Monday, January 24, 2005

Hitchhiker's Wikipedia - Thick or thin client?

I recently installed Tomeraider3, an e-Book reader that has a remarkably good indexing system. It has been around since 1996, originally developed for EPOC operating system in the Psion Series of PDAs, later coded for other PDAs such as PalmOS and Pocket PC.

Over on Wikipedia, whose data is stored in an SQL database (MySQL as it happens), you find that there are snapshots of the main textual content for the entire database, generated in Tomeraider2 format targeting different devices using scripts by Erik Zachte. I downloaded the English language snapshot from 30 Dec 2004 for Pocket PC, about 500MB, compressed(!) It doesn't run in Tomeraider3, but you can read it into the Windows desktop client and do a conversion. It requires a lot of crunching, though - I ran it overnight on a fairly new PC with lots of RAM and in the morning it reported that it had taken about 7 hours to do the compilation. For convenience you can buy CDs at modest cost.

It took about another half an hour or so to copy the .tr3 file across to my SD card, filling about half of its 1GB capacity. Then I tapped on it, expecting complaints about errors, but it just worked and very fast too!

It soon passed the acid test of usability down in the department's tea room. We were chatting about films and Harry Potter cropped up. I'm one of the seemingly few people who is not au fait, having not gone much beyond my initial experience of watching the first adventure on video dubbed into Thai on a coach tour. When I started to peruse Wikiepedia to get a clue, I was challenged to look up 'Azkaban'. Tap.. tap.. tap.. and within a few seconds I was reading out Wikipedia's entry on this prison, well before the topic of conversation had moved on. Since then I find myself carrying the Ipaq around with me a lot more.

It may not quite be the world in a grain of sand, but having the text of the world's largest encyclopaedia on an SD card is certainly filling people with wonder. I had mentioned Wikipedia as contained within OxPDA as a possibility, but now having seen it in action it makes me really wonder about its educational potential. As a first point of reference on all kinds of knowledge it is a real boon and now that it is pocketable, it is a veritable Hitchhiker's Wikipedia.

Yet very soon I was challenged with the assertion: "All pocket devices will be wireless very soon so you won't need to store the encyclopaedia on a card on the PDA itself." It prompts me to wonder again about whether PDAs should be thick clients or thin?

High street models are invariably subject to inflationary tendencies - faster processor, more memory, richer operating system and so on. However, I think we've reached the stage where the specs are already good enough to consider taking a different approach in which all the processing power goes into one kind of application - a remote terminal, i.e. a thin client. The kind of terminal I have in mind is an X term.

It is far from an original thought and there are already ways of doing this as I have described a little with respect to the Jornada 720, with e.g. NoