Archive for category Systems

The Death of Google Reader: A New Beginning

A gravestone with the Google Reader Icon on it.

Image Credit – Source Google Reader icon: from Matt Galligan Tombstone: Public Domain at

The recent announcement about Google killing its Reader product had me depressed for a few moments.  RSS still forms the core of my daily intake of journals, blogs, and news sources. Twitter and G+ have their places but there are certain sources I want to make sure I see each day. Luckily, my PLN was also abuzz with the Google announcement and options began surfacing almost immediately.


The first recommendation came from a G+ comment: Feedly. I grabbed the Chrome version right away and then downloaded the iOS version. Slick interface, clean, and the makers claim they will seamlessly transition my Google Reader feeds to their platform when the execution occurs July 1. Fantastic! But, then the first little issues began to appear: 1) Feedly’s Chrome app took over my browser when I would click on a Feedburner feed (attention web app makers: do not take over my browser without asking). 2) I then began to look at whether I could see the RSS source links so I could copy them into other Reader replacement options. I could not find a way to expose the original links. Perhaps you can but, it is not obvious. 3) This led me look for export options. Even though they are killing Reader, at least Google allows you to export data. This post indicates that it is not even on the radar.  Locking my feeds into a platform when a simple export function is so easy is not acceptable. So, scratch Feedly.

The Old Reader also looks like a viable product and it seems to be supported by folks dedicated to keeping your data accessible but, in the rush of folks leaving Google Reader they were having scalability issues (since resolved). So I noted this option to try again later and kept looking.

Then I read the post by D’arcy Norman about the feed reader called Fever (D’arcy gives a great description – read it).  Fever is a paid product and you have to install it on a web sever. I have a hosted server space for this blog so I thought I would see if it would support the install. After running the package, it worked like a charm. I paid my 30 bucks and began to get it configured.  Wow, what a difference. In many ways it is superior to Reader.

Fever has a typical folder structure but it also shows what’s hot based on inbound linking to an article or topic. I have a love-hate relationship with aggregator sites because they often surface interesting articles but they also fill my unread count. These can be labeled “sparks. ” Labeling a feed as a spark means that it does not show up as unread but it contributes to the “heat” that topics have.


Those who follow me on Twitter know I share a smattering of what I read about technology, learning, education, and other random assorted odds and ends. I typically send these to Twitter from Reader while I am on my iPad. I really dislike the Twitter integration in iOS. Like the Feedly browser takeover issue with RSS, it does not let me see the link and I cannot copy Tweets with links into other programs. More iOS  apps are now defaulting to this internally integrated Twitter function. The iOS app that best supports Fever (Reeder) defaults to the iOS Twitter integration so I needed to make a change to continue to share in the same way. I use a couple of different Twitter programs but I tend to post articles through the free version of Hootsuite. On Chrome I use the Hootlet extension to post directly from a story to Hootsuite. iOS Safari does not allow extensions and plugins so I wanted a “Hootlet” for iOS. I found this very helpful article describing how to set this up using a bookmark with a little Javascript.

The way I read and post articles is actually now more efficient than it was when I was in my Google Reader rut. So, I want to personally thank Google for getting me out of my comfort zone to look at new options.  This change has me thinking again about all of my posts across various sources and whether I should be pulling it all into one place that I “own.” That’s a project for another time…


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Learning analytics: Creepy data and the mustard problem

This post is a follow-up to one of my talking points in this week’s keynote at the 2013 Adult Student Recruiting and Retention Conference

We are fast approaching the top of the hype cycle when discussing learning analytics and big data. The use of data to improve student outcomes is not a new phenomenon but, like in other areas, the promise of what is now possible is staggering.  The operative word in that last sentence is “promise.” While analytics are rapidly changing the business world, systematic use of student data in education is still in its infancy. (note: I recommend reading Michael Feldstein’s recent post A Taxonomy of Adaptive Analytics Strategies for more)

Creepy data

If you use Amazon to shop, you have likely seen the recommendations made just for you.  Many times, these make complete sense, like when I am told that author William Gibson has a new book out that I might want to try. But occasionally I am shown a very odd item.  Amazon is, as most of us know by now, mining data across millions of users and billions of transactions to look for patterns.  Sometimes, these patterns are not evident based on the purchasing behavior alone. Occasionally, these items are laughable and we wonder how Amazon could make such a ridiculous recommendation.  Other times, however, it is eery how I am shown something that does not connect directly to any of my past shopping history that is relevant to me. While sometimes helpful, it is also just a little creepy.

