From StringLE to DockLE… Erm… Maybe…

Getting on for a decade ago, I doodled an approach for creating user a user defined personal learning environment based around online applications and resources: StringLe, the string’n’glue learning environment (more and more and more).


StringLe was of the web. A StringLE environment configuration comprised three things:

  • the username and tag for a particular delicious social bookmark feed that contained a list of web applications that were linked from the top menu bar of a StringLE set up; tools included things like online office tools, drawing packages, and audio and image editors
  • a link to an OPML feed: this feed populated a Grazr widget in the left hand sidebar that could be used to load in further RSS feeds to act as more comprehensive nested menu options that could be used to pull resources into the environment.
  • a homepage URL for the environment.

The idea was simple – through managing various RSS feeds, the user could create a workspace configured to load in a variety of tools (web applications) arranged along a top tabbed menu bar and online content pages accessed via an OPML navigation widget and inpage RSS viewer widget (actually, the OPML and RSS viewer widgets were one and the same: Grazr? Remember Grazr? I went through phase of packageing MIT courses as OPML files for rendering in Grazr eg here and here), as well as using the environment as a normal web browser, and bookmarking links visited within the space into one of the feeds exposed via the navigational OPML feed.

It was a throwaway toy, but one that demonstrated a way of pulling a range of separate applications together that might be used within a particular course or course activity. For different courses or activities, it was easy enough to pull together different collections of tools for that particular purpose.

This notion of online tool collections – workbenches, perhaps? or tool suites? – is used, in part, in things like SagemathCloud, or the IBM Data Workbench, where a user is provided access to a range of different online applications within a single online environment.

Those workbenches go much further, however, and provide an online workspace in the form of a user filestore that can be accessed by all the applications within the suite. Services like Sandstorm also resemble StringLE in the sense that they provide an environment from within which a user can launch a range of user selected online applications.

For anyone whose followed this blog for any period of time, you’ll probably know the same ideas just keep getting revisited and recycled. So now, for example, it strikes me that a Docker Compose file provides another way of defining a user configured workbench comprising multiple linked applications, along with a workspace in the sense of a shared file area that can be used to pass files between the applications.

So for example, here’s an example from earlier this year of the Docker Compose script I used to pull together a set of containers to re-implement the TM351 monolithic VM as a set of linked containers (raw dockerfiles on Github).

What might me quite nice would be to add a Flask container to the mix to set up a simple webserver, and generate a simple HTML file from the dockerfile to act as a floating menu panel that has a set of buttons, one for each application, that would let me click through to that application. A simple wrapper script would then: take the docker-compose file, add a flask control panel container to it, create the menu HTML from the docker-compose file, run docker-compose over the docker-compose file to launch the containers, pop the HTML menu up in a browser window.

Anyway… suffice to say that the app collection idea reminded me of StringLE, but  reimplemented via a Docker Compose script – as a DockLE?! – and using applications running in linked containers, rather than more loosely connected web apps identified via RSS and OPML feeds.

Time for a Widget Guide Learning Environment (a Wiggle?!)? aka the Obligatory (but very late) Skittles Blog Post

A few weeks ago now, the live web was all a chatter about a new marketing campaign for Skittles: it seemed they’d gone all 2.0 and were letting people say what they wanted on the domain, once they’d passed through an age verification check:

And here is the first page of their “interweb rainbow” proper:

So what do we notice? Eyes, folks, c’mon…. use your eyes…

Here’s what I noticed: firstly, we’re still on; secondly, we’re on Youtube (the real Youtube); thirdly, there’s a Skittles panel overlaid on top of the Youtube page.

So what we presumably have here is Skittles loading Youtube into an iframe on the Skittles main page.

Click on the Chatter link, and we get a Twitter search results page, again still on the Skittles domain:

“Friends” takes you to your Facebook page, “Media-Videos” to Youtube, “Media-Pics” to a flickr search results page for a search on “Skittles”, and so on:

So what’s going on? As Stephen Hale, Head of Engagement, Digital Diplomacy (i.e. the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) put it in his post on What can governments learn from Skittles?, simply this:

[I]n a nutshell, Skittles replaced their corporate website with a simple widget that directs readers to relevant user generated content on leading social media sites, including Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Flickr.

