in the various colleges and departments. At the same time, Bodington also has many weaknesses - it's rather long in the tooth and has often been described as "clunky" - many of the tools are looking very dated and making changes can be very laborious.

Sakai was felt to be the most promising way forward, but as it stands there are serious limitations in its design. The name of Michigan's deployment itself hints at one of these 'CTools,' rather indicating a technical focus: indeed much of the talk at the conference was 'tools' oriented, but during the past year or two, in WebLearn, we've deliberately tried to move away from 'how does tool X work' to 'how to carry out activity Y [using the tools available]' with a recent project looking at activity-based use cases for WebLearn. Also, the course subscription model in Sakai will not be not sufficient (in theory, Oxford's undergraduates are at liberty to attend any lecture at the University); the role-based access control is more coarse-grained (in fact, Bodington doesn't have any fixed roles - they can be defined via group memberships), and the overall organisation of materials lacks hierachy. There are many other smaller issues - e.g. what about those horrible Sakai URLs?

There are many concerns, but there is reassuringly intense activity to address them and this is leading to mutual enrichment. So, a lot of discussion has flowed on the topic of groups; a new hierarchy service for Sakai might have a name component that will enable nice URLs etc. I also saw some good examples of how requirements are driving the development; how development goes through a proper processes of evaluation and many other encouraging signs, such as the use of the term of Collaborative Learning Environment (CLE), getting away from the systems-oriented language.

So, largely reassured, at this stage my biggest concern is more in terms of timescales and resources regarding a full deployment of Sakai: it's a question of when than if. Looking around, it seems fitting then to note Stanford's announcement on 21 June:

After a year-long pilot, Sakai went into full production at Stanford today, fully replacing our legacy home-grown system. We've taken a long, careful path toward deployment to assure a seamless transition to the new system. It is localized, integrated and well tested, and today we flipped the switch. This is a big achievement for us, fulfilling the commitment we made to ourselves, and to our collaborators at Indiana, Michigan and MIT three years ago when we started this project.

So it can be done, but a long road lies ahead and if we are to achieve this at Oxford for everyone's benefit, we really shall need all aboard!

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Getting to know each other - Oxford's 4th Friends in Faith Walk

On Wednesday, the 'Friends in Faith' walk for peace become further established in Oxford's diary of annual community events. And they did indeed have balloons :-)

Friends in Faith 2007, at the Synagogue in Jericho

Thanks to the sterling efforts of the organisers, this was another success with hundreds of participants joining somewhere along the 2 mile route from the synagogue in Jericho (see above) via the University Church and to the Central Mosque in Manzil Way. With the generous help of the stewards and the police on their bikes, the procession wended its way smoothly, with traffic situation well contained. At each place of worship there were welcomes and readings, from very young to the not so young!

Onlookers expressed curiosity and seemed quite sympathetic. The main representations were from Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, but people of other faiths (and none) also joined because, I think, of the genuinely friendly spirit. It's reached the point where people are renewing acquaintances or already know each other because friendships have formed and/or they are involved in other activities of mutual interest.

This was my third walk. Initially I was weary from a day at the office, but as we strolled along the route, my head cleared and my conversations seemed to become steadily more interesting! Quite a few people I knew just seemed to come into view without my having to look for them, with connections spanning about 20 years, to the time my mother, Fuengsin Trafford, was active in interfaith (thriving in this kind of environment).

The walk concluded at the Central Mosque, where there was a fine buffet (its reputation has been established now!)

