Models

A few years ago I worked on the website for a department that specialised in data standards. The majority of the website had been coded before I had taken up the job, it was written in PHP and did all sorts of clever things for the time, it aggregated blogs, took event bookings, stored project information. I owe a lot to the original author of the website, he was a brilliant coder, but a bit of an eccentric. He coded it up himself – it was MVC, used templates and the such and followed all kinds of great practice. On the other hand, it did not use an established PHP framework such as codeignitor or the like. It was great for me because I got a really good insight in to how these things worked, and the developer was a relaxed kind of guy who’d let me break things and then watch me panic to fix them – stepping in only when he really needed to.  He left a few years after I started and I inherited this beast of a site and worked on it until we made a switch to wordpress for upkeep reasons. I often think back to how much functionality that site had considering it was upkeep was one person, and that person would ‘do it on the side’ of their other activities. Events were managed before Eventbrite, blogs were aggregated, projects were tracked and information on those projects was published as linked data. I thought it was great.

The rest of the department did not.

What is a website?

To be fair, while the functionality of the site was sometimes under scrutiny (particularly the tracking of projects), it was mainly the ‘look and feel’ everybody hated.  However, I could not get my head around anybody wanting it to look a certain way. With the exception of accessibility arguments, I couldn’t really see why you’d want anything more than white text on a black background. I mean you just need the information right? Who cares what it looks like?

My pet hate was ‘The Mobile Web’ or ‘Mobile First’, I understand the power of having Internet access on mobiles phones, but wanting to have a separate look and feel for different devices just made me confused. These pages are just documents at the end of day, why do people want them to look different in the different contexts they are accessed in?

I couldn’t really get across that I just saw these pages as documents and if we just stuck to putting a bit of text and a few images then they wouldn’t need to be different. Our site didn’t work well on mobile, but that’s because we’d put all this extra crap on it to make it look like a website on desktop and now we need extra crap to make it work on mobiles because the original crap doesn’t fit the small screen. Neither could I get across both my hate for CSS (why do we even need to present things) vs my love for it (leave HTML for content only).

I’d put up this argument, but secretly I knew that I was wrong thinking that websites were documents. In reality I knew they were very much dynamic things driven by a database. Being the developer of the website I knew that better than anyone that the departmental website would display very different things depends which events, projects and blog posts were in the database at the time. While I was still adamant that a website should be the same website whatever it is accessed on, I knew that black text on a white background wouldn’t work – because that gives the impression of something static, like a piece of paper I have written on, and I did not want to give the impression that the thing that someone was viewing would be the same thing they viewed next time they came to visit.

What the departmental website was doing was showing a dynamic document made up of some of the information in the database. Deep down I thought that ’our website should look like a website’, as opposed to black text on white, simply because it is not a static document and therefore shouldn’t look like one. I still believed it should look the same on every device and the content should be the same as if you accessed it on every device. Whatever a characteristics a website needs to be a website instead of a document, I’d take them.

Models of the world

I still think of websites as dynamic documents, that have some features that make us know that this thing we a looking at is not static. But there are plenty of instances where no two people looking at these documents will ever get the same view. In fact, the same person will never get the same view ever again. It makes me wonder, when two people go on Twitter (or perhaps the same person at different times), what the hell are they looking at?  It is a bit more than a ‘dynamic document made up of some of the information in the database’, it is a model of the world influenced by tech corps, friends, colleagues, advertisers, bots, and governments. It is quite an important model, it shapes our knowledge, actions and conversations. In the same way I found it misleading to have a dynamic content on a black and white webpage, I find it misleading to say that this webpage I am now looking at is a ‘Twitter Feed’ in the same way someone else looks at a ‘Twitter Feed’. What IS a twitter feed?

I don’t really use Twitter or Facebook now, but the less I use them, the less I think of them as websites and more as tailored models of the world. When someone says to me “have you seen this on Facebook”, I have these mixed feelings about missing out on some shared model of understanding. When we post to these websites what do we do? Are we attempting to assert our influence on these models of the world? How do we know what will appear in the model and where it will appear? As feeds are pushed to many places, perhaps my insight into the workings of a website is a hindrance? Does Twitter think that Twitter is a website?

Pre rendered backgrounds and outsourcing processing power

My notes from a round table meeting about social media strategy in the University turned into this. These are my own experiences before all the comments tell me about 7th Guest and Myst or the fact Commodore did CD based stuff well before Sony.

In 1997 the Sony PlayStation was already 2 years old in the UK and CDs, the format that PlayStation games came on, were getting on for 15 years. Even though the PlayStation wasn’t the first CD based console and CDs themselves were older than I was at the time, I sat down, popped in a game and finally really ‘got’ why CDs were so amazing.

