2.0 1.0, and a Huge Difference in Style

A couple of weeks ago I received an internal email announcing a “book project”, described on the project blog as follows:

During the summer I [Darrell Ince, an OU academic in the Computing department] read a lot about Web 2.0 and became convinced that there might be some mileage in asking our students to help develop materials for teaching. I set up two projects: the first is the mass book writing project that this blog covers …

The book writing project involves OU students, and anyone else who wants to volunteer, writing a book about the Java-based computer-art system known as Processing.

A student who wants to contribute 2500 words to the project will carry out the following tasks:

* Email an offer to write to the OU.
* We will send them a voucher that will buy them a copy of a recently published book by Greenberg.
* They will then read the first 3 chapters of the book.
* We will give them access to a blog which contains a specification of 85 chunks of text about 2500 words in length.
* The student will then write it and also develop two sample computer programs
* The student will then send the final text and the two programs to the OU.

We will edit the text and produce a sample book from a self-publisher and then attempt to interest a mainstream publisher to take the book.

[Darrel Ince Mass Writing Blog: Introduction]

A second project blog – Book Fragments – contains a list of links to blogs of people who are participating in the project, and other project related information, such as a “sample chapter”, and a breakdown of the work assigned to each “chunk” of the book (see all but the first post in the September archive; some education required there in the use of blog post tags, I think?! ;-)

This is quite an ambitious – and exciting – project, but it really feels to me like far too much like the “trad OU” authoring model, not least in that the focus is on producing a print item (a book) about an exciting interactive medium (Processing). It also seems to be using the tools from a position of inexperience about what the tools can do, or what other tools are on offer. For example, I wonder what sorts of decisions were made regarding the recommended authoring environment (Blogspot blogs).

Now just jumping in and doing it with these tools is a Good Thing, but a little bit of knowledge could maybe help extract more value from the tools? And a couple of days with a developer and a designer could probably pull quite a powerful authoring and publishing environment together that would work really well for developing in-browser, no plugin or download required, visually appealing interactive Processing related materials.

So for what it’s worth, here are some of the things I’d have pondered at some length if I was allowed to run this sort of project (which I’m not…;-)

Authoring Environment:

  • as the target output is a book, I’d have considered authoring in Google docs. (Did I mention I got a hack in Google Apps Hacks, which was authored in Google docs? ;-) Google docs supports single or multiple author access, public, shared or private documents (with a viariety of RW access privileges) and the ability to look back over historical changes. Even if authors were ecouraged to write separate drafts of their chapters, this could have been done in separate Google docs documents, linked to from a blog post.
  • would authoring chunks in a wiki have been appropriate? We can get a Mediawiki set up on the open.ac.uk domain on request, either in public or behind the firewall. Come to that, we can also get WordPress blogs set up too, either individual ones or a team blog – would a team blog have been a better approach, with sensible use of categories to partition the content? Niall would probably say the project should have used a Moodle VLE blog or wiki, but I”d respond that probably wouldn’t be a very good idea ;-)

Given that authors have been encouraged to use blogs, I’d have straightway pulled a blog roll together, maybe created a Planet aggregator site like Planet OU (here’s a temporary pipe aggregation solution), and probably indexed all the blogs in a custom search engine? And I’d have tried to interest the authors in using tags and categories.

Looking over the project blog to date, it seems there has been an issue with how to lay out code fragments in HTML (given that in vanilla HTML, white space is reduced to a single space when the HTML is rendered).

Now for anyone who lives in the web, the answer is to use a progressive enhancement library that will mark up the code in a language sensitive way. I quite like the Syntax Highlighter library, although on a quick trial with a default Blogspot template, it didn’t work:-) (That said, a couple of hours work from a competent web designer should result in a satisfactory, if simple, stylesheet that could use this library, and could then be made available to project participants).

A clunkier approach is to use something like Quick Highlighter, one of several such services that lets you paste in a block of programme code and get marked up HTML out. (The trick here is to paste the the CSS for e.g. the Java mark-up into the blog stylesheet template, and then all you have to do is paste marked up programme code into a blog post.)

A second issue I have is that I imagine that writing – and testing – the Processing code requires a download, and Java, and probably a Java authoring environment; and that’s getting too far away from the point, which is learning how to do stuff in Processing (or maybe that isn’t the point? Maybe the point is to teach trad programming and programming tools using Processing to provide some sort of context?)

So my solution? Use John Resig’s processing.js library – a port of Processing to Javascript – and then use something like the browser based Obsessing editor – write Processing code in the browser, then run it using processing.js:

A tweak to the Blogspot template should mean that processing code can be included in a post and executed using processing.js? Or if not, we could probably get it to work in an OU hosted WordPress environment?

Finally, the “worthy academic” pre-planned structure of the intended book just doesn’t work for me. I’d phrase the project in a far more playful way, and try to accrete comments and questions around mini-projects working out how to get various things working in Processing, probably in a blogged uncourse like way.

Sort of related to this, I’ve been thinking of writing something not too dissimilar from I’m Leaving, along the lines of “I’m not into dumbing down, but I’m quitting the ivory tower”, because the arrogance of academia is increasingly doing my head in. (If you’re a serious academic, you’re not allowed to use “slang” like that. You have to say you are “seriously concerned by the blah blah blah blah blah blah blah”… It does my head in ;-)

PS not liking the proposed book structure is not say I’m not into teaching proper computer science – I’d love to see us teaching compiler theory, or web services using real webservices, like some of the telecoms companies’ APIs;-) But there’s horses for courses, and this Processing stuff should be fun and accessible, right? (And that doesn’t mean it has to be substanceless…)

PPS how intersting would it have been to coolaboratively write an interatcive book, along the lines of this interactive presentation: Learning Advanced Javascript – double click in any of the code displaying slides, and you can edit – and run – the Javascript code in the browser/withi the presentation (described here: Adv. JavaScript and Processing.js, which includes a link to a downloadable version of the interactive presentation).

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

6 thoughts on “2.0 1.0, and a Huge Difference in Style”

  1. I don’t think you did mention that you got something included in the Google Apps Hacks book, but – congratulations! That is awesome and well deserved. And thanks once again for the help the last few times; both your help (and your expertise) were noted in the “Mashing up your PLE” session I led yesterday, which went ‘ok’ I think.

  2. Thanks for the ideas tony. I am currently putting a project together which involves collaborative music composition and these ideas are useful. I don’t know whether you’ve seen the stuff I sent out to the students who are helping to write chunks, but the book is just **one** of the outcomes. Another outcome is my attempt to challenge the hegemony of the book with a new interactive entity that combines fragmentary text, enhanced podcasts and interactive Processing programs that display the art. There is a role for both, conservatism and cutting edge on this project


  3. As one of the Mass Writers I’m quite late in following this link, I have already blogged about processing.js on my blog which I found quite independently. There are currently limitations on the code you can run (only Firefox 3 supports text), and IE does not support the canvas element which is required. I think the main problem with this project is the attitude of the contributors…

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