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August 31, 2005

RSS-Blog-Furl High: Reloaded

Will R recently posted this little story integrating the aggregation-style technologies into a typical day for a teacher (or rather, re-posted in a slightly updated fashion). Its an interesting scenario, because looking at my current set of design drafts for a Personal Learning Environment, I realised that providing the tools for achieving something like Will's vision maybe aren't "fairly far into the future" at all, even if the practices may take considerably longer.

As Will notes, many teacher's aren't likely to be happy with the downside of the small-pieces approach, which is cobbling together a whole range of tools. So my design is for what is primarily a piece of glueware for doing the cobbling together, while retaining most of the flexibility that the small-pieces syndication world promises. It complements the availability of blog hosting services, wikis and other online tools, provided that they offer standard APIs for aggregation and publishing.

I've drawn it as a rich-client desktop application, but that's not to say it couldn't be some sort of clever web application; I personally tend to like desktop tools as I only ever use a laptop, and like still being able to read and work on things when I can't scrounge any network access. For others a web-based application may be better suited; for example if you mostly access the Internet through borrowing the use of machines at school, cyber cafes and the like.

So, below I've rewritten Will's tale using the terminology of some of my design wireframes:

Note that the examples in the figures aren't the same as the story, as I created these wireframes before reading Will's post, but hopefully most people reading this can figure out what on earth is meant to be going on; eventually I may re-draw the frames with the content of the story.

The wireframes draw quite heavily on several application designs, notably Shrook and Colloquia as well as my earlier more web-oriented E-Learning Aggregator design. Note that this design is part of my thoughts for the JISC PLE Reference Model project, so I'm not actually building it, its just part of a specification for what a PLE might be.

By the way, if you compare my version of the story with Will's original, you may notice that all references to portals have been removed: the personal learning environment renders the merely personalized obsolete :-)

(Bit of an aside here, but some geeks may relate to this: As far as the PLE itself is concerned, there are really only Conduits (groups/posts/activities out) and Sources (feeds in). A feed - any sort of feed - always consists of two parts; the data itself, of course, but also the knowledge of the location to request the data from and the protocol you need to use to obtain it. This is what I've termed a Source. A Conduit is the same but in reverse, knowledge of where to put data and the protocol you need to use to put it there. Between Conduits and Sources we have the input and output channels for the PLE device, and with Atom, RSS and the like we have the structure of the signals to send and receive on them.)

OK, are we all sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin...

English teacher Tom McHale sets down his cup of coffee and boots up the computer at his classroom desk. It's 6:50 a.m., and he's got about 45 minutes before his sleepy Journalism students will begin filing into his classroom.

He opens his iBook and launches the PLE program. In the Resources view, he does a quick scan of the New York Times headlines that are displayed in the list and clicks on one of the links to read a story about war reporting that he thinks his student journalists might be interested in. Tom right-clicks the item and selects "Share...", then adds a bit of annotation in the dialog box that comes up, and finally selects the "journalism resources" conduit to post it to his Journalism Resources link blog on the school server. With this step, he archives the page for future reference and automatically has the link and his note appear in the "Journalism Resources" feed his journalism students subscribed to at the beginning of the course, when they joined the "Journalism" activity that Tom created and shared.

Next, he switches to the Activities view and selects the "Journalism" activity, and in the Resources group he scans summaries that link to all the work his students submitted to their Weblogs the night before. Seeing one particularly well done response, he right-clicks the item, selects "Share...", and posts a positive comment about her submission in his Journalism class blog. (He notices, scanning through the items, that a couple of his students have already left some positive feedback to the author on their blogs as well.) He selects "Share..." again, this time first publishing it to his "Best Practices" conduit (the target of which is also one of the sources in the Journalism activity, for students to read and discuss), and then using a separate conduit he has created for a place he uses to keep track of all of the best examples of student work. It's 7:00.