Up until 1997 I had ‘gamed’ on Commodore products, mostly the C64 and Amiga, many of these games had 3D characters and environments. I liked these early 3D games but was not particularly wowed by them and will readily admit they have aged badly. An example of this below is one of my favourite games back in 1994 – Zeewolf on the Amiga, it is very primitive by today’s standards, but very impressive at the time, I’m pretty sure it took my Amiga’s 14 MHz Motorola 68EC020 to the limit. Still, you couldn’t do much on screen, and your little helicopter couldn’t see very far.

Zeewolf counts as 3D ok (http://www.lemonamiga.com/reviews/view.php?id=361)

I skipped playing early CD games, but I remember they concentrated on content, the aim was they would wow the user by the delivery of content to the user that wouldn’t fit on a floppy disk or cartridge. I remember a good 4 years before the PlayStation playing Sewer Shark on my mates Mega CD. Sewer Shark was a game made entirely of video! How cool is that! Not very cool as it turns out, an on rails shooter where the video is the same each time is pretty boring, much less fun than Zeewolf. But all that content in Sewer Shark would never fit on a floppy disc and it was marketed as a killer application.

From the experiences like playing games like Sewer Shark, I didn’t understand CD for anything other than music. Cartridges were much faster to read data from and floppies were cheap and let you write directly to them. CD’s held lots of content, but it was always all boring! The most exciting CD product I owned before 97 was Encarta, an encyclopaedia with masses of text making and a few videos, not that exciting at all.

In 1997 I was introduced to ‘pre rendered backgrounds’. The idea of pre rendered backgrounds was simple. My PlayStation was not powerful enough to produce 3D visualisations like the movies of the time (Toy Story came out in 1995), so instead the graphics were produced on big beefy machines away from the home (pre-rendered), put onto CD and then shown in the backgrounds of games at home. Thanks to the massive amount of storage space on the CD the little chip in my Playstation  didn’t need to generate super cool nice looking backgrounds, the could be generated somewhere else and the Playstation would rendered the little characters in front of the backgrounds. Final fantasy 9 does not look like a game that runs on a 33Mhz chip:

Final Fantasy 9’s backgrounds were beautiful! (https://rpgsquare.wordpress.com/2011/06/28/top-5-rpgs)

Looking back it seems really obvious that the increase in data storage should be used to shift most of the processing power from the studio to the home console while still allowing the console to do small dynamic stuff interesting things. In fact the PlayStation is really known for its music, which I guess is essentially the same thing and I was just late to the party.

I find myself thinking about pre rendered backgrounds quite a lot in discussions about technology. When it comes to moving data about CD’s have been replaced by the Internet and we can very quickly ask something to be done on a super computer and get the results sent back to us. I’m sure we have all wondered why we even have local processes at all? One answer may be that internet speeds or bandwidth are never catching up to the things we want to do on a local machine, another more important answer might be simply ‘privacy’. More and more however, I’ve started to think the other way around, why do the super computers even exist? In the room I am sat in now there are at least 6 devices that are not being used and that have processers in them. The one I am using has a word processor open, I’m sure there are plenty of instructions per second going to waste. What a waste of resources, I’d gladly let someone use the idle time of these machines if it meant that someone wasn’t paying Amazon for the privilege. Why does Twitter or Facebook even exist, I assume that we have enough spare storage on all our underused devices for the whole thing to be aggregated across them.  I think that perhaps a p2p approach is an obvious but current technology doesn’t support it. Things like Mastodon, Block chain and the like are approaches that touch on this, but they get deflate me the same way that Sewer Shark did, they are exciting as a selling point, but they don’t get me interested, not like the pre rendered backgrounds of 1997 that made me think “ahh, I get it now!”, 15 years after the CD came out…

Do services gravitate to centralisation because that is where there is cash or because we think that is where the expertise is? A friend pointed out that centralisation gives us the comfort of being able to do ‘analytics’, but why do we even use analytics tools? Why do they feel more powerful coming from a central location? Political and technological trends seem to follow each other, I think ‘do we need these powerful authorities’ or perhaps ‘How can we empower each other through peer to peer approaches’ are the trends we are thinking about politically and technically at the moment, but I can’t stop thinking about CDs.

Sewer Shark:

The blog posts I didn’t write in 2017

My laptop is full of text documents for blog posts I started writing on the train and didn’t finish because I chickened out or didn’t have enough time. Instead of the ‘new year, new me’ post I’m going to do a quick run through of the posts where I couldn’t quite make myself coherant enough to justify a click of the publish button.