One recent story about Target’s use of customer data has gone viral and is now quite well-known.  This gist of the story is that Target began sending coupons to a teenage girl who, according to her shopping habits, appeared to be pregnant.  The girl’s father was outraged at the store only to learn later that his daughter was, in fact, pregnant (Forbes version of this story). Subsequent stories explored the extent of data retailers now collect about ever aspect of their customer’s lives. Much of this data is freely given through use of loyalty card programs and credit card privacy agreements but this data is then cross-referenced by buying and selling through data brokers (see FTC takes aim at data brokers for a recent story). Most of us are likely unaware of the power of data brokers and how information we assume is in a silo is actually being resold and then cross-referenced, compiled, bundled for marketers. Target, like many other retailers takes advantage of these types of services to learn more about customers and provide specialized offers. This is not necessarily a bad thing for consumers but might make us uncomfortable when we realize this is happening without our knowledge (ever wonder why you might get a discount on gas with your grocery loyalty card?).

The mustard problem

Pictures of a store shelf with multiple mustard containers

The mustard problem

Despite the amount of data Target has about me, my family, and my shopping habits, they (and other retailers) still fail in a very important way.  At the moment of highest need, they cannot help me make a decision.  When I am standing in front of 40 different kinds of mustard, there is no accurate guide to help me figure out what I really want.  Of course, in today’s mega stores, it is not just mustard but every product seems to have a dizzying array of choices.  While I might get a coupon to persuade me to make a choice, that is about the retailer and the product manufacturer trying to influence me to maximize profit and not help me match my taste bud’s desire at that moment.

In the 1997 journal article “Artificial Tutoring Systems: What Computers Can and Can’t Know” Frick outlines this exact problem. Computers are good at knowing how to do something (process information in various ways) but not good at establishing meaning. While computers might house a lot of data about me to the point of being “creepy,” they need an incredible amount of contextual and social data at the moment of need to provide accurate guidance to me about what mustard I want to purchase. A lot of progress has been made since 1997 but the same basic problems remain.

Learning Analytics

Now think of the almost endless amount of digital education content (and analog instructional options) and it makes 40 types of mustard seem like a trivial problem. We are  not even doing a good job helping students personalize their learning needs with static web content. As the wealth of new instructional opportunities increase, the need to help people discover what works best for them will also increase.

While Target might know a lot about us, our schools and universities have equally vast repositories of data. Demographics, income, login patterns, healthcare issues (in the case of on-campus clinics), email volume, contact lists, web surfing and internet use (when on campus), and countless other data points are available.  Note that I did not even touch on what is available through the LMS, which is interesting but only a partial snapshot of your data profile. Universities have many rules in place to isolate and segregate this data. FERPA and other laws require educational institutions to develop and follow strict data privacy standards. Our scruples and legal requirements make it hard for us to  fully take advantage of the vast troves of data retailers are mining but there have to be steps in between where we are today and the “shady” back alleys of consumer data brokers.

We might not yet be at the point technologically to make perfect recommendations but we are getting closer. Taking the next steps, however, might mean using data in unusual and even “creepy” ways to determine what really works.


Frick, T. W. (1997). Artificial tutoring systems: What computers can and can’t know. Educational Computing Research, 16(2), 107–124.

Hill, K. (2012). How Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did. Forbes. Retrieved from


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Disruptive Innovation: Breaking News in 1981

I will give the closing keynote a the Adult Student Recruiting and Retention Conference next week in Madison. While the talk this year is new, those who were there last year might remember this video.

I like videos that show early stage technological innovation.  This 1981 KRON news clip is one of my favorites because in 2 minutes and 17 seconds it captures the essence of disruptive change.  The visionaries were right about the big picture (that people could one day receive all their news over the computer) but they underestimate the how disruptive the technology will be (“we will not make much money but we will not lose much either”).  You can almost hear a slight tone of sarcasm in the newscaster’s voice as she wraps the story by describing the cost of the internet.

“Of the 2000-3000 computer owners in the Bay area…”

Many technology enthusiasts were likely predicting the end of the papers as we knew them even in 1981. They were right, of course, but not for almost 30 years. Many elements had to be in place before the technology had a systemic impact. Beyond just access to low cost internet and the need to have computers in millions of homes, new modes of publishing, blogging, citizen reporting, and an information sharing ecosystem had to have time to develop.

Tough changes

When disruptive change happens, it takes a relatively long time. When that change results in a pink slip for your position, however, it can seem like it happened overnight.  Evidence of the disruption that has hit the news industry is now in the (electronic) news almost every week.  New Orleans recently became the largest U.S. city to lose daily newspaper service. It took many years for disruptive change to play out and, while this video might seem quaint in 2012, it makes me wonder what changes are happening in our own higher education backyards that will seem obvious in 2042.


