Figure:Ground – Mashing Up the PLE (MUPPLE’08) Links

After a nightmare journey, and a “no room at the inn, so walk round Maastricht all night looking for coffee shops” adventure, I fumbled and raced through a version of Figure:Ground – PLEs and the Flexible Learning Environment at MUPPLE’08 Workshop on Mash-Up Personal Learning Environments yesterday, and closed with a promise to post the presentation (such as it is) and some relevant links…

So here are the slides, (although I didn’t get round to annotating them, so they’re unlikely to make a lot of sense!):

And here are some links:

“Vision of a PLE” – a couple of people picked up on the “my PLE” image I used that included offline media and social context alongside the typical web app offerings; you can find the original here: Mohamed Amine Chatti: “My PLE/PKM”.

The OpenU’s OpenLearn open content site can be found at Unlike many other open content sites, the content is published in the context of a Moodle online learning environment that users can join for free. As well as providing a user environment, OpenLearn also makes the content available in a variety of convenient packaging formats (print, Moodle export format, IMS packages, RSS, HTML pages) that allow the content to be taken away and reused elsewhere.

Openlearnigg is a corank (Digg clone) site that pulls OpenLearn course unit URLs in via OpenLearn course listing RSS feeds, and then embeds the OpenLearn content within auto-generated course pages using a Grazr widget fed by OpenLearn unit full content feeds. OpenLearningg this uses OpenLearn syndication tools to mirror the content offerings of the OpenLearn site within a third party environment.

Something I didn’t mention was a pattern we’re developing for republishing with a click the OpenLearn content in WordPress environment (WP_LE). One of the widgets we have developed allows users to subscribe to “fixed” (i.e. unchanging) blog feeds and receive one item per day from the day they subscribe (which provides some all-important pacing for the user).

THe “MIT Courseware refactoring as syndication feeds is described in An MIT OpenCourseWare Course via an OPML Feed and Disaggregating an MIT OpenCourseware Course into Separate RSS Feeds, where I show how the feeds can be used in a Grazr widget to provide a presentation environment for an MIT OER course. I seem to remember the feeds were all handcrafted… You can also find links to the demos from those posts.

The Yale opencourseware feedification story is briefly covered in Yale OpenCourseware Feeds, along with links to each level of the nested Yahoo pipes that do the scraping. RSS Feed Demo from Yale Open Courseware gives a quick review of one how one of the pipes works.

The UC Berkeley Youtube video feeds/video courseware search are described in UCBerkeley Youtube Playlist Course Browser & Video Lecture Search and UC Berkeley Lectures on Youtube, via Grazr (the search part).

One of the aims of the MIT/Yale OPML feed doodles was roundtripping – taking an OER course site, generating feeds from it, and then recreating the site, but powered by the feeds. Getting a feel for the different sorts of feed could be bundled together to give a ‘course experience’ by reverse engineering courses is a stepping stone towards automatically generating some of those feeds using contextual searches, for example.

The Digital Worlds uncourse blog experment explores using a hosted WordPress blog as a course authoring environment, and the approriate use of tag and content feeds as delivery channels (the Visual gadgets uncourse blog does a similar thing using Blogger/Blogspot). Some of my reflections on the Digital Worlds creation process are in part captured in the weekly round-up posts that can be found here: OUseful 1.0 blog archive: Teaching and Learning posts. There’s also a presentation on the topic I gave to the OU CAL research group conference earlier this year: Digital Worlds presentation.

Stringle is my string’n’glue learning environment, as described in Stringle – Towards a String’n’Glue Learning Environment
(the URL structure is described here: StrinGLE URL “API”). Martin Weller also had a go at describing it: Stringle – almost a web 2.0 PLE?.