1. Self-pleasure in eLearning:

A post about how eLearning blogs are a form of self-pleasure for the authors. How blogs such as my own are not much more than an exercise in making us feel good about ourselves and how social media sharing culture can add to it. I wrote a little about how disagreements can be a good thing and how we should get better at disagreeing with one another.

Didn’t post because: Became too vulgar.

2. Open assessment?

A look at openstax and pondering what the role is for OERs are when assessment isn’t open. I was thinking a bit cynical here, along the lines of them just being a way to make sure institutions keep control of assessment. Yet more ponderings about the meaning of Open and the difference between open vs free in the world of educational resources.

Didn’t post because: Felt like a minefield.

3. Toys for girls:

I wrote this when that guy from Google said boys and girls are different and should be treated differently. The gist of this post was that if a field says “we want more women”, the respondents won’t act the same as males in that field because their life experiences are different – for one there had to be a call in their field to get them in there. Some thoughts about how we might have better luck thinking about how we treat our children and the opportunities we provide for them

Didn’t post because:  Did not feel qualified to comment

4. Ted sums up everything that is shit about academia

I wrote this after seeing an inspiring Ted talk and releasing that all ted talks are inspiring because there is nothing to disagree with. The ted talk was on how we should care about our children. Why the hell wouldn’t you be nice to children? Why does that need a ted talk? Turned into this post I made at a punk conference which was the least punk thing I had ever been to. The post was just gibberish about how academia and academic conferences have sold out in a similar manner to the Johnny Rottern now supports UKIP and does butter adverts.

Didn’t post because: Want to do a Ted talk to put it on my linkedin. Posted the one at the punk conference instead.

5. 7 Posts about pro-wrestling

I wrote no less than 7 posts exploring the link between pro wrestling and politics. The sheer number of republicans who have links to wrestling is crazy. This includes Donald Trump who had his head shaved at a Wrestlemania. These posts explore odd goings on such as Hulk Hogan being used to bring down left wing news websites by using the defence “Hulk Hogan is a different character to me in real life” and how this was funded by Peter Thiel who went on the campaign trail with Trump shortly after. There are loads of these interesting facts including WWE CEO Linda McMahon being 25th Administrator of the Small Business Administration under Trump. Seriously the Republican Party and pro wrestling has some really weird links. I only came across this stuff doing linked data stuff on wikipedia and it is crazy. If there is one use for network graphics I am sure it is uncoving this massive wrestling and politics link, I’m on to them. This tin foil hat is itchy.

Didn’t post because: Don’t want to be a conspiracy nut, but seriously what about all that money Vince McMahon donated to trump and…

Out on the road today

A deadhead sticker on a cadillac

I have been writing a lot about ‘openness’ recently. I am struggling with what it means to be an open academic and while my posts are confusing they help me think and even more importantly I get feedback and comments. I think one of the main things I end up talking about with people who have read my posts is that delivery is just as important as content.

I am currently at an academic event at a University in the UK. There is security personal everywhere, not ‘beefed up’ for the event, it is always like this. The University itself is nowhere important, both in the league tables and in terms of physical location. The security, which could easily be replaced by automated swipe machine, isn’t there to make us feel secure, we don’t exactly feel threated out here in Nowhere Important, it is there to make us think we are Somewhere Important. I must wear my lanyard at all times, I gather it is to show I belong to Somewhere Important.

Johnny Rotten on an advert for Butter available at the farm down the road from his £5000 a month three-bedroom property in Chelsea.

While I find it hard to put my finger on what my issue is with being told to be more open in academia, it is academic events that very nearly give me an ability to verbalise it. A few weeks ago, I sat in a presentation, at the end of the presentation they showed a video of a TED talk. At the end of the video the presenter did a little dance, “didn’t that blow your mind! It changed me as a person”.  It didn’t blow my mind – the video was about how we push our kids too hard to achieve. I cannot believe that it took a  video to convince you that we should be kind and caring to children. Of course, it wasn’t the content of the video that was important, it was the Ted dressing. Have you ever seen a Ted talk you’ve disagreed with? It is really hard to say something other than what people want to hear on such a platform. They aren’t ideas worth spreading, we watch Ted talks and we know that we will agree and feel good,  egos worth paying for. The institution I am currently sat in now recently hosted a tedx talk, they could have hosted it a million ways, but the academic elitism of a TedX was just to much to pass over.