Friends in Faith 2007 gathering at Oxford Central Mosque

Generally speaking, movements in Oxford are relatively slow - you only have to consider the age of the University to see how it is used to gradual evolution. A member of the City Council was relating how compared with Leicester, Oxford is a long way behind. Further, a former City Councillor described how some churches wouldn't take part believing it would compromise their faith. Even so, I think there is sure progress, as evidenced by the growing support for an Oxford Council of Faiths. As if to confirm this general direction, it was the first public event for the incoming Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, two days before his formal inauguration.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Invitation to Oxford's 4th Annual Friends in Faith walk (6 June)

This Wednesday evening, there's an opportunity to join a friendly gathering of people on a walk in Oxford. It starts at 6.30pm at the Oxford Synagogue and Jewish Centre in Jericho and will wend its way through the city centre via the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, down along the High, across Magdalen bridge, along the Cowley Road, finishing at the Central Mosque.

Whilst many peace gatherings involve people with furrowed brows, my past experiences of this event is that it is light hearted (as reported for the walk in 2006) My only query this year is: will we still be carrying balloons? Some environmental concerns were raised following the hundreds distributed last year, some of which escaped towards the sky.

You don't have to be practising any faith - probably the main requirement is just a genuine wish for peace.

See further details, including invitation and poster (with photos of some of those balloons :-).

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Earth Day viewed on a mobile phone

Last Sunday, 22 April, all around the world there were gatherings to commemorate and reflect on our custodianship of this world - Earth Day 2007.

At Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Thailand, Earth Day is a special occasion at the temple as it also is the occasion of the birthday of the Abbot, the Most Ven. Phra Rajabhavanavisudh (Ven. Dhammajayo bhikkhu). The focus on such occasions is always on inner cultivation, through dana (generosity), sila (virtue) and samadhi (meditation), which can help us to have a sense of proper perspective, and thus how best to help. This is explained in the temple's official programme (sorry the English is 'Thai' English, but hope the message is clear enough). I have attended Earth Day in person at the temple in the past, but on this occasion I just joined through the Webcast (which, as usual, started at 9.30am Thai time) broadcast by DMC, the Dhammakaya Media Channel. The more usual alternative is receive transmission via satellite, dish and receiver, but I don't have a TV (or PC Tuner card)!

This year Ven. Dhammajayo used the occasion of Earth Day to invite monks from 20,000 temples to gather in solidarity for the troubled Southern provinces in Thailand. Through the tsunami and other troubles he has often initiated and supported various efforts to try and ease the difficult situations there. I've frequently heard or watched the Abbot refer to the South - he is evidently very concerned about the welfare of that region, especially concerning his fellow monks.

So on Earth Day, Ven. Dhammajayo expressed particular appreciation to representatives from more than 200 temples in the affected area travelled to Pathum Thani province to join the ceremonies, as for many such a journey carried considerable risk. The Abbot devised ceremonies whereby the kinds of offerings that people made to the monks, such as medicines, were such that they could safeguard their welfare and thence the welfare of the whole community that supports the Sangha, because even today the Sangha and lay communities work together like an ecosystem.

Although most participants were from Thailand, some came from other countries. For major occasions like this, invitations are extended around the world, and there are some links especially with other monastic orders. For example, Wat Phra Dhammakaya has a sister temple relationship with Fo Kuang Shan in Taiwan.

Also on Earth Day there was the ceremony to cast Buddha images to go inside the Maha Dhammakaya Cetiya. Sponsoring a Buddha image is a beneficial thing to, not least because when you come to sit in meditation, you can start by recollecting your good deed and so make your mind start in a happier state :-).

DMC has been broadcasting over the Internet for a while and I had previously only ever accessed the webcasts using a desktop or laptop computer. However, after the ceremony was over I tried to see if I could view anything using a mobile phone, HTC P3600, that I upgraded quite recently . I accessed the standard Web page and navigated to the video streaming page (click on the little red banner with a satellite dish) and to my surprise I was indeed able to watch video, embedded in the browser. The two screenshots above are from the DMC site.