ANd the final link – was that was to, which currently resolves here, at the blog:

PS The whole “figure:ground” thing comes from psychology/studies on visual perception, though it turns out that Marshall Mcluhan also started using the phrase to capture a distinction between communciation technologies (the “medium”, viewed as the figure) and the context they operate in (the ground). I keep dipping in to odd bits of Mcluhan’s (and some of them are very odd!) and this medium/context is probably worth thinking through in a lot more detail with respect to “PLEs”.

Revisiting the Library Flip – Why Librarians Need to Know About SEO

What does information literacy mean in the age of web search engines? I’ve been arguing for some time (e.g. in The Library Flip) that one of the core skills going forward for those information professionals who “help people find stuff” is going to be SEO – search engine optimisation. Why? Because increasingly people are attuned to searching for “stuff” using a web search engine (you know who I’m talking about…;-); and if your “stuff” doesn’t appear near the top of the organic results listing (or in the paid for links) for a particular query, it might as well not exist…

Whereas once academics and students would have traipsed into the library to ask the one of the High Priestesses to perform some magical incantation on a Dialog database through a privileged access terminal, for many people research now starts with a G. Which means that if you want your academics and students to find the content that you’d recommend, then you have to help get that content to the top of the search engine listings.

With the rate of content production growing to seventy three tera-peta-megabits a second, or whatever it is, does it make sense to expect library staffers to know what the good content is, any more (in the sense of “here, read this – it’s just what you need”)? Does it make even make sense to expect people to know where to find it (in the sense of “try this database, it should contain what you need”)? Or is the business now more one of showing people how to go about finding good stuff, wherever it is (in the sense of “here’s a search strategy for finding what you need”) and helping the search engines see that stuff as good stuff?

Just think about this for a moment. If your service is only usable by members of your institution and only usable within the locked down confines of your local intranet, how useful is it?

When your students leave your institution, how many reusable skills are they taking away? How many people doing informal learning or working within SMEs have access to highly priced, subscription content? How useful is the content in those archives anyway? How useful are “academic information skills” to non-academics and non-students? (I’m just asking the question…;-)

And some more: do academic courses set people up for life outside? Irrespective of whether they do or not, does the library serve students on those courses well within the context of their course? Does the library provide students with skills they will be able to use when they leave the campus and go back to the real world and live with Google. (“Back to”? Hah – I wonder how much traffic on HEI networks is launched by people clicking on links from pages that sit on the domain?) Should libraries help students pass their courses, or give them skills that are useful after graduation? Are those skills the same skills? Or are they different skills (and if so, are they compatible with the course related skills?)?

Here’s where SEO comes in – help people find the good stuff by improving the likelihood that it will be surfaced on the front page of a relevant web search query. For example, “how to cite an article“. (If you click through, it will take you to a Google results page for that query. Are you happy with the results? If not, you need to do one of two things – either start to promote third party resources you do like from your website (essentially, this means you’re doing off-site SEO for those resources) OR start to do onsite and offsite SEO on resources you want people to find on your own site.

(If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re well on the way to admitting that you don’t understand how web search engines work. Which is a good first step… because it means you’ve realised you need to learn about it…)

As to how to go about it, I’d suggest one way is to get a better understanding of how people actually use library or course websites. (Another is Realising the Value of Library Data and finding ways of mining behavioural data to build recommendation engines that people might find useful.)

So to start off – find out what search terms are the most popular in terms of driving traffic to your Library website (ideally relating to some sort of resource on your site, such as a citation guide, or a tutorial on information skills); run that query on Google and see where you page comes in the results listing. If it’s not at the top, try to improve its ranking. That’s all…

For example, take a look at the following traffic (as collected by Google Analytics) coming in to the OU Library site over a short period some time ago.

A quick scan suggests that we maybe have some interesting content on “law cases” and “references”. For the “references” link, there’s a good proportion of new visitors to the OU site, and it looks from the bounce rate that half of those visited more than one page on the OU site. (We really should do a little more digging at this point to see what those people actually did on site, but this is just for argument’s sake, okay?!;-)

Now do a quick Google on “references” and what do we see?

