Collaborate vs Hangouts

One of the fun tasks I’ve been working on in the background with some colleagues is to create a ‘This vs That’ flyer to help our users – primarily the *teaching community – evaluate and understand different tools.

On campus we have Blackboard Collaborate integrated with D2L but with our use of Google Apps for Edu we recently added Google Hangouts as well. Both are online video conference tools of a sort – this poster helps you decide what to use for a given purpose or context.

We made this flyer to help with the choice. It’s fairly final but of course it’s possible we missed something – comments, corrections, and reuse welcome (CC: BY, NC, SA).

Comic flyer comparing Google Hangouts and Blackboard Collaborate

Comparing Google Hangouts and Blackboard Collaborate

Edit * teaching community rather than racing community …

Additional note:

By the way for those interested: Kerry and I drew up the comparison text, then I used Comic Life 3 to create the frontpage and passed in onto Amber to pull it together and lay out text in InDesign.

Picture of our test Ms Surface

MS Surface: tablet or a bitter pill?

One line version

Forced changes mixed with a flawed inheritance left my MS Surface abandoned in the office.

Review perspective

We’re testing the MS Surface, Google Nexus 10 and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7. I hope that I’ll get a chance to write up my thoughts on them as well.

Bias: Pc User, who’s switched to Mac and IOS but wants to keep options open.

In a tablet I’m looking for a tool, not a hobby or project. I’ll look for solutions but I’m not going hack around, it’s got to be straightforward.

32Gb model with the keyboard cover.

Picture of our test Ms Surface

Picture of our test Ms Surface

Surface Design

  • More elongated footprint made it feel bigger.
  • Nice finish and angular style.
  • The kickstand the folds out from the back is great to use this as a laptop on a desk but I didn’t find the stand useful in other contexts (i.e. on lap).
  • Hurray for a USB port but I’ve little reason to use it yet.
  • It feels slightly heavy.
  • Power connector – magnetized clip connection. Very nicely done.
  • Keyboard cover attaches and detaches smoothly with a clear connecting point and mechanism. It’s very nice, with one obvious way it works.
  • As keyboard sitting on desk, the keyboard cover is good, if a little squigdy
  • As a cover, the keyboard cover is frustrating; when it folds back and you’re holding the tablet as a tablet it is bulky enough that you naturally fold it under but then constantly feels like you’re going to accidentally type with the keyboard.
  • I spent a while being frustrated every time I had the Surface on a desk and was closing it as the keyboard and the stand both fold towards the tablet body. It may be obvious to the rest of you but to make it close smoothly you close the screen to the keyboard then fold the stand – just like you close a laptop, but not how I close a tablet. Folding the heavy screen down to a table feels wrong. As a foretaste of the rest of my experience this tablet forcing me to act as if it’s a laptop is indicative of other aspects of this product.

Windows RT

Too many changes at once. Some of my irritations with RT are things I put up with in IOS or are things happening independently of this tablet. However, the OS forced me to confront obstacles I’d otherwise worked around.

On screen keyboard.

  • There multiple on screen keyboard layouts available and some of them really good – I don’t know if they’re standard layouts but they worked really well.
  • The keyboard seemed to work as an overlay, certainly on some sites it would sit on top of the screen rather than the screen easily resizing or scrolling, so if you wanted to type into another box  you had to minimize the keyboard and tap into the other text fields. This may have just been with particular login pages and I know I could tab between them but as a UI experience it was frustrating and disempowering.
  • Let’s not talk about the hyper sensitivity of the rotate and resize screen


Although you can log in with a local account, everything in Windows RT ties to the Microsoft account infrastructure and locally at least some types of account info collapse. This has some side effects [I’ll note that this may be Windows 8 more generally].

So I logged in with a new Outlook account but linked it to my existing personal Hotmail account,  to Twitter, and (I think) to Facebook and my work Gmail and Hey Presto! I had one address book. Not ‘I chose one address book’ but I *had* one address book. Combining Twitter,  my nascent address book here, and my Facebook contacts made a substantive list, not the best for browsing and given the relative care and effort with which I separate my use of Facebook, Twitter, and email a staggeringly arrogant decision for an OS to make without asking.