You can buy an iPad copy of the communist manifesto hereby clicking the image above

I was kind of hoping that the event I’m skiving from now would be an anti-Ted event and good for the institution, the event itself is about anti-establishment subcultures. Based on that I thought it shouldn’t really fit into the vibe of the institution that’s holding it, but it does. In the entrance to my institution are ‘graduation gifts’ such as a teddy bear with the institutions name on – behind it is currently a makeshift stall where you can buy conference merch. The most fascinating thing to watch is the self-organising creation of a hierarchy. There is around the keynotes, the pope and cardinals of anti-establishment.   The humorous moment when a PhD student was told that the professor they were talking to wasn’t the one they thought they were – have never played in ‘that’ band, they just shared  name- then the resulting face of “shit – I flew over here for nothing”.

I am aware there are adverts on this page. I don’t even know what they are selling you, they will be tailored to your likes. The message I am trying to put my finger in shouldn’t really fit in to the vibe of this blog and the tweet that follows.

 

 

write more code

I am really unhappy with this post, I don’t think it describes what I wanted to get across. It took me two long train journeys to write, I’m fed up of it and don’t want to write anymore. In the spirit of ‘open’, whatever that may be, here it. I’ll go with a D+, at least I handed it in.

Recently I have been thinking about the push of getting people to code, I have been thinking about it because the HE institution I am based in really seems to struggle with technology. The most painful aspect of the struggle are difficult conversations around what the technology can and can’t do. Frustration comes from users of technology who can’t get it to do what they want, frustration comes from the coders who either aren’t given clear messages about what to or are told to do something that is near impossible. Frustration also comes from the managerial staff who have seen things work in other institutions or at an event and ‘want one of those’. Everyone is frustrated. I suspect a common thought process among many of them is that technology just worked the way they thought it should then everything would be fine: “If I could write applications then I could just make it the way I need it!”, or perhaps from the coders. “If they could write apps the would understand!”.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about a different push, the push for people in the field of learning technology to be open about their practice. A question I asked myself that I still haven’t answered is simply, why? The main theme of the post was that I felt examples of being open were showing me were publishing a stance to wordpress and pressing the tweet button, which I thought was pretty much the opposite of being open, both about being open about my self and about being critical around the technology that controls the message.

I think there is an issue around the ‘everyone must code’ mantra that is the same around ‘be more open’. We ask people to do it without explaining properly why they should and what ‘it’ is, this leads to people convincing themselves that they should code without thinking about why they may want to. Often when we tell people to code we don’t tell them why, we presume that, like telling someone to be open, it is obvious what it is and why they should do it. We should turn both of the mantras on their head and instead of telling we should ask them the questions “why would you like to code?” and “Why would you want to be open?”. Thinking about potently answers from the frustrated, I guess their immediate answer may be so that they can make an app to do things the way they want.

But making app’s is not actually what most people who code do. It’s hard to explain – I have apps in app stores but I don’t really make apps. That is really confusing but I consider the apps to be by-products of when I was having fun. Perhaps this is not a good comparison, but maybe it is like have a piece of music or a picture left of over from an activity when you wouldn’t call yourself an artist. I have always had software developer in my job title, currently in a job title of Lecturer in Software Development (although I don’t actually lecture) and before that as a Software Developer for 10 years. I don’t consider myself a software developer. The people I look to for advice and guidance in both technology and coding do not consider themselves software developers either. There are people I consider software developers and those people I consider them to be architects, they have a unique skill set that is hard to explain; they are utterly brilliant but not nessarily my go to people for coding advice, they are sometimes the most frustrated of all.

So, what do people who code do? Well, when we try to teach others we always do it through our interests. If you read tutorials by people who code you notice a pattern – the one who does Facebook API stuff, the one who does Graphs, the one who does Unity. You spot the themes, but they are all very different themes because they are all having fun doing what interests them, they’ve found the reasons they want to code. It is very difficult to explain to people why they might want to code, I think it has to come from them, what do you have fun doing – it probably won’t be writing apps.

I do think it is worth thinking about why you might want to code. I did something very naughty a few weeks ago. I found myself in a room and we were all frustrated. I wanted to talk about something that wasn’t code related, but was related to a difficult position we were all in that was brought about by technology. In a room feeling frustrated my gut reaction was to talk code. I brought something technical up and we chatted. Chatting about what you can get done with code and how you can do it is very liberating to those who understand it, and I knew that. I also knew it would be a foreign language to those who didn’t. So subconsciously or not, I made half the group more relaxed at the expense of isolating the others. This made me think about how coding gives you an insight in to technology and without it people can just chat around you as if your not there. I don’t think the advantage coding gives you is the ability to write full on apps. Sure, it is really useful to be able to write scripts to get things done, but when you start to code you pick up other bits of useful technological knowledge.Which bits plug where, what technologies work with what, where you can and can’t look, what data you can and can’t manipulate.