[T]he Skittles approach suggests that maybe we don’t need a web platform at all to deliver digital campaigns. And that we may not need to employ any of our own web editors. After all, content has always been king, and maybe the most engaging and accurate content is being provided by amateur authors, using whatever social media they find most convenient.

If our “editors” can use the combined content management systems of Wikipedia, YouTube and Delicious, then maybe we don’t need to invest in content management systems of our own.

One thing I think needs stressing, though, is that the Skittles navigation widget provides a set of curated navigational links related to Skittles: the Skittles Youtube page, the Twitter search page for “skittles”, and so on. And it also provides an overlaid context for the Twitter search page, the Facebook friends page, etc.

So – what are the consequences for education?

Some time ago, I put together a quick hack (that appears to have rotted/broken since then – ??Grazr not opening links in the target frame??) that combined a Grazr navigational widget with some toolbar application links pulled in from a particular delicious feed and “browser” window: StringLE – the “String’n’Glue Learning Environment (no one grokked it, except Martin (sort of…)).

The idea behind StringLE was something along the lines of this:

– call StringLE with three argument URLs: one to point to an OPML file, one to point to an RSS feed, one to point to a web page;
– load the OPML file into the Grazr widget on the left hand side. Clicking any of the links in the Grazr widget should open the appropriate web page in the main, central browsing area (this functionality appears to be broken at the moment???); the Grazr widget can also embed audio files passed into it as RSS feed media enclosures in an audio player, as shown above;
– load the links in the RSS feed into the top navigation bar; these are “tool applications” int he current StringLE configuration. Clicking on a top navgation bar link should open the corresponding web application in the browser window.
– load the HTML page as the first, “launch” page in the browser area.

Creating new StringLE configurations was easy – just create OPML and RSS feeds that could pipe the navigational content you wanted into StringLE. Roundtripping was possible too: for example, you could bookmark things in the browser and then pull links to them back into the Grazr widget.

So that was maybe two and a half years ago (I first posted about StringLE in October 2006, or so) and where are we now? Well, personally, I’m trying to finish off a new course that employs a very particular design pattern that looks sort of like this: the course runs over 10 weeks, and each week’s activity is split into to two parts – a practical activity, and a topic. In a traditional course, the topic would be covered by wordy stuff, such as printed learning materials. In a traditional online course, the topic would be delivered as HTML readings through the VLE, or similar. In the model I’m working on (and time will tell whether or not it’s a viable model), the topic is phrased as a set of questions to bear in mind when reading materials outside the VLE (some of which I have written and published in public, online, some of which I haven’t).

The topic questions will probably be presented as a simple list, followed by a set of links to readings that the students can use to start to explore the topic. One page will thus direct the learning around a particular topic. (Further guidance/scaffolding/self-checking will be provided through exemplar short essays addressing the questions set around a particular topic.)

So here’s what I’m thinking… could each topic be presented a bit like the Skittles widget? That is, could we define a set of topic widgets that would allow a student to explore a particular topic in the context of a set of guiding questions related to that topic? Each widget would thus: list the guiding questions; provide a set of links to relevant resources.

In the same way that I have argued* a lightbox might be used to frame videos that might otherwise be linked to from a set of learning materials within the context of those learning materials, the widget can be used to overlay third party content and provide a context for those materials to the student reading them.

* See also: Progressive Enhancement – Some Examples.

The approach is also reminiscent of my old Library Traveller script, which would overlay a panel on Amazon, or several other online bookstore, book webpages showing whether or not that book was available in the OU library (either as a physical book, or as an e-book, in either the same or a different edition, etc).

In effect, the widget is a “Course Traveler” widget, defining a “(web) portable learning environment” that can act so as to help a student navigate their way through a set of third party curated content pages.

For me, this is one of the sorts of approach we could – and I’d argue should – be experimenting with.

But it pains me to say that I fear most ed-tech ‘innovations’ around course delivery in the VLE context are, in many cases at least, and at best, striving to do the same old things in a ‘new’ environment. That’s not really innovation, it’s a way of trying to salvage old ways of doing things by shoving them into shiny new boxes. Or in the case of many VLEs, tatty new boxes…

PS David WIley also has something to say about the changes that are necessary…

PPS (March 2011) Here’s an OER toolkit, picking up on the stirngle approach: OER Glue