Friday, January 26, 2007

Mashups? Does this have anything to do with potatoes?

In 1995, I was working in a research lab and we were working on state of the art Pentium computers. Bye-bye 486! (*smile*) A couple of my lab-mates and I stumbled across a piece of software called PointCast. Do you remember this software? Basically, it was a client that ran on a computer that had interesting stuff ‘pushed’ to it from a central server. Stuff like news, weather and sports. It was a like a 'super-newspaper' that combined together information from different news services and sent it right to our computer desktop… and all of this updated frequently, in the background, without us doing anything. The idea was cool but the utility of this service quickly faded away because all the time-slices it was stealing from our computer made our Pentiums feel like 486s again. We had said goodbye to the slow processor speeds of the 486 and we wanted our fast Pentiums back. So PointCast went out the window.

Ok, so why the story? And how does it relate to the title of this posting? Well, back in 1995 if you would have asked me about the word ‘mashup’, visions of dancing potatoes in the kitchen would have popped into my head. I have a real weakness for yummy mashed potatoes (*smile*). Today the word ‘mashup’ has a much different denotation. I realize now that PointCast in 1995 was a rudimentary type of mashup: a collection of information from other web services that are integrated together into one web page. (See 'mashup' in Wikipedia for more information.) With the creation of more diverse web services, like podcasts, online games,, flickr, rss feeds, YouTube, etc., a mashup can be so much more useful than the model of a news-focused PointCast mashup of 1995.

I was at a talk a couple of weeks ago where mashups were being discussed and someone threw out a website: It’s a service where you can create you own web page that is a mashup of almost any user customizable web material that you want. I’ve been using it for about a week now and I really like it. I set it as my homepage in Firefox and it’s a kind of ‘one stop shop’ for the things on the web I tend to look for on a daily, or weekly, basis. The pageflakes development crew is actively working to make the user experience better by adding new types of mashup items as well as refining those that are already available.

Do you want to see my personal Pageflakes homepage? You can get a quick idea of how a mashup might be interesting to you by visiting mine here.

What do you think about mashups and pageflakes? Thumbs up or thumbs down? Leave a 'comment' below.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Support Materials for using Wikis at a Distance

I am currently designing and developing a masters level course on Entrepreneurship that will be delivered at a distance in a web-enabled format. The professor and I have decided that the major assignment in the course will be to create a business plan. Students will be put together in pairs and asked to produce a 1st draft business plan. Selected members of the class will provide feedback to each draft business plan and then the pairs of students will finalize their business plan for submission to the professor. In order to facilitate collaborative authorship of the business plan, despite students being geographically separated from each other, we chose to offer students the option of using a Wiki. I’ve written about Wikis before so this post won’t be re-iterating what I’ve already discussed. Instead this post is more of a show and tell. In this course, we’re not obliging the groups to use a Wiki; however, we’re providing details on how to use one in case they want to try it. I have created two support documents for students:

1) A Word handout, which describes what a Wiki is, suggest one free Wiki service (i.e., and briefly gives the steps on how they can get started.
2) A short Flash tutorial showing how to get started on WikiSpaces.

Have a look at these resources. If you have any ideas on how they can be improved, please let me know.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Rewards and Challenges of Blogging

Scott McLeod has just released the results of his recent survey of Edubloggers. 160 people responded to questions that examined the reasons why they blog, the challenges they face in blogging, how many feeds in their RSS agregator and their favourite non-Edublog. Check out the short Flash-based presentation for a summary of the results. Kudos to Scott.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Paper still beats electronic in 2007!

Catchy title eh? A colleague and I (thanks Susan!) just wrapped up a very small study with some graduate students at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) and the results were quite interesting. First, let me briefly explain the scenario and method. We selected one graduate course in the Masters of Arts in Defence Management and Policy programme and it had 7 people enrolled for the Fall 2006 semester. This course was offered at a distance using WebCT as an LMS. Students were provided with a paper-based package of course notes free of charge. They were required to purchase 6 textbooks and 2 readers (i.e. collections of scholarly articles). One reader was paper-based while the other reader was electronic-based. Our experiment was to try to measure which type of reader students preferred. For this experiment, we offered the electronic-based reader at a 20% lower price than the paper-based reader. The electronic-based reader was a professionally done product through collaboration with Access Copyright and VitalSource. Near the end of the course, students were administered an anonymous questionnaire which gathered data on the readers and how they used them. 5 of 7 the students chose to complete the survey.

Here are some of the most interesting results.

When asked ‘which reader they preferred to use’, 100% said they preferred the paper-based.

When asked ‘If you had a choice between purchasing a reader in a paper-based format for full price (say $70) or the same reader in a discounted electronic-based format (say a 20% discount), which would you purchase’ 80% of students said they would purchase the paper-based reader.

When asked how much of the electronic-based reader they printed, three students said they printed more than 60% of the reader (Note that 60%+ represents 240+ pages of printing). One student said they printed between 40-60% and one student printed between 10-20% of the reader.

When asked what were the reasons for printing pages from the electronic reader, 100% of students stated two reasons: i) ‘I printed pages because I prefer reading on paper instead of the screen’, and ii) ‘I printed pages because it was easy to transport the printed readings between two or more physical locations (i.e. example: home, work, library, coffee shop, etc.)’ 80% of students stated this reason for printing pages: ‘I printed pages because I always print all course materials’. It is interesting to note that only 1 student stated ‘I printed pages because I had limited Internet/computer access.’

I realize that the sample size is very small here and the target market is not the typical graduate student in Canada. At RMC, most graduate students in the Masters of Arts in Defence Management and Policy are either military members or associated with the Department of National Defence in some way. However, based on these results I will default to recommending the creation of paper-based readers for the courses I design in this programme in the future.

Quantity vs. Quality: Keywords

The ancient battle raging since the beginning of time shows to sign of letting up. Furthermore, some people still confuse quality with quantity. For example, if I am designing a webpage and I put 1,349 keywords in the header does that improve the ability of web-searchers to find my page? Does the quantity of keywords matter or does the quality of keywords matter?

The reason why this is on my brain this morning is because I discovered a new Google gizmo: Google Image Labeler. It’s a game-based application that pairs to random users together, gives them 90 seconds, shows them a random image on the net and asks them to give keywords that represent it. It claims that it will use these responses “to help improve the quality of Google's image search results.” Hmmm. I’m not convinced that adding keywords to images necessarily will improve Google’s image search results. I’ll tell you why. When I play this game, obviously I have an incentive to get as many matches with my partner as I can. So when I see a certain image, I always try to default to the simplest terms in order to maximize my chances of making a match with my partner. For example, if I see a group of people posing for a conference group picture. I try generic keywords like: “people”, “picture”, “group”. How does the addition of generic keywords like this improve the Google image search results? I’m not convinced that adding more keywords to an image… especially very generic ones… will improve the search results. However, maybe Google knows something I don’t. They obviously do because there a multi-million dollar company… and I am not (*grin*). What do you think about this game and whether or not it can be a useful way to improve Google image search results? One thing that I am convinced of, it’s a pretty entertaining game (*smile*)