The frustrated people in the room might think that everything would be solved if they could all write apps, but that isn’t true. However, life would be easier and frustrations would calm if they had more insight in to the technology that is making them frustrated. This isn’t simply a dig at people who can’t code – the most frustrated software developers are oftern frustrated because they simply only want to write code and don’t try to understand others, the conversation is two-way. As technology gets more political being able to talk the talk is getting really important and not just for the frustrated learning technologists, this stuff really is political – WhatsApp backdoors, net neutrality, GHCQ , gig economy, whatever. I think this insight and the ability to debate is the real value, not a finished app.

I don’t expect people to answer the question “why do you want to code?” very easily. I think we should help them, lets take it further, “How do you want to play?”. I do most of my coding for work, yet I still find it is play. Last week I picked up an IDE, browsed Github to find something that looked like it would do and did my work – at the same time I spotted other stuff and made a video visualisation of the top posts over 12 hours on a Donald Trump supports forum. It was like a by-product of play, I thought it was really interesting that just happened and I think it was down to a ‘I code to play’ mindset. It may very well be to do with the toys I had growing up (a commodore 64 and an older brother to show me) and while there is a lot of exciting work going in to kids playing and coding, maybe we should be putting more effort in to asking the same question to adults? I don’t think everyone needs to be an app developer, I’m not actually sure what I think. Perhaps a bit more friendly technical playfulness and less I can code/I can’t code elitism might equip us all better for those frustrating conversations.

 

 

It’s good that everyone is talking about loot crates

I’ve written quite a bit on here about how oppressive I find the techniques and progression systems in computer games – particularly, but not restricted to those found in ‘free-to-play’ games. Last year I wrote about the a Call of Duty game, a £50 game which among other purchases lets players buy random awards to improve their chances in competitive play. There are lots of oppressive systems at play to get gamers to part with extra cash in the Call of Duty games, but what worried me when I was writing the original blog was that while the game was an 18 – the series is known for being very popular with gamers much younger than that.  A particular concern of mine was that the series is rated 18 because of the violent content and parents often think that their children can handle it since it is ‘only a game’, however, I paying real money to gamble for power ups that give you an in game advantage is a just as valid a reason for it getting an 18 certificate. I think that if you wouldn’t let their children watch Saving Private Ryan then they shouldn’t let them play Call of Duty, further to that, would let your child free in a casino with your credit card? If not then games with such gambling reward progression systems should be off limits too.

There are lots of games with these systems, the latest Star Wars game being one. I wanted to write about the game because it contains a system that makes the game very difficult to those that don’t pay (That’s don’t pay extra. The game still has a base price of £59.99). It also locks away content and hides it behind a gambling system that encourages users to pay to unlock content by purchasing virtual crates of goodies known as ‘Loot Crates’. This locked content isn’t simply just a new gun, it also contains character directly marketed at children such as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. I have decided that I am not going to write a post about it here because the backlash has been far and wide and well documented. I really recommend reading Alex Hern’s description over at The Guardian.

Alex points out that this isn’t restricted to Star Wars Battlefront II, the popular Fifa games hide players behind a similar system. When I think about it, it seems absurd to make a football game an 18, and as such we don’t really think about it but these other oppressive systems that should attribute to its rating.  Battlefront II seems to have struck a different chord and upset people more, I am not sure why that is, but I don’t think that the fact it is aimed at children that has caused the initial outcry. I think perhaps the system was just too restrictive and expensive for adults and upsetting gamers has put the spotlight on the gambling systems in general. The backlash has led to it being raised in various political context – such as Labour MP Daniel Zeichner raising it in parliament.

Historically gamers have actually been very good at self-regulation – on the back of gamer pressure Sega used to have a voluntary rating system to give their games an official age rating – so while senators argument about games like Mortal Kombat needing age restricting. The industry had spotted the problem and created a voluntary system for an unofficial rating. An issue is that gamers have been quite good because it impacts them directly. Playing the ‘we don’t want gambling systems aimed at children’ or ‘we want rating systems’ cards means that a solution can be put forward with them involved in the conversation.

I have written many posts about learning technology glamour (or gamification bullshit). We might see gamification and the fuss around loot creates as separate things, gamification is often described as the addition of game like activities to non-game context. We might not worry because it doesn’t necessarily mean we ask them to gamble money on random rewards. The game industry is currently having a conversation with its community and lawmakers about what is and what isn’t acceptable. People who play games are involved because it affects their hobby but it is an important discussion that education should also be aware of too.  In parallel to this discuss the games industry is having a discussion about selling to education the tools and techniques that gamify learning experiences and activities. The conversations and research in to gaming progression systems and how people respond them is really important and will affect the tools, laws, systems that gamining companies use and will influence what we as a society find acceptable.