On the first page, most of the links are relating to job references, although there is one citation reference near the bottom:

Leeds University library makes it in at 11 (at the time of searching, on

So here would be a challenge – try to improve the ranking of an OU page on this results listing (or try to boost the Leeds University ranking). As to which OU page we could improve, first look at what Google thinks the OU library knows about references:

Now check that Google favours the page we favour for a search on “references” and if it does, try to boost it’s ranking on the organic SERP. If Google isn’t favouring the page we want as its top hit on the OU site for a search on “references”, do some SEO to correct that (maybe we want “Manage Your References” to come out as the top hit?)

Okay, enough for now – in the next post on this topic I’ll look at the related issue of Search Engine Consequences, which is something that we’re all going to have to become increasingly aware of…

PS Ah, what the heck – here’s how to find out what the people who arrived at the Library website from a Google search on “references” were doing onsite. Create an advanced segment:

Google analytics advanced segment

(PS I first saw these and learned how to use them at a trivial level maybe 5 minutes ago;-)

Now look to see where the traffic came in (i.e. the landing pages for that segment):

Okay? The power of segmentation – isn’t it lovely:-)

We can also go back to the “All Visitors” segment, and see what other keywords people were using who ended up on the “How to cite a reference” page, because we’d possibly want to optimise for those, too.

Enough – time for the weekend to start :-)

PS if you’re not sure what techniques to use to actually “do SEO”, check on Academic Search Premier (or whatever it’s called), because Google and Google Blogsearch won’t return the right sort of information, will they?;-)

Guardian DataStore Visualisation Competition

A post over on the Guardian DataStore site last week announced a competition based around visualising data from the Guardian DataStore: Build stuff with our data and win a Flip Mino HD camcorder.

There are two categories for submissions:

1) The best user experience for understanding meaning in data, and
2) The best tool for web developers to build other things with data

I’ve posted quite a few recipes so far that describe different ways of engaging with the data, many of which you can find from posts categorised here with visualisation, so it’d be great to see people trying to run with them.

Many of the recipes I’ve come up with start by getting data out of the spreadsheets as CSV, so that it can then be passed to other services, such as Many Eyes Wikified or Yahoo Pipes; or JSON, so that it can be pulled in to a web page. (My very work in progress Guardian Datastore explorer can be used to generate URIs that run queries on Google spreadsheets, which may be of some use if you want to get started on running SQL like queries on spreadsheet data.)

As far as I know, know one has explored using tools like the JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit yet, which could be interesting from the point of view nice UIs, as well as the developer perspective (e.g. a nice set of hooks in to the DataStore from visualisation toolkits or code frameworks). And then of course there are plenty of other more traditional chart toolkits out there…

If you’re after something a little more exotic, how about something like Thematic Mapping, HeatMap API or CloudMade on the geoviz front, though the problem of geocoding DataStore data would have to be solved first (Yahoo Placemaker might be handy there?); the Timetric or the MIT Simile Timeplot or Timeline tools for displaying information against a time axis (none of which have, to date, and as far as I know, been combined with a Fourier Analysis tools to help identify periodicities in the charted data); or how about finding a use for TimeMap, which combines MIT Simile Timeline widgets with Google maps..?

For truly open ended visualisations, using something like Processing may be the way to go: there’s already a Processing wrapper for the OpenPlatform API, but I’m not sure if anyone has provided an easy way (as yet) to pull DataStore content into it. Integration with Processing.js, a Javascript implementation of Processing that makes things like Obsessing possible, is also something that could open up a lot of opportunities for making use of the data?

On the other hand, if it’s analysis you’re after, it might be interesting to see what could be done if the DataStore spreadsheets could be integrated with various stats analysis packages (is there a variant of R as a st of Javascript libraries, I wonder?!)

PS Just for the record, I’m not eligible to enter the competition just at the moment…

Okay – So I Need Something New to Read. Any Suggestions?

