Ning Alternatives, Collaboration, & Self Hosting

Ning announced today that it plans to “phase out its free service“. What this means for the educators who use Ning for free (or even pay for some services) is uncertain at the moment although it was stated that a detailed plan of the new services will be released within two weeks.

Right after the announcement, Twitter was buzzing with people wondering about viable build-your-own-network alternatives. A few services were mentioned and retweeted, but I felt that something more proactive should be done. Seeing that Google Docs has gone real-time, I thought it would be great to collaboratively build a document with Ning alternatives, including examples and comments on services other have tried. I created a new Google Document and tweeted a call for collaboration.

Twitter / Alec Couros: OK, with all of this talk ...
Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

Within minutes, we had several pages of options for both hosted and self-hosted social networking services. Six hours later (the time at which I write this), there have already been hundreds of collaborators/viewers and hundreds of edits. There is now a good list of alternatives for those that would like to migrate to or use another service. As well, those involved were able to see first-hand the power of real-time collaboration. From my perspective, this process was truly awesome!

I have noticed that Ning’s announcement has made some people angry which has caused others to temper concerns until more is known. No matter what the outcome, or the options within Ning’s new pricing plan, there is a more important issue here. I do not see a future where there are more free (of charge) services available. It is more likely, at least for the short term, that more Web 2.0 companies will focus on premium services. For the many teachers who have benefited from the wealth of free services available over the last few years, this ‘less free’ reality becomes difficult, especially when schools are increasingly budget-conscious.

This is why the F/OSS movement becomes important (again). With all of the free services that have been available, fewer educators have likely felt that the time and expertise needed to install, maintain and host open source software is worth the trouble. However, with this impending shift, I do believe that this is the time for schools & educators to (re)consider and (re)discover the importance of F/OSS and self-hosted software.

Update: Sylvia Curry made a screencast of the “Ning Alternatives” document being edited in the first few minutes. This process really was quite incredible.

Open Access Course: Social Media & Open Education (Fall 2009)

I will be facilitating an open access graduate course this Fall titled EC&I 831: Social Media & Open Education. I expect about 15-20 registered (for credit) students, but I am opening up the experience to all other interested not-for-credit participants. This will be the third time I have run the course, and it has been quite successful in the past. I have rethought a few pieces, and I am hoping that this offering will be the best yet.

The course wiki is available here: http://eci831.wikispaces.com. The “synchronous sessions” page is slowly being filled out as I work to schedule presenters and appropriate weekly topics. Additionally, I have set up a Google Form to gather information about those who would like to participate as not-for-credit students. Quite a few people have already signed up, and we’d love to have you participate as well!

Participation is quite flexible. This can mean simply joining in on the weekly synchronous sessions (these run every Tuesday from Sept 15/09 to December 08/09, 7 p.m. Saskatchewan time). You could also help inform our reading list by tagging relevant articles & media as ‘eci831readings‘. You could respond to the weekly lectures through your blog, or whatever media/site you choose, and tag these as ‘eci831responses‘. Or, you could comment on student blog posts (feed/links will be available after Sept 8) and expect other participants to engage you in your writing spaces. And, I am sure there are many other ways to participate, create, and collaborate that we have yet to discover.

If you have any questions about the course, feel free to contact me. And if you are interested, we would love you to join us in this upcoming, collaborative learning experience.

Not Free At Any Price

I have been a soft-spoken critic of the OLPC project; it is hard to critique something that gets technologies into the hands of children. Yet, I’ve had two main issues. First, I have my own XO and I have complained from the day I received it that I felt the machine to be a piece of junk. I never got the machine running well, although I know others have reported much more positive experiences. But, I thought, what should I expect for $100 $200. Second, I voiced the opinion that the project is a type of techno-colonialism, and although well-intended, it instills particular values and tools on cultures we patronizingly regard as “developing”. Yet, on this second point, there was something that made me feel a bit better when I knew that these machines would be loaded with free and open source software. At least then, we could avoid exporting even more of our corporatism. But that OLPC goal began to fall apart earlier this year when Negroponte confirmed that Windows XP was to be available on the XOs. For myself and others, this move marked the end of the OLPC as an educational project and it simply became just another laptop project.