The designers and the mechanics

I am quite interested in issues of automation and the issues that face us when tasks in for workforce are replaced with robots or A.I. In a way, I kind of think that as a society, we’ve messed up when this is a problem. There are two big themes in much of the writing around automisation that really intrigue me. The first is that automation of tasks by machines makes humans more mechanical. The second is automisation creates a divide between ‘designers’ and the mechanical.

Both of these themes revolve around the same argument, and while I’m still reading lots of interesting and conflicting opinions on the subject, Varoufakois in his letters to his daughter, seems to nail it down to a few steps:

  1. A huge technical change occurs that allows expensive humans to be moved out of the production line, without having to pay them the cost of production comes down.
  2. This technology propagates, and the competition becomes ruthless. Profits per item hit a bare minimum, sometimes organisations take a loss – perhaps a company invested in new technologies ‘too early’ when the technology was a high price and now have to deal with later adopters under cutting. Perhaps those who didn’t invest in the new technology can’t make their products as cheap.
  3. The modern technology that replaced the human workers doesn’t take home a wage like the humans did. They don’t spend money like the workers did, there is a slump in the economy, companies collapse.
  4. The old employees that were replaced by machines need a roof, clothes and some food. They are sell their labour much cheaper than before, making them more appealing as an alternative to the machines.

In the final step we see why workers become mechanical like machines. When humans replace ‘the machines that replaced the humans’ something is lost.

In the video above Charlie Chaplin is in the classic film Modern Times, in this film we see Charlie is forced to keep up like a machines – working faster and faster until the variety is too much and it falls apart. Charlie is mechanised so that he works like the machines that could replace him (or may have replaced him previously), but something is lost as this level of work become machine-like. Charlie gets told off by the boss whenever he is caught giving in to his human needs. This pattern of mechanising workers is seen all around us, we get a very clear image when we think of places such as sweat shops.

Unless the machines can design machines – ‘designers’ are at the top of the hierarchy, they design what the machines or mechanised workers do. We see the designer of the factory in Charlie’s world keeping a constant eye on him, making sure he is more profitable than a machine. The inequality between the designer and Charlie is clear in the film and resembles the gap between those who assemble your iPhone in China and those who design it in California, or the designers at Uber taking advantage of the drivers – while at the same time striving to replace them with self-driving cars.

I have been thinking about the themes of mechanical workers and of the designers because I see similarities in the higher education instructions I belong to.

Recently, in the back of meeting I don’t really need to be at (perhaps in an attempt to stay human and not nodding mechanically?) I have been playing with the creation of a E-Learning headline generation bot. It scans the headings of blogs I read, compares the headlines and generates a new one that it automatically posts on my Twitter. To be honest – I’m not really sure why I am doing this. I started the code  around the same time I thinking about what it means to be told to be open, the technology I use, and how this technology feels like it is against my rather than with me. With the code I wrote I’ve been trying to squeeze out as much human effort in generating e-learning news as necessary – to see how much I could do to create an automated version of an ‘open elearning practitioner’. I spent about an hour on the code and I’ve found is that there is lots of things I can automagically do really easily. It generates clickbait headlines, post it to social media, auto generate thumbnails. Of course, what it generates is nonsense, and I have to go in as a human and edit what it says. But it did make me think about how much of what I tried to achieve by being open was just so ‘robotic’, is this a case of us trying to copy the machines and losing what is making me human?

In one of the meetings that really pushed me to write this code there was a discussion about the evils of management. “Management are rubbish in this institution because they design things without consulting me!”. Everyone in the institution wants to be the designer in California and desperately wants to avoid being in the sweatshop, why wouldn’t they? I see VC’s become dictatorships because the more they think they can design the safer they feel and this trickles down the hierarchy, everyone defending the tools and approaches that they know well = that can give them the power to be a designer.  A common problem with HE IT systems seems to be those in power saying “we must implement the system that I know works really well”, this leads to the implementation of systems that don’t benefit the institution – but do add to the how secure the managers feel as designers. ‘The e-portfolio systems doesn’t really need an API because that might give the workers something to use and think about, let me do the designing and keep them pressing the generate report button’.

 

 

Be more open

Recently I have been struggling with being told to be “Open”. The blog I am hoping to post this on used to be very popular and I would write every week. In that period, I used to write under a daft name to hide the fact is was me who was writing it, I’m not sure if that effected how open I was being, but I used to feel that it meant that spelling mistakes or poorly though out ideas where not mine, but belonged to my character. Around five years ago it became quite clear that I was going to lose my job, and the advice from colleagues/job centers/careers staff was ‘to be more open’. In a panic, and wanting to have something to show to potential employers, I changed all my online profiles from my characters handles of Paddytherabbit to my real name.