The images are somewhat smaller than what might be expected on, say, a small laptop, though there may be a way of increasing the display size in the Web site. I found I could get a slightly better view by rotating the display, but the width of the video seemed to remain the same. In due course, I intend to take a closer look at using Internet video on small computers, but for now it's wonderful that it actually works!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A charitable Easter egg

On the first Sunday of April, I was at Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Woking again to join Puja Kaew Phra. Shortly before the ceremony was due to begin (at around 3.20am), I received a very nice surprise:

The Thornton egg, inscribed with Saa-too (often spelt sadhu), was a gift to me from Dr Khanungnit Garnett, for doing a bit of tidying up of a Web site for Eduplus CIC :-) Dr Garnett has established this Community Interest Company in Banbury to help train particularly Thai people in the UK concerning health and safety, nutrition etc for the catering trade. I think that's a very commendable enterprise, especially as it is not for profit. It should help ensure that meals at Thai restaurants are always 'aroy'!

Dr. Garnett also is the prime mover in another project, which I really admire, the Little Siam Trust, which seeks to improve the lives of less privileged Thai people, especially children, many of whom are orphans. The main content on the Web site at the moment is just a newsletter, but hopefully much more to follow. What I really like about this project is that it is the initiative of a Thai person as I generally prefer social and economic initiatives to start internally. I'm also happy to see that one of the schools that was visited is in Angthong province, which is where some of my relatives live. I wonder if it is nearby?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

From Portability to Ubiquity - What do we mean by 'Mobile'?


Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at:
http://www.educause.edu/node/166737. 
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've been following an interesting exchange between Stephen Downes and Leonard Low concerning the mobile sphere (see particularly Leonard's posts on Does Mobile Technology equate with Mobile Learning? , Stephen's response  and then and Leonard's follow-up, Making M-Learning Mobile, Open, and Ubiquitous ).

It is timely for me as I've volunteered to present on the topic, 'Handheld Musings - From Portability to Ubiquity - Observations on the Evolution of Mobile Computing.'  (The title itself should keep me going for a few minutes :-) As the audience is a Computing Services department, the focus is naturally on technology, hence mobile computing.   I hope to convey that general notions of mobility and the associated terms have been gradually changing and diversifying and that this really needs more attention support beyond enabling wireless access for laptops!   Indeed, the LSE on behalf of a technical working group within UCISA, recently launched a Mobile Computing Survey which recognised the growing support issue in this area.   Although it mentions in its preamble, "The support of "mobile" devices (in all their guises - Laptops, handheld PCs, PDAs, 3G mobile phones, Blackberries etc.)..." this survey is not aimed at laptops as the section on 'Mobile devices' asks: "What operating system(s) do you provide support for and lists as the named options: Windows Mobile, Palm OS, Symbian."

A little over 20 years ago, I was given an Osborne I, marketed as a portable computer.  I remember a happy but strenuous walk of a few hundred yards from the home of the very generous donor.  It's a very rugged machine - the previous owner, a marine engineer, had taken it with him across the oceans.  It had a good selection of software, etc, but the general consensus was that a better term was luggable.

In terms of portability, there are some conspicuous differences from what I tend to think of as mobile now...



I regard the Osborne as an evolution of the desktop computer along the path to present day laptops, notebooks etc.  Although much smaller and more compact, they are just further evolved forms from this, of the same species, as it were.  Laptops are just the means to carry around with you what has been designed for the desktop, which is in many ways very useful, but often a very cumbersome approach to undertaking many activities on the move. 

The prefix mobile has been changing in connotation as exemplified by the term mobile blog, which few people would think of as blogging on laptops, yet blogging is a technology-dependent activity, comes generally under mobile computing activities.   With this view, the picture above shows a contrast, a change in meaning, because the iPAQ on the right is not evolved from the Osborne on the left.  With this observation in mind I have deliberately included in my title the bit about "from portability to ubiquity."  