I just came across this article by Richard Stallman in Boston Review. Stallman, once a proponent of the project, rejected it once “the project backed away from its commitment to freedom and allowed the machine to become a platform for running Windows, a non-free operating system.” For those of you who do not know Stallman’s work, this article is a good backgrounder that includes Stallman’s four essential freedoms that should be available to all users of software, as well as the distinction between “free as in beer” and “freedom of knowledge and action”. And my favourite quote from the article has to be, “Teaching children to use Windows is like teaching them to smoke tobacco—in a world where only one company sells tobacco. Like any addictive drug, it inculcates a harmful dependency.

These are important issues to think about. Learn more about free software at the Free Software Project.

MovieStorm

I just discovered MovieStorm, free software for Mac or Windows that allows users to create animated movies. The software download is quite large (in total, almost 500 MB), so if you are trying this, be sure to use a solid, high-speed connection.

MovieStorm Demo

Click here to watch a demo.

While I have not had a chance to dive deep into this tool, it seems fairly easy-to-use and has enough potential to keep more advanced users engaged. The tool could be used as intended for creating and narrating movies, and then sharing with a wider audience. Or, the program could also be used to plan, storyboard, or sketch ‘real-life’ video projects, including set design, lighting, camera angles, and script. While the tool is free, there are content packs that can be purchased.

I am not sure how long this tool has been around, or if there has been much work done with it in classrooms, but I am excited by the possibilities for movie production and storytelling.

Connections – ECI831 Presentations

I gave a short presentation in EC&I 831 tonight titled “connections”.

Slides are available below:

Ustream also available:Audio is available here.

Adobe Launches PhotoShop Express

Adobe has released PhotoShop Express, a basic version of Photoshop which is available to use online.

The maker of the popular photo-editing software Photoshop on Thursday launched a basic version available for free online.

San Jose, Calif.-based Adobe Systems Inc. says it hopes to boost its name recognition among a new generation of consumers who edit, store and share photos online.

While Photoshop is designed for trained professionals, Adobe says Photoshop Express, which it launched in a “beta” test version, is easier to learn. User comments will be taken into account for future upgrades.

Photoshop Express will be completely Web-based so consumers can use it with any type of computer, operating system and browser. And, once they register, users can get to their accounts from different computers. (link)

I just signed up, and it seems like an easy-to-use basic photo editing service. It features some integration with the online album services of Picasa, Facebook, and Photobucket, with the notable absence of Flickr. I assume this may be due in part with Flickr’s relationship with Picnik, likely my favorite online photo editor.

It will be interesting to see how well this product is received and how quickly it will bring in new features. Obviously Adobe has name value in software market, but there are many services online including Picnik, PhotoFlexer, Flauntr, Pixenate, LunaPic, Phixr, Pixer

EC & I 831 Tour of Second Life

A bit more than a week ago, some of the participants of EC&I 831 , a few other guests, and I had the fortune to be led through Second Life with Kirk Kezema as our personal tour guide. I have not had much experience with this virtual world, and so I thought it was best to have someone with a better understanding lead the tour. Kirk was an excellent choice, and he masterfully led our tour group through various Second Life locations including:

    # Information Communications Technology (ICT) Library
    # Georgia State University
    # Discovery Educator Network (DEN)
    # Teacher Network Center
    # International Spaceflight Museum

Kirk has blogged about the experience here. I want to take this opportunity to publicly thank Kirk for the wonderful experience. I know it took some time setting up the tour for such a large group, and it really helped all of us better understand the educational potential of the tool. Thanks again!