Since changing from Paddy to David I have stopped blogging, although I occasionally still make Youtube videos. I am sure there are many reasons for that – it stopped being fun, I started caring about my spelling, but most of all it just felt like an endless game of self-promotion. All these things made me feel that the new open David Sherlock wasn’t open at all. I really regret it now and I’m sure that there are some Jungian ideas on the quest for wholeness that some psychology buffs tell me about explaining that there is something quite healthy about having personas. I would like to change this blog back – but it is kind but giving up anonymity is kind of a one-way thing and I can’t think of any other rabbit names for new blogs.

Recently, I’ve found myself in a situation where those who know my work best are telling me that I should be writing about it and identifying myself with the writing. Again, I am being told I “need to be open”. I’m really struggling with this, can somebody just tell me, what is open?

I struggle with “being open” for two reasons. First, as I felt that copying the approach to open that was being pitched to me was just copying an approach to self-promotion. With self-promotion comes all sorts of things that stopped me feeling open. Should I say X or will a potential employer like it if I say Y? Do I have the authority to say Z? Should I be having thoughts on XYZ or will my colour/sex/age/race/religion make me seem like a hypocrite?

I feel like just going back starting a new professional blog and telling nobody, but am I really being open if I go back to writing under a different name. It feels like that is really the thing I should do, as my blog was at its peak then, both content wise and ‘hits-wise’. However, in a week that Jenna Abrams is unmasked as a product of the Internet Research Agency in St Petersberg, this feels a little dishonest.  That was clearly someone pretending to someone they weren’t, I guess pretending to be a rabbit is more puffery? I mean, that stands in court, right? . There is also an advantage of people knowing your work and what you think. Perhaps there is a way to do it ‘half and half’.

Still, I think my struggles with the second issue are more import. The issue is: how does an open person use technology in an open way? I find it interesting how Twitters change in character limit has had so much discussion among journalists and friends. Isn’t that really telling about how we communicate? When I was pushed to “be more open”, I started to try and use social media more, but just how open am I when a major communication channel depends on a corporation’s view on the number of characters? If I hand over my content to large corporations like Linked-In, Facebook, Twitter does that make me more open? How about if I write more papers in academic journals or publish my thoughts in a book £15.99 at Waterstones with a well-designed hardback cover and do a promotional TedX talk? These are the ways that successful people appear to be open but I don’t feel like any of those approaches are. I certainly don’t feel like posting this to a WordPress blog is being open. I think there is a struggle in the current technological landscape to be open and that large corporations purposely turn open in to self-promotion. In technology and education I don’t think that something ‘being there’ is the same as “being open”. How can people interact with my stuff, how can they expand, remix. It isn’t solely about the right license.

How can I be more open? Should I post everything I think to some git repository with an open license? Would that be open? What about the people who can’t use git? I’ve really struggled to find examples of being open where I have thought: “Yes! That is what I want to do” with perhaps the exception of getting excited at the sign some kids made in this picture taken by a friend at a Mozilla festival this year:

I think that being open wih the help of technology is really hard. The problem is that when I think “how can I be open”, there just simply isn’t a way without doing something different, but in a time of such uncertainty doing something different is the hardest thing to do.

Analysing results from Storyline using Google Forms

I wanted a simple CSV to analyse the results of students making decisions in the articulate 360 software. Apparently, the storyline 3 software supports xAPI, which I hope to explore, but for now I am happy with a CSV of their answers that could be accessed by anyone with a URL.

Storyline lets users insert small snippets of Javascript into their cards, this is the approach I took.

  1. Created a Google Form with the answer to questions or decisions being asked
  2. Imported Jquery
  3. Used Storyline to set variables
  4. Use Javascript to get storyline variables and submitted these variables to the Google Form via ajax
  5. Used Google Forms responses tab to analyse the responses or download the CSV.

Firstly, some ‘here be dragons’; I am new to storyline having only played with it quite briefly. There may be better ways and feedback is really welcome. These are my notes, but if anybody needs to me to expand them then just ask.

Create a Google Forms

First you want to create a Google form that will collect the data you want. I have a 3 slides, each of which has 4 buttons. Each button collects a different answer for the question on the slide and moves it to the next slide. The answer is stored in a variable.

For now, you’ll want to create a form that will collect these answers. Head to forms.google.com, sign in to your Google account and chose to create a new blank form. For each answer you want to collect from storyline create a new question. For example, if you have 5 slides with a question on each and you want to record an answer from each you will want 5 questions.