As a reflection of the evolution there is growing emphasis and literature on mobile learning that is becoming more operative.  I think Leonard has described very well these developments - through the utility, usability and ubiquity, which comes from his thorough immersion in this area - he speaks from experience.   Having handheld devices offers more than just enabling the same activities and thought processes to happen all over the place.  In the RAMBLE project we were surprised how the use of mobile devices affected the quality of the blogs.  The blogs were unusual in that they went far beyond providing rather dry staccato statements that you might reap in standard feedback questionnaires.  They provided in many cases a free-flowing and highly articulate narrative that not only gave the basic feedback that was sought, but went on to draw out deeper connections, to step back and consider the wider picture, to offer critique that was based on a substantial body of evidence, accumulated over weeks of lectures, practicals and tutorials.

I showed a few extracts to a visitor from another University who had some experience running blogs with students and she remarked that the content of her students blogs were nothing like the ones that emerged in our project - she wondered what we had done to yield such richness.  I don't think we would have achieved such quality by merely asking the students to blog on their laptops or desktops.  In fact, a few students made it explicit that the mobile setup enabled them to reflect in more interesting ways.

It's difficult to know exactly what were the magic ingredients, but it was mainly a coming together of a number of supporting factors or conditions:
  • PDAs were given not lent to the students
  • keyboards were provided
  • students were briefed, instructions were light - a few basic requirements, not very explicit
  • blogs were private within the small student groups
  • some basic training was given with demonstrations and sufficient time so that everyone was able to practice posting,
  • e-mail support was provided for the duration of the blogging
You might argue that the first point means that this is difficult to repeat, but I think the most important point from this first bit is that students could make the PDA their own.  As the number of students with smartphones increases, I expect this experiment and its outcomes becomes easier to reproduce.  (More details in an article in Ariadne.)

My experiences from using handheld devices for quite a few years and the outcome of the RAMBLE project makes me feel that the PDA design are adding other dimensions.  All this offers many interesting avenues for research, not least for linguists, but back in the office it also will mean a considerable support issue!


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Using a flexible learning space to teach about a flexible learning space


Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at:
http://www.educause.edu/node/166732. 
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.


[Sorry it is so long since I posted - the Western New Year and Chinese New Year have both passed!]

My job title of 'VLE Administrator' covers a wide range of duties, many of which are quite technical and system-oriented, but it also involves advising staff on developing their areas in the VLE (LMS), the service front line, as it were.  This term I've spent quite a lot of time preparing and delivering courses on how to use WebLearn;  the face to face contact makes quite a pleasant break from coding or answering emails stuck in front of a computer screen.

We are now coming to the end of this term's series of lunchtime courses.  They have usually consisted of a presentation with slides and demonstrations followed by hands-on where people work individually through a number of exercises, familiarising themselves with some aspects of the VLE.  The peak of interaction usually would not go beyond viewing each each other's test area.
 
However, I've recently found myself in one of the so-called flexible learning spaces within the department - a wide room with islands of workstations and a lot of gadgetry.  After a couple of weeks delivering the standard format in this space, I've only just realised that I ought to make more use of such communal spaces.  So this week's course will mark a departure as I shall get people to work in groups, to plan and implement together some structures for online learning.  According to the booking system, registrants are mainly staff, but a couple of postgrads among the number; some work in departments, some in colleges and I guess some belong to both; they cover humanities, social sciences, medical sciences, maths and physical sciences.  And the number of resources they appear to have created in WebLearn range from 0 to dozens. 

This is therefore, I think, an ideal selection :-)  How?  It reflects a typical cross-section of WebLearn's users and I'm hoping that those with more experience will become aware that they are able to help those who are relative novices.  This situation is very natural within WebLearn (Bodington), because it is designed as a flexible space itself that allows as little or as much participation as people need.  You can take any group of people, give one of them the right to create a container and from that point on they can adopt any number of roles to create a mock department or whatever with spaces for teaching, administration, research etc.  Expertise grows tree-like - as the resources expand, all being well so does the amount of delegation and thus the number of people growing the tree.

I've made a list of requirements, suggested some tasks, and wonder how they will manage?  Actually, I'm mainly hoping that participants turn up on the day - the competing demands (and intellectual distractions) on Oxford academics can be quite considerable! 