I tweeted”randomly buying books on amazon, and it’s not making me happy… anyone got any good holiday book recommendations?” and among the replies @janetedavis suggested “Write us a quick blog on what books you’ve enjoyed & maybe we can suggest holiday books you might enjoy.”

So here it is: books I’ve enjoyed include most of what I’ve read (and I tend to ‘collect the set’ when I read an author I like) by:

– Jose Luis Borges
– Richard Brautigan;
– Terry Pratchett;
– John le Carre;
– Herman Hesse;
– William Gibson;
– Mark Manning and Bill Drummond…(?!);
– Michael Dobbs;
– Iain Banks.

That gives a flavour… (the list is far from being exhaustive, and is just off the top of my head… but I’m slow at typing and this was a quick post!)

I’ve also trawled through more than a few Harvard Business Books (new business models, management innovation, data driven business etc) and O’Reilly geeky techie books (analytics, visualisation, web 2 and mashup stuff – you can imagine…)

At the recent Festival at the Edge, a compelling story by Hugh Lupton made me realise I know nothing about the enclosure acts, so something non-fiction there would be interesting. I keep looking for books about the Luddites, but I’ve collected most things with “Luddite’ in the title or subtitle! (So I guess industrial revolution themes are in there… tales of early factories and workhouses could be interesting, and the growth of the canals… Stuff that brings to mind the dark satanic hills and mills of my upbringing in West Yorkshire ;-)

I’m definitely on the lookout for a simple intro to architecture, and keep having a scout around (so far unsuccessfully) for something to read about consumer psychology and the design and layout of supermarkets (architecture again, I guess?)

Maybe I should run this post through a term extractor and then see what Amazon recommends as a result?! ;-)

Virtual Revolution: Google Economics

Th third episode of the OU/BBC co-produced Virtual Revolution (which may well be available on iPlayer from time to time) has just aired, and included a quick overview of how Google works – from finding relevant search results, to pricing the adverts that make Google its money.

So here’s a quick recap, and a little more detail…

Firstly, the famous PageRank mechanism that drives Google’s search results ranking. Here’s how Terry Winograd, one of the interviewees on the Virtual Revolution programme, describes it:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

(Michael Nielsen has written an even more comprehensive tutorial on how this works at Lectures on the Google Technology Stack 1: Introduction to PageRank. If you want to read the original PageRank paper, you can find it here: The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine.)

Next up, Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian, explains how the advert auction that powers Google’s AdSense service works:

(If you buy Google AdSense adverts, you might also be interested in how to price your bids effectively…)

For a full length lecture by Hal Varian on “The Economics of Internet Search”, check out the following hour long video:

[To learn more about effective searching on the web, see the OU course Beyond Google: working with information online, or check out this free tutorial from the Open University Library: Safari: Skills in Accessing, Finding and Reviewing Information.]

Who Can See Whose Conversations In-stream on Twitter?

A week or so ago, I posted a quick hack using the Google Social graph API showing how to generate a list Common Friends or Followers on Twitter, so that you could look up which folk would see, in their Twitter timeline, a conversation between two other people on Twitter. (A hosted version of the service is now available here.)

At the time I also generalised the code so that you could look up the extent to which any party could see the conversations between two other parties on twitter, in stream. This is another single page web app and it can be found hre: Twitter in-stream eavesdrop.

It looks like this:

Very simple, very quick… there is nothing more to it than what you find if you View Source… (In fact, there’s more than you need if you View Source – there is also a Google Analytics tracking code in there…)

BBC Click Radio Recording As-Live at the OU

In case you’re around the OU campus in Milton Keynes on Monday 18th July, we’re recording the final episode in our season of special episodes on openness with Gareth Mitchell and the BBC Click Radio team.

If you’d like to attend, the recording will take place in the Berrill Lecture Theatre from 1pm to 1.30. Please be seated by 12.45 for the sound check;-)