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Rube Goldberg Instructional Design

Rube Goldberg created incredibly silly contraptions to accomplish simple tasks. His work is now recognized through an annual contest.  In the event, engineering students compete to create the most complicated and creative solutions that to solve simple problems.  The official 2012 contest is approaching and has me thinking about how instructional designs can be over-engineered.

In March 2011 the University of Wisconsin-Stout team won the national competition (for the second year in a row) with a machine that completed 135 steps to water a plant.  This year’s competition is to over-complicate inflating a balloon.

What is the value of creating a complicated, albeit creative, solution to a simple problem? For the students involved, they have fun and learn about engineering, physics, and the properties of various substances.  The events promote science, engineering, and the programs at the schools involved.  These activities are outstanding in every way except one: the outcome.  The products these machines create are irrelevant.

As we create instructional technologies and designs, how many of them are Rube Goldberg machines?  Designers create complex new technical schemes or media-rich products when much simpler and more elegant solutions will work.  Everyone involved in such design processes learns a lot and the contraption might be fun to watch but is the end product worth it?

The answer is, of course, it depends.  If the intended outcome is knowledge for the technologist, then such a design is a success.  Similarly, if the users of the product participate in its creation, then it is also worth it (but this is a rare instance in most instructional product designs).  If we want the output of the design to be the most important part of the process, then simple and elegant solutions yield better results.

Perhaps a Rube Goldberg instructional design competition would be a lot of fun: create the most complex instructional solution to teach someone a simple task…


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Reflections on the OpenClass design partner meeting Part 2: Features

A screen shot from the LMS OpenClass
I mentioned in a previous post that there are a couple of key features that make OpenClass a potentially disruptive learning platform. One is the social element built into

the platform. The simple ability to “follow” fellow students and faculty even after a class semester ends opens many new learning opportunities. Pearson gave a few new details about the social elements during the design partner meeting, including taking steps to integrate with Google+.

Examples of how to build on social

Pearson developersshowed off some nifty innovations created during a previously held two-day internal hackathon. While these innovations may or may not make it into the formal OpenClass product roadmap, a few were notable and showed the potential of platform: 1) An integration of Google+ Hangouts to create video office hours from within OpenClass (very slick) 2) a collaborative multiple-choice test-taking tool that requires students to work in teams to answer questions 3) a badge system that gives rewards for a variety of activities (e.g. % of people you have interacted with in the class).

The Exchange

The other major feature is still in the works and is currently called the Exchange. An over-simplified view is to think of the Exchange as an app store for learning content. As design partners, we got to see some Exchange wireframe mockups. Creating a one-stop-shop for learning content is far more complex than creating an app store for a monolithic software platform. The vision is that it will provide a simple interface across open source and paid repositories of content. As faculty build their courses using content from the Exchange, they will see a running tally of what students would have to pay (if they select any paid resources). Students will have options on whether to pay for content when they login (e.g. I own the paper text and do not want the digital one in the course).

Pearson knows that gaining and maintaining trust in the Exchange means that they must be egalitarian and transparent in how content is listed. This is a tricky line to walk because, unlike Apple and iTunes, they also own a content business. Faculty ratings of content and open discussion forums will help build trust but attempts to highlight content (like most other digital stores do) will be difficult to navigate while avoiding the appearance of bias. Other design-related challenges include how much information to include for each offering (peer-review status, device compatibility info, evaluation data, etc.), what types of media to include (e.g. video file formats, proprietary players/readers, Flash), and rights management.

Beyond the technical and design questions, there are also potential institutional challenges.  The long-term vision of the Exchange includes the ability to accept content submissions from any individual. Similar to the Apple App Store, each person can determine whether he or she will charge for the materials on a per student basis. I suspect this will bring many long-simmering questions about digital course ownership to the fore – especially the first time a faculty member creates a 99¢ math video that a giant community college system decides is a part of their core curriculum.

I think OpenClass is a bold product. In an area where innovation has been very slow and incremental, it offers a chance to rethink the LMS. The challenges are immense and there are no guarantees they can all be overcome. In these two brief posts, I did not touch on the possibilities of global scale and analytics, the host of open APIs, and the deep integration with Google (and soon other providers) but the social features and Exchange lead me to believe that investing time in a robust pilot is worth it to see where this goes.


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Reflections on the Pearson OpenClass design partner meeting: Part 1: General thoughts

Note: I do not promote or endorse any product on behalf of my employer. These are my own opinions.
Last week I was fortunate to participate in the design partner meeting for Pearson’s OpenClass LMS. At the University of Wisconsin-Extension, we are early in our OpenClass pilot but I was interested to hear what others had experienced.

It was a remarkable couple of days. Putting more than 20 people from different types of institutions in the same room to have in-depth conversations about what next generation learning technology infrastructure should look like was worth the trip to Denver. Conversations ranged from high-level technical (what should the SIS API enable?) to more broad philosophical issues (should the system encourage a move away from rigid course structures?).