I didn’t connect Skype because when I tried to it wanted to migrate my user account to my account – this is a wider Microsoft acquisition of Skype thing but not being able to use a tool without migrating was a bit irritating and I didn’t want to tie my Skype account to a test email account. It was a pity because the one time I had occasion to turn the built-in screen camera on it was quite good.

Word processing functionality was also tied to the account with a push to sign up for/ or login into online versions of  Office. That’s ok but it increasing forces you towards buying into a single online identity and ecosystem and given that we’re institutionally using Google Apps I felt that I was fighting the OS to get basic functionality.

Did I mention that it tries to log you in every time ? There may be an opt out, but there’s a distinct ‘Hey look we can everyone to join our ecosystem feel to this’. I’ve been in MS’s ecosystem for a long time now and love some of it but that doesn’t mean I want to use all of it all the time or use it exclusively. This is particularly true of the integration with Xbox Live. I’ll admit that Games for Windows Live is one of the few things that can instantly annoy me and although my understanding is that it’s evolved I’ve no desire to go near it again. So when I tried a handful of games from the Windows App Store – some of which are lovely, highly polished, and with the responsiveness of the touch screen are a joy to play – I got a tad frustrated by the ongoing attempt to log you in to Xbox live.

The Windows store is a bit of a wasteland. I was prepared for this and happy enough to wait and see how it developed but it seems to be pitching for the worst of both market types, it’s a controlled app store and probably does a lot of testing to make sure apps run well but it doesn’t seem to enforce identity issues (which you kind of expected from a locked down store), for example: they had a top free app ‘wired’ for sci tech news, but it’s actually not an app by WIRED but rather an rss aggregator for multiple tech news sites including WIRED. Useful enough but it nearly had access to my machine because it was an app called wired  [again, not a big deal per se but not what I expected from a controlled store].

Note the for the RT, the Windows Store is the main  legitimate way to install programs. So, for example, No Chrome for you. I could run my Google Apps in IE but only after I let the tablet enforce changes in tablet security and sign-on settings from my organization. Now I accepted these but the warning is that it seems to be sufficiently laptop like that my organization can suggest and enforce access policies for example – you need to have a certain type of password to log onto this machine if you want to use it with our Calendars/ Gmail. I’ve never had this happen with any other tablet device or phone (good or bad – well that’s debatable; however, as a user experience let’s go with ‘aargh, no’). After this was set up using it to work with Google docs and presentations was a relatively pleasant experience.

I’ll quickly mention that RT is a strange hybrid of an OS, the metro interface has charms (which being on screen and software based I found to be both a pain to use and a pain in the neck to remember about when you want to do something simple like search the web. Taking basic functionality out of the browser or other software and putting it into the OS and  then hiding it in a touch slide out panel, well let’s say that I spent lots of time staring at a screen and trying to figure out how to do x,y, or z and then swiping the screen rather than the charms after I did remember. On top of that settings and set up a offers a strange blend of simple interface with sporadic forays into a more traditional looking windows desktop settings screen (but without a clear way on screen to navigate from there or back to there). I can see how charms would work but i can’t help feeling it would be a smoother transition with them as a  permanent hardware or software sidebar.


This was the main reason that I simply stopped using my MS Surface. The first week between my work network and my home network it simply didn’t want to play nicely. Eventually I got a few updates and restarts done and it seemed to work mostly. However, my experience of wifi on this is that is was as flaky as laptop wifi can be. Logging with a password every connection and the like. No other tablet or phone that I’ve used works that way [and after a quick straw poll of windows laptop users in the office next door, their connections don’t do this]. It may be down to campus network settings picking the Surface up as a weird pc, but it was just rubbish.

On top of this, you remember I mentioned it kept trying to log me in to Xbox live and other MS online services? It kept trying to do this without a network connection. So it would dump me out of what I was trying to do to go to one page, fail at connecting , send me to another page to tell me it couldn’t connect, and then let me try to get back to what I was trying to do. I’ve perhaps been spoilt by GameCenter and IOS’ general approach to helping apps realize that the device is offline (you still have issues sometimes but it’s pretty good). This should not need to happen.


If I want to use a computer I’ll use a computer, I use a tablet for portability and productivity and it’s meant to just work. The Surface is too much of a laptop that doesn’t quite work despite having so much potential it feels like it is stuck in its legacy.