That’s My Mouse

That’s My Mouse went live about a minute ago. I’ve installed it (copied a piece of javascript) on this wiki page.

ThatsMyMouse allows people to passively interact. Just by navigating through a web-page you can interact with the people on it. Since it’s written in JavaScript (and supports all major browsers) it works for 95+% of visitors after a website places a single line of JavaScript on their page. You can see, talk and interact with anyone who browses to the same page as you.

Let’s see how this works.

Update:
Interesting, although I have no idea how this would be useful. Ideas?

Update #2: Many of us had a chance to play with it today. It was quite fun. I’ve saved the chat transcript as there were a few ideas brought up as to how this could be used in some useful way.

Now that a few people have had a chance to play, please comment with what ideas you have. And @arthus, I noticed you had strong criticisms about this. I encourage you to voice your thoughts here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged

Questioning Twitter

Peter Rock has asked some fair questions about Twitter on his blog.

I already use a blog and an RSS aggregator. Is adding Twitter as a tool to post and receive information going to enhance or burden my learning experience? Is it that I need to follow only those who use Twitter effectively to enhance my learning opportunities? If so, what is “effective” twittering and how does it differ from effective blogging? Is the energy required to add Twitter to my toolbox and follow Twitterers worth the payoff? Are really good ideas and resources found often enough on Twitter that never surface in blogs?

I sent a link to his post via Twitter and asked people to respond. Within a couple of hours, he received 23 posts, many of them very insightful.

Check it out and contribute to the conversation. What are your thoughts on Twitter?

Small Things

Sometimes I worry that my sharing of links in Twitter may be seen by some as spamming. After all, dropping links into Twitter does not usually answer its prime question “What are you doing?”, and to some, that may be perceived as breaking one of the Twitter commandments.

A while back, I shared the comiqs.com link. Brian Van Dyck, a middle years teacher located in Sunnydale California, thought there might be some potential for his students. I noticed these recent tweets from Brian.

@courosa the http://comiqs.com/ was a hit with 6th graders. Book reports and story boarding for narrative writing underway. Thank you! (link)

@courosa One of my students is featured on Comiqs. Working on “How To” writing. http://tinyurl.com/ynrjwd One proud teacher here. Thanks. (link)

Here is one of those featured Comiqs, “How to Catch Crayfish.”

This is a really neat piece from a very creative 6th grader, and it demonstrates the potential for a tool like this in the right hands, with the appropriate encouragement from a teacher. This is great to see, Brian. Do congratulate your students!

And, to get to a bigger point, I still think it is amazing to see such a tiny digital event can positively affect students over 2700 kilometres away. This is the type of thing that I have experienced many times, but usually on the recipient end. My students and I have benefited countless times from the Twitter network, and this reciprocity may be one of the most compelling reasons I have for my continued use of Twitter.

How to Stream Skype to Ustream (Mac)

I feel that my EC & I 831 course is going well so far. On Tuesdays, we have been using Elluminate and it has been a rock solid tool. On Wednesdays, we have been using Adobe Connect, and unfortunately, the experience has been unsatisfactory. Therefore, I have been looking for and experimenting with tools that could be used to provide audio conferencing in combination with video and image casting.

Note: This tutorial is for someone wanting to set up/direct/facilitate a conversation. It is a complicated process. I do not want to confuse my students here. Participating in such a conference is a much easier process, and participants do not need to know these setup details.

Rob, Kyle and I played with WizIQ web conferencing. It is free, it does audio conferencing well, but is quite limited in its functionality. It does not provide for screen sharing/casting. It is not quite what I need for my students.

I’ve found a solution-of-the-day which is a combination of Skype, Ustream, Camtwist and other free tools. Using the following information, you will be able to:

    – stream a Skype conversation to Ustream (2 to 100 participants),
    – record the video and audio of the conversation,
    – project your screen, or portion of your screen,
    – broadcast video files through Ustream, and
    – incorporate a number of useful (and not so useful) video effects.

Here is what you need:

    – A Mac Computer (OS X).
    – The latest version of Skype and a Skype account (free).
    – A Ustream account (free).
    Line In from Rogue Amoeba (free).
    Soundflower (free).
    Camtwist (free).

Step 1: Install Skype, Line In, Soundflower, Camtwist, and be sure you have a Ustream and Skype account. Restart your computer.

Step 2: Start Line In. Select your audio input. In my case, I am using the audio input based in my iSight camera. This could be your “built-in line input” or a USB mic if you have one. Then, be sure that your output is to “Soundflower (2ch)”. Be sure to select “Pass Thru”.

Line In Settings

Step 3: Launch Soundflower (I think the application is actually called Soundflowerbed.app). In the Soundflower settings, change the Soundflower (2ch) settings to “Built-in Line Output”. I strongly recommend that this should be set to headphones or you will likely get disastrous echoing effects. The Soundflower (16ch) settings should remain on “None (Off)”.

Soundflower settings

Step 4: Go to your Apple System Preferences. Set your Output and Input settings to “Soundflower (2ch)”.

System Settings - Output

System Settings - Input

Step 5: Launch Skype. In the Skype Preferences Menu (Skype -> Preferences), click on Audio. Set all Audio settings to “Soundflower (2ch)”.

Audio Settings - Skype

Step 6: Go to Ustream. When you login, you will see a “My Shows” option. If you don’t have a show, click on “Create New Show” on the right-hand side. Fill in all of the necessary information and tags. Note, there are a number of tabs that are important, with required information in each section. My assumption here is that you already have used Ustream, or that you can pick it up quickly. If not, go here.

Step 7: In Ustream, click on “Broadcast Now”. You don’t need to broadcast at this time, but this is where you will change your audio and video settings. You will have to allow Camera and Microphone access. Then, adjust your Video Source appropriately (you will know if have set it correctly if you can see yourself), and then set your Audio Source to “Soundflower (2ch)”.

Ustream Settings

Step 8: Call someone on Skype. You can bring in one other person for an audio conference, or (I am told) as many as 10 total. For more people, you could use the Skypecasts service although this has NEVER worked for me … and I mean NEVER, not once out of many attempts. Perhaps others have had better success.

Step 9: Once you have your call initiated in Skype, click on the “Start Broacast” button in your small Ustream window (the one you see above). Note, you can record the session here (“Start Recording”). If you have done everything correctly, Ustream is now streaming the entire Skype conversation (all parties) and thus, will be able to record everything.

Important note: If you are hearing echoing at this point, it is likely because participants have the volume on in their Ustream and it is feeding back into the Skype conversation. People who are talking in Skype should mute (or lower the volume in) their Ustream sessions. Volume controls are found on the Ustream session pages.

Step 10: If you want to go beyond talking heads on Ustream, Camtwist allows you to change the virtual video device so that you can broadcast parts of your screen, produce visual effects (e.g., text tickers, RSS feeds, imagery, etc.), or broadcast videos previously saved to your computer. This is a great tool that has a lot of potential for conferencing sessions.

Bonus: As I mentioned, it is possible to connect 100 (or even more) people via Skype conference. While Skypecasts has not worked well for me, I think I have found a reasonably inexpensive pay service which does this quite well. High Speed Conferencing provides a service where up to 100 people can connect via audio-conferencing. Individuals are able to call in through a Skype number or through a toll-free (for the end user) telephone number. The facilitator of the conference can view the connected calls, can mute audio on any call(s), and can drop people from the conference. It is not a very sophisticated interface, but the system worked very well, and I was able to test this with up to 15 concurrent users.

I hope all of this information makes sense, and is accurate. If anyone attempts to use this information and there are any errors, let me know and I will be sure to update. I’d love to know if others can get this working.

And here’s a dare for you. I DARE someone to create a Windows version of this tutorial. :-)