I was impressed with the candor from everyone about the potential and the challenges of building a globally-scalable learning technology platform. OpenClass is available but still in beta and has some kinks to be worked out. Everyone agreed that the basics needed to “just work” before a more substantial rollout could happen at their institutions. What constitutes the basics, however, was different depending on partner needs.

I believe Pearson is facing a classic “Innovators Dilemma” (Christensen) as they launch OpenClass into a mature market. Mature markets have developed expectations about how products should function. The power users of mature technologies expect products that offer rich features that have grown over time. As these products add more features, they also become more expensive and harder for novices to use. This is generally the case in the LMS/CMS market. A disruptive innovation often offers less or different functionality but can be significantly cheaper than the more mature products. In the case of OpenClass, the cost drops to zero (at least in terms of licensing and hosting).

OpenClass does not have the feature depth of more mature learning management systems (at least the features we have come to expect). For example, there are fewer quiz options, the forums are not as robust, and the ability to customize roles is limited. This is not to say that the OpenClass features are not capable but, if you are used to being able to configure each role in 100 different ways, OpenClass does not have that kind of flexibility out of the box. The key is to look at how OpenClass is different and where it is better than current LMSs. What does it offer that other LMSs do not? It uses a much more social approach to learning, has a fantastic interface, and the potential for content sharing on a global scale (I will talk a bit about the Exchange in Part 2).

The big question is whether Pearson can capture enough of the mature market while pushing into new directions. Given that 3000 institutions/organizations are at least kicking the tires, it seems like they have a good shot at getting a solid user base.

We are continuing to move forward with our pilot at UWEX and are challenging ourselves to think different about course design and structure to take advantages of the platform’s strengths.

I split this reflection into two parts and I will talk more specifically about the current and future capabilities that are reasons we are moving forward in Part 2.


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New credentials for OER?

NOTE: This post was originally shared to my Google+ stream as a part of an ongoing conversation. Head over there to comment.

I have been thinking about the ongoing conversation related to the $10K Bachelor’s degree that Myk Garn held at the SREB Technology Cooperative and Barry Dahl has continued on G+ over several posts. The higher ed value/cost proposition conversation is also going on in many other contexts.

One problem we have is the fixation on a bachelor’s degree. Universities are right to protect the meaning of a degree to include all of the associated experiences that people expect from college. I think this justified protectiveness is a part of the problem when we start talking about “cheap” degrees. Most everyone would agree that bachelor’s degree represents more than a simple assessment of skill level.

My question is this: we have a GED for high school. It does not imply that the person went through the whole high school experience but shows that they have certain, specific knowledge outcomes that might be expected of a high school graduate

What about a BDE? A BDE is a Bachelor’s Degree Equivalency assessment program that demonstrates an expected college knowledge competency level without implying the rest of the college experience. Such programs might open doors for adults, AND protect the significance of earning a bachelor’s degree.

Perhaps the BDE is combined with other micro-certifications or industry-specific credentials to help people show they have a baseline technical knowledge level and also have the general ability to write, think critically, etc. at a college level.

To be successful I think a BDE would have to be:
Valid and reliable (no small task)
Extremely inexpensive
Delivered by reputable organizations/universities
Accepted by employers (this would take time to happen – just like the GED)
Transparent in every way it is designed (both to those taking the assessment and employers)

Are there states/institutions with similar programs today? Would this concept make a difference in the ongoing conversation? Interested in Friday out-of-the-box thought…


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WCSA Conference

This is the follow-up post to my April 20, 2009 WCSA presentation.  Below are the links and sources referenced during my talk.  Thank you all for attending and sharing your thoughts during the session.

As I noted, my goal is not to predict the future but to describe some trends and changes that are occurring now.  The three key trends are cheap, massive, and real-time.

You can find out more about the Academic ADL Co-Lab at




Video embedded in Second Life with a live and virtual audience

Virtual Reality Goggles – Soldier Training

Inside a Google Data Center



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My “new” blog

Welcome to the new version of my blog.  After more than five years of blogging with Movable Type, I decided to switch to WordPress.  MT is a great product but the functionality of WP is a more natural fit to how I like to post, write, and experiment with web technologies.  I have also pulled the plug on my Feedburner feed and now have a combined feed using FriendFeed.  For those who would like ALL of my tweets, pics, Youtube posts, Facebook entries, LinkedIn, and more, subscribe to the FriendFeed RSS.  If that is too much of me, you can subscribe just to this blog.

The old version of the blog is still available.  If you are looking for some of my older posts, you can find them here.  Some links from archives back to the homepage of that site might be broken.


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