Here is my form, I just have a title and 3 questions with short answer boxes:

google_form_example

Add jQuery to Storyline Slide

Now we want to switch back to storyline. On the final slide we want to add jquery so we can submit them through an AJAX call. We are going to be revisiting this bit of Javascript and adding bits to it. For now we will just add jquery to the slide.  To add the, head to your final slide and add some javascript as so:

  1. Create a new trigger
  2. Set action to ‘Execute JavaScript’
  3. Set ‘when’ to timeline starts

create_a_new_trigger_storyline

You now want to click the “…” box next to “Script” and paste in this javascript. You do not need script tags:

 

var head = document.getElementsByTagName(‘head’)[0];

var script = document.createElement(‘script’);

script.src=’http://ajax.googleapis.com/ajax/libs/jquery/1.10.1/jquery.min.js’;

script.type = ‘text/javascript’;

head.appendChild(script);

Get Storyline to set variables

You now need to go back and set variables,  this is quite a common and easy task in Storyline and you may have already done this. What we want to do here is set the variables so they are equal to whatever the data is we want to capture. For example, you might have a slide called question1 with 4 buttons to press and we want to record which button was pressed.  Similar to the picture in section 2 we want to create a trigger on each of these 4 buttons. This time though, instead of ‘execute javascript’ we want to set a variable. So, for a question1 slide with 4 buttons we want to create a trigger on each button that sets a variable to the value of the answer.

For the sake of this example I am going to assume we have three slides, each with a question on. Each slide has 4 buttons that send the user to the next page and save a variable (“questionone”, “questiontwo” or “questionthree”) equal to the name of the button being pressed.

Use Javascript to get storyline variables and submitted these variables to the Google Form via ajax

Now we want to head back to the final slide and edit the javascript we started before. We are not going to delete the javascript, but going to add a function to it. So under the previous text add the following function:

function postToGoogle() {

var player=GetPlayer();

var questionone=player.GetVar(“questionone “);

var questiontwo=player.GetVar(“questiontwo “);

var questionthree=player.GetVar(“questionthree “);

 

var field1 = questionone;

var field2 = questiontwo;

var field3 = questionthree;

 

$.ajax({

url: “FORM”,

data: {“x “: field1, “x”: field2, “x”: field3},

type: “POST”,

dataType: “xml”,

statusCode: {

0: function() {

//Success message

},

200: function() {

//Success Message

}

}

});

}

 

A lot of this code is borrowed from the jquery site so I have left it as-is. However, I am not sure you will actually get a response code because of cross-domain policies. It would be good if somebody could give me feedback on that. If you have more questions then you will need to add more question variables and add extra fields in the json data element.

Edit the function with your Google Form details

There are 4 bits of information the above function needs to work, locate the bits that say “url: “FORM” and the bits that look like this: “x “: field1.

Firstly we need to replace the FORM with the URL that we are submitting to. To get this head over your Google Form and press the view button and then examine the html. You are looking for a url that ends in formResponse and should look like this “https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/<FORM_ID>/formResponse”, Copy and paste it over ‘FORM’.

We now need the ID for each field. They look something like this: ‘entry.<id>’. You can either exaime the source looking for these, or better still just inspect the elements using your browsers dev tools. Each X needs to be replaced with the entry and id.

Use the function and try

Inbetween the two bits of javascript call the function:

postToGoogle()

Now whenever you run that slide and set variables will be sent to the form as a response, you can download all responses or view them one by one in forms as such (mine is full of test data):

do_first_question

 

Getting a list of attendees from Facebook events in CSV

I had a message from a subscriber asking if I could make a short video on how to get a list of attendees from a Facebook event. One super quick way to do this is through the Facepager app. Firstly download the app from the Github releases page and install; the latest version as of today is 3.8 on Windows and 3.7 on Mac. I’ve created a quick video which shows you how to get the data and export it to CSV. You might also want to get a list of interested or declined people, the video briefly goes over that at the end.

Step by step instructions:
1. Create a database by clicking the New Database picture at the top of the screen. You can call it whatever you wish and save it wherever you like.
2. Click ‘Add node; in the top area.
3. In the dialogue box that opens you want to type in the id of your event. You can get this by opening a browser and going to the facebook page of your event. In the URL there will be a load of numbers, this is the id. Copy and paste it into facepager.
4. Click the node in the menu box.
5. Next to resource select /attending
6. Change maximum pages to something high
7. Click Login to Facebook. Once logged in the Access token should fill in.
8. Press Fetch Data.
9. Select new columns and click export data.
10. Do whatever you want with the data!