Venturing into K-12 for the day at EdCampIS

Snacks at the NorthWest school EdCamp is a loosely coordinated series of unconferences in education. Last Saturday a group of folk organised an EdCamp for Independent Schools (held here in Seattle the Saturday after the NAIS conference). I turned up for the day, as a chance to find out a bit more about a sector I’ve not been particularly involved in (k-12) and see if anyone wanted to talk a bit about Open Educational Resources in K-12.

It was a good event and the hosts and organisers did a great job (the snacks NorthWest School provided for a free event were 1st rate). Perhaps because most folk attending were teachers, the unconference flowed fairly smoothly and was perhaps instinctively a little more structured than other unconferences I’ve attended (there were three main session timeslots and suggested contributions for about 6 talks per slot). There was a wide range of topics suggested and discussed on the day which created some difficult choices of what to join in.

There’s a great overview of the day using storify over on

From the day I wanted to mention a few of the tools that came up in discussion. The tools were:
Highlighter is an interesting looking cross platform publishing and annotation tool which seems to have got quite a lot of good press. It features private groups, group note sharing, and group analytics. It can work with pdf, epub, most mobile devices and web platforms (tumblr, wordpress, etc.). It’s free to use and afaik it uses html5. I’m not entirely sure what their business model is but it looks like at least one possible source of funding is as a distribution channel or publishing platform. My one sustainability question about this would be if the annotations are exportable in any form.

Glogster is an online drag and drop tool to create posters or pinboards of interesting links. Functionally it lets you share a selection of links in a visual interface. There’s a free version and an edu versions with added features (including teacher view, classroom management, tasks, ad free). You drag an image (or create text) and then add the link. On an individual account it seems a bit like a easy way to make a visual “portal” and I can see how with class management options it could lend itself to create collections of resources for a task or letting students make their own class projects online. For example, here’s a themed book review site.

I have very mixed feelings about this one, part of me says “is that it?” and part of me sees how convenient it is or could be. Standing back from this there are perhaps similar questions about getting data out and who owns what (in particular I suspect this is a rights management nightmare [as adding the image and link is a different prospect than linking], and hope it doesn’t prove to be too much of an educational experience for someone).

FlipSnack and Issuu and are two tools to publish magazines or flip books online. FlipSnack takes pdfs and creates digital flipbooks from them. It’s approach allows for hosted books and pay per transaction to get access to embed or downloadable books or to remove watermarks. They seem to be downloadable as applications, flash files (with or without an html wrapper), it also looks like they recently developed an html5 version. Flipsnack seems to be party of a range of tools. Issuu seems to be more of a digital publishing platform with ability to upload a wider range of file formats but with the content available through their site or as an embed.

Both tools appear to offer really simple tools to make digital versions of class projects and provide an easy way to make collections of assignments or poetry or artwork more available (or at least more visible). Again it’s not clear what the rights issues might be (in this case more do you have give them any rights; other rights management issues are parallel to any form of web publishing). These tools highlighted quite clearly a tension between something that you can use easily and is free (or mostly free) and possible hidden costs in the longer term.

Quizlet is an online flash card tool. It lets you create your own cards or use sets that others have shared on the site. the flash cards can then also be built into quizes and games. Flash cards can have images built into them from Flickr. You can also set up study groups to compare scores on sets of cards. As a premium service you can remove the ads, create unlimited groups, and upload your own images. Quizlet was by far the single tool which most of the teachers had used and which their was the widest enthusiasm about.

Ok I’ll admit I’d like to know if they’re using QTI or offer any kind of flashcard set export but as a company it seems pretty sustainable and scalable and offers to teachers some nice tools.

Bigger Picture
Lots of independent start-up web services is the alternative to a monolithic LMS but I’m a bit concerned by how adoption would (or won’t) scale. A user can pick up a few of these tools (and others) but how many separate tools will any teacher need to set up, manage information for, check statistics from, (re)create content for or give content to. It’s good to see some tools offer some form of API support (such as Quizlet) and these tools interacting with an LMS is the sort of thing that the IMS LTI spec is trying to address. I like idea of plug and play services and the pick and choose which goes with web service model but while the sustainability model of the emerging online tools is somewhat reliant on locking user content and contributions in to their service I have a few concerns.

I’m going to leave the discussion of Open in this context for another post (in part as this post is long enough and in part because it’s more of a reflection on the challenges for Open Educational Resource Initiatives which the day posed to me).