Sunday, March 04, 2007

Magha Puja, World PEC and other lights of peace

Yesterday I joined supporters at Wat Phra Dhammakaya UK in several auspicious occasions together with other centres around the world, especially the main temple in Pathum Thani, from which our centre gets its name.

The day started with 'Puja Kaew Phra,' an offering of sustenance to the Buddhas, past, present and future, a path of purification that was discovered in deep meditation at Wat Paknam during the time of the late Chao Khun Phra Mongkol Thepmnu, the late Abbot, the founder of the Dhammakaya tradition in Thailand. It usually takes place on the first Sunday of the month, starting around 9.30am (Thai time). There is a live broadcast through DMC which can be received via satellite or through the internet (dmc.tv). At this time of the year in the UK, that translates to 2.30am! As this weekend there was Magha Puja on the Saturday evening, it was decided to combine and move the Puja to the Saturday.

Buddhists around the world celebrate Magha Puja on the 3rd lunar month. It commemorates the time when 1,250 arahants gathered spontaneously to pay respects to the Lord Buddha, and hear a discourse entitled Ovadha Patimokha, which lay foundations for the propagation of Buddhism. Today, in the absence of the Buddha's physical presence, it's appropriate to use as a focus a chedi (pagoda), so our temple joined the ceremony around the Maha Dhammakaya Cetiya in Thailand.

The ceremony itself consisted of more meditation, with particular focus on light, inner light that may bring and spread peace. It is marked by lighting candles and lanterns. The Abbot of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, Ven. Dhammajayo (royal title: Phra Rajabhavanavisudh) lit the main candle and then passed on the light to the Vice-Abbot Ven Dattajeevo (Phra Bhavanaviriyakhun), who in turn passed it on to a representative of the lay congregation and it spread quickly onwards. At our temple, we had the same kinds of lanterns and simultaneously lit our lights. Once our lanterns were lit (quite a few prepared at the last minute owing to lots of participants), we circumambulated (walk around) the main Buddha image whilst Sangha and lay people circumabulated the chedi at Wat Phra Dhammakaya.

Inbetween, there were various proceedings concerning broader efforts for world peace. Ven. Dhammajayo was recently conferred by the World Fellowship of Buddhist Youth the Universal Peace Award. A high level delegation came to Thailand to present the award and a senior Venerable explained in his speech that this was in recognition of his efforts to spread Buddhist teachings, especially the path to inner peace through meditation. Ven. Dhammajayo was applauded particularly for the use of modern technologies, notably multimedia to help the efforts. There was another peace award presented on behalf of the House of Representatives of California.

In fact the Abbot was very busy receiving different groups as also there were presentations for the World Peace Ethics Contest awards. I mentioned this previously and mentioned "millions have participed" in Thailand, thinking that was over the 20 or so years. Actually, this is the annual participation rate and I was told that this year there were 5 million participants.! It's an amazing feat of organisation and I'm sure of great benefit to the Thai nation.

The winner of the English version was Andrew Keavney, Student President of the Stanford University Buddhist society. Congratulations to him! At our temple, we had entered contestants in Thai and English. The highest award (English version) was for Miss Watjana Suriyatham, who got one of the runner-up trophies, quite an achievement as she is Thai! A full list of the top performers is on DMC.tv. For myself, I was pleased to be one of a group receiving a "certificate of excellence." :-)

Shortly after we had cleared up, I was just about to leave when some visitors arrived - some Sri Lankan students studying at Surrey University (based in Guildford, so only a few miles away). It was nice to have them as Thailand and Sri Lanka share a long-standing association through Buddhism and as I gave them a tour and showed photos from an album they could clearly relate to what I described. It was just a pity they didn't turn up a little earlier to share in Magha Puja, or at least have some food. All being well, they'll come again.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

World Peace Ethics Quiz

Last weekend I joined about 3,000 people in numerous countries taking part in the inaugural World Peace Ethics contest (WorldPEC), an examination based on the Maha Mangala Sutta ([Great] Blessings of Life), one of the teachings expounded by the Buddha Gotama. What is a blessing in this context? Essentially what brings happiness, prosperity and success in material and/or spiritual matters. The sutta is actually very short, consisting of 38 blessings, almost just one per line, as you can see in e.g. a translation by Ven. Thanissaro.