After taking a sip of his coffee, Tom flips back to the Resources view, and takes a look at his research feeds (handily grouped under "Research"). He's been asked to keep abreast of the latest news about technology and teaching writing, and this morning he sees his Google search feed has turned up a new version of "Write Outloud." He clicks the link, reads about the new version on the site, and then decides to "Share..." it using a link blog set up for all of his department colleagues to share. In the "Share Resource" dialog box, he writes a couple of lines of description about how it might benefit the department, and then tags it "Technology" before posting it (this means the server hosting the department blogs automatically archives it to the tech page of the English Department Weblog). Later that day, all the members of his department will see his link as well as any others his colleagues may have added as a part of their daily scan of their PLEs, aggregators, or however they get their news.

He also decides he wants to create another group for the words "journalism" and "weblogs." From the "Resources" menu he chooses "New > Smart Group", and enters the criteria. The new Smart Group will select items from the sources in the "Research" group containing those words.

At around 7:05, back in the Activities view, Tom goes to the "American Literature" activity and creates a post about an assignment on symbolism for his major American literature class, attaching the assignment document to the post. He right-clicks the completed post and selects "Publish > American Lit Best Practices", which publishes the post using the conduit (account settings) for his American Literature Best Practices blog. The rest of the American Lit teachers will be able to see his published artifact so that they can use in their own classes. He selects "Publish > American Lit Class - Homework" from the context menu, which posts the assignment, with a "Homework" tag added to it, to the blog account he uses to communicate with students in the class . The school has a special aggregator service set up that scans all its teacher's class blogs for entries tagged "Homework", and automatically sends an email to relevant parents who have requested it, saying that their son or daughter has homework to do that evening. E-mails also get sent to a couple of counselors who are tracking at risk students.

About 7:15 Tom decides to scan the latest feeds from the school Weblogs he is subscribed to, which he can see from the Resources view (he previously put them all in a group called "School - Misc"). He sees that the basketball team won the county tournament, the new edition of the school paper is online, and that the superintendent has posted important information about an upcoming safety drill. He clicks through to read the entire post, and then leaves a comment suggesting a way to alleviate crowding in the hallways during the drill. (He sees a parent also has a suggestion about the timing.) He decides that he doesn't want to scan the soccer team news any longer, so he selects the "Soccer" feed in the sources list and presses backspace. He does notice, however, the "New Feeds" feed from the school lists a new "Tech Deals" feed that the tech supervisor has created. Since he's looking for a new home computer, he clicks to subscribe to it.

At 25 after, he notices that two of his students have posted the interview they did with the principal. He clicks the "download and sync" button on the post to add it to his iPod. He lifts it out of his cradle and puts it in his briefcase so he can play it on his car stereo during his ride home after school. If it's good, he'll upload it to the school podcast page where the 135-odd subscribers (mostly parents) will automatically receive it so they can hear it and hopefully get most of their questions about the new building project answered.

With just a few minutes left before his first class, Tom goes back to the "American Literature" activity, selects "New > Document" and types in a few notes about an idea he had for the lit project his students are completing next week. Now that his volume of e-mail has been drastically reduced, he scans the few messages in his in box, takes a last gulp of coffee, and opens his classroom door to the sound of happy students.

About Tom's Personal Learning Environment

Apologies again for not reworking my wireframes with the actual example. However, below I've described the structure of Tom's PLE.

Tom's Conduits

  • Journalism Resources
  • Journalism Class
  • Journalism Best Practices Blog
  • Student's Best Work
  • American Lit Class
  • American Lit Best Practices
  • English Department

(These could actually all be posting to a single blog which has several feeds based on categories, or seven totally different weblog accounts on different servers; the PLE will work in exactly the same fashion, its just the individual conduit settings that will be different.)

Tom's Activities

  • Journalism
    • Resources
      • Journalism Resources
      • Journalism Class
      • Journalism Best Practices Blog
      • each student's feed
    • Participants
      • Tom
      • Journalism students
    • Posts
      • NYT - War Reporting
      • Great post!
  • American Literature
    • Resources
      • American Lit Class
      • American Lit Best Practices Blog
      • each student's feed
    • Participants
      • Tom
      • American literature students
    • Posts
      • Symbolism Assignment
    • Documents
      • Notes for next assignment

Tom's Groups

  • School-Misc
    • [Soccer]
    • New Feeds
    • School Paper
    • Tech Deals
  • Research
    • [various...]

Tom's Smart Groups

  • Journalism+Weblog

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