A couple of final items though. First of all thank you to everyone in the flipped classroom discussion as someone who isn’t a teacher it was really useful to sit in that and listen (even if that is a little unconference-y of me). Another thank you to David Wicks from SPU whose tweet alerted me to the unconference. Finally a “shout out” [see I am adapting to US culture] to Craig Seasholes (@CraigSeasholes ) who as well as being a teacher and librarian is president elect of the Washington Media Library Association. He’s responsible for kicking off the discussion about most of these tools. I’ll also note in passing the School Library Information and Technology Programs for 21st Century Learning/ outline which WLMA have created – it’s worth a read if you’re interested in information and digital literacy in schools and ever have to write a job spec.

The Learning Registry: Rough Guide for Contributors

Update:  For clarity, this is a piece of documentation for a specific group rather than a “regular” blog post. It may be of wider interest but it makes a number of contextual assumptions…

This document assumes that you have some familiarity with intent of the Learning Registry (LR) and that you are interested in contributing information about your resources. It lists a few things to consider before you get into the detail of the how to guide. More extensive information is available from the Learning Registry document collection. This document draws on that documentation (By US Dept of Ed, SRI International, and others) and feedback from the LR development team. It’s primary audience are those in the UK community thinking about in contributing metadata/ paradata/ resources. It’s intended to help technical managers get a quick overview of the issues in contributing to the Learning Registry test node and forthcoming experimental node at MIMAS.

Preparing your data

The primary purpose of the LR record is to indicate the existence, location, and owner of the resource and related metadata and paradata. The LR allows you to submit full or partial metadata, and to (optionally) include the resource itself as payload. The more metadata you submit, the more discoverable your resources become. It does allow you to optionally include some basic information about resources to support filtering and browsing you can opt to include original records in the data rather than referring to them. The LR does not care what metadata formats you use (though data consumers who discover your information through the LR might…).
Contributors submit/push data about their resources to a node which distributes that data to other nodes in the system. In itself the LR will not harvest/ gather information about your resources, you need to actively contribute it.

However, there are issues of local practice that you may want to consider prior to the process of sharing your data. In particular – how are you identifying your resources (e.g. does it have a cool uri? and how are you exposing any usage/activity data which you have about those resources (the paradata format developed alongside the learning registry might be useful).

Mechanisms for LR deposit

Contributors have to create a signature (OpenPGP key pair) for themselves on the LR (anonymous contribution is not permitted). This is a relatively simple self –registration process and will let users interact with the LR test node. However, contributors should note that to contribute to the live LR they will need an agreement with a given live node which has opted to accept their signed data.

The LR uses JSON rather than xml and offers a number of approaches to publishing data, these are:

Policy and License Issues

Please note the LR requests that any data you create or publish to the LR is clearly licensed. A Creative Commons Zero (CC0) or Attribution (CC: BY) licence are good options [Reccommended by both the Learning Registry, JISC, and UK Discovery]. You should ensure that you have the rights to assign this licence if it not already assigned and that the data you publish conforms with appropriate data protection and privacy laws. whatever data you submit to the LR is likely to move between legal jurisdictions.

Creative Commons Licence
The Learning Registry: Rough Guide for Contributors by R. John Robertson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Microsoft release Kinect SDK for Windows

A quick news post: Microsoft Research have released a non-commercial beta of their Windows SDK for the Kinect – the motion sensing controller for the XBox.

The SDK is available here:

There is perhaps a bigger discussion to be had around the role of next generation interfaces and how form-factor, input control, and haptic feedback have rapidly moved from the nice idea to the commercial mainstream and how this will impact on the role and function of technology in learning and teaching (as well as life more generally), but this release is a significant step forward in the development of gestural interfaces (One of the key tech developments in MIT’s tech review this year).

There have already been a number of interesting projects that have hacked the Kinect to run in windows and I’m looking forward to seeing what develops with a more robust, documented, and supported [perhaps?] SDK.

It’s already been used to control games, AR drones at dev8D, interactive video conferencing, and offer some forms of basic screen interactions (mouse-like and touch screen like).
For some examples:

  • It is also of note that one of the responses to this years dev challenge at Open Repositories 11 was a repository interface controlled by Kinect. [I’ll post a link, screencast if I find one].