The Dhammakaya Foundation has been the prime mover behind an annual contest in Thailand based on the Mangala Sutta, in which millions have participated across many public sector organisations. Official details are available on the Dhamma for Peace web site. The English-language version is testing the waters, so the first contest is based on material concerning the first 10 blessings, whereas the Thai version is based on all 38 blessings.

As the sutta is short, it may sound like that there's not much to prepare, but in fact the sutta is a very concise précis. Over the years, the Ven. Dattajeevo, Vice-Abbot of Wat Phra Dhammakaya gave many teachings elaborating on each of the blessings (I think he used to give lot of these on the radio). When written down, these amounted to several hundred pages in Thai. Now there is an English-language manual, A manual of peace: 38 steps towards Enlightened Living, available as a free download This version is also a substantial tome, so if you wish to read a physical copy you can buy one through Amazon or make a visit to a Dhammakaya Centre and they'll very likely have a copy available there.

One of the distinguishing features of the new addition is its orientation towards the West: as explained in the introduction, in Thai society certain notions of respect are natural and taken for granted, but in the West more justification is needed. However, overall, I guess it's very substantially equivalent. Early attempts to present the material started with a literal translation from the Thai and if you're keen with the help of Google and the Wayback machine you can still find copies of materials that were hosted on a Belgian site!

So what was format of the quiz? I travelled down to Wat Phra dhammakaya in Woking, one of several UK test centres. Shortly after 1.30pm, the Thai exam commenced, followed about 2 hours later by the English-language exam. Tables were laid out in rows. You sat down, listened to the instructions, waited whilst papers and response sheets were distributed and at the given time, you were allowed to start. Facing us were 100 multiple choice questions (just 1 correct answere out of 5) plus a short tie-breaker essay. Time available: 80 minutes(!)

For many it felt like going back to school and for quite a few that was a long time ago! However, although the format was quite formal, it's a light-hearted activity because you and your friends are all in the same boat and shortly before the exam it was nice to go through materials and coach eath other. It's a very wholesome activity that makes you reflect on how you conduct yourself and you soon find out some of your faults together with more beneficial patterns of behaviour.

Actually, my preparation was far from ideal. I started looking at the manual on Wednesday and the exam was on Saturday! I read through once, skimping on the last couple of chapters and then revised a few sections on the train. I don't recommend this approach and hope that next year I'll be much better prepared. It didn't really reassure me when friends were said that I should have no problems given my background. However, I am fortunate in that I'm already attuned to this kind of thinking, so for me it was more a question of remembering particular details.

So now you may wonder what the questions were like:-) Here is a sample question:

1. Which of the following shows the most intimate degree of association?

a. Someone who starts lending, chatting on the same subject and sharing the same pastimes as someone they meet.
b. Someone who meets up with someone and has a feeling they like them.
c. Someone who gives someone else respect and moral support.
d. Someone who joins in with someone else and allows that other person to influence their behaviour.
e. Someone who does all of the above.

This is based on the first blessing, not associating with fools, and is about watching your interaction with others. There are quite a number of different levels, ranked in order of closeness. All of the above represent some degree of association, so I expect the net effect of doing them all represents the greatest degree, so I think the answer is e).

A lot of these should be answerable by common sense, but some depend upon a particular context. Results will be released later this month.

Fancy having a go? :-)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

ZX Spectrum and Scrabble Nostalgia

I've been prompted to delve back into my teenage years by a surprising article in the February issue of PC Pro which urges us to 'Forget 3D games, says Dick Pountain, it's Scrabble that PCs really need to get to grips with.'

From an early age I had a penchant for words and numbers, their calculation and manipulation. This manifested in several ways during my time at secondary school: I became keen on Scrabble and I started teaching myself to program computers.

Like many of my generation, I owe my first steps to Sir Clive Sincliar: initially, I started with a Sinclair ZX81, which my parents kindly bought for me for Christmas. With 1K of RAM, I was limited in what I could develop, though I was able to validate UK VAT registration numbers! Nevertheless, it was enough to introduce me to a new world and I could write my first programs - in Sinclair's implementation of BASIC. Within a year, there was another breakthrough with the ZX Spectrum and soon after I persuaded my parents again to invest in this new toy that boasted 16K RAM, 16 colours, sound and a wider range of software titles.

I then made a concerted effort to produce a Scrabble program, where the computer could act as one of the players. Whereas previously I had been content to write everything in BASIC, in this instance, I learnt sufficient Z80 machine code to be able to convert the main 'thinking' algorithms. Result: the computer responded in a few seconds rather than a couple of minutes!

It can be quite a work of art to cram as much as you can into the 16K. The computer had a 500 word vocabulary and included an algorithm for ensuring it played the highest scoring move, but generally it wasn't a strong opponent. In actuality, 7K was devoted to the screen display, which can be set as part of the procedure to load the program. Normally, that leaves you with just 9K, but I allotted this space to display a detailed logo in one section and a simple blocky 'Welcome' title in another, which 'hid' about 2K of instructions, which could be read as a scrolling message along the bottom of the screen. Once the game had started, though, the who screen display was refreshed, so these instructions could not be revisited unless the game was reloaded.

Having played Scrabble competitively, I wanted to see the development of a version that was much more competitive. After a while, there was a highly polished product, Psion Scrabble . I wrote to them in the beginning of '86 and described tactics that could enhance the software. Three months later I received a kind response thanking me for the ideas and wishing me well in my 'A' levels, but the overall message was that Psion was going to concentrate on the development of its hardware products. (Perhaps I should have bought some shares?!)

I stopped development of the code around that time, but retained some interest in how tactics could be encoded. About 10 years later, I happened to come across a journal article by Steven Gordon concerning Scrabble algorithms. I corresponded a little by email and learnt that he had implemented a number of similar ideas, but I think far more systematically! So he's probably a good contact for Mr. Pountain.

Over 20 years later...

I've come across an old cassette tape with a copy of the program on it and having invested in an external sound card to digitise these tapes , I decided to undertake a conversion. After some fiddling, I worked out the right settings and the process works fine - the Creative Player is able to sample at the right frequency and bits and I used MakeTZX to convert into a tape archive format.

If you're curious in seeing the program (and don't have high expectations!) you are welcome to download a copy, available as a zip package. When you've unzipped the package, you will see a number of files, with a readme and instructions. Look through those and then launch the .tzx file in an emulator - I've found emuZwin works very well on a PC.

A little modernisation of my blog

I've just upgraded to the new version of Blogger, which should provide a number of benefits, particularly with its integration with other Google services. And I expect the interface will become more usable and sophisticated.

I blog about a wide range of things, so have been pleased to see the labels feature and have duly added labels, which now appear under each post. However, it's only a step and if I am to post a series of entries on a new topic of interest to a minority of readers, I may still set up another blog, as I did for a particular interest in handheld computing. Anyone who comes back to read the blog may be put off by a topic that's not of interest to them; similarly for someone who has subscribed to a newsfeed. Hence one of my outstanding requirements is the support for newsfeeds according to categories, which is provided neatly by other systems such as Pebble, which I used at my workplace to issue news on updates to a specialist piece of software. However, I can't yet find such a facility with this system...

Even so, Blogger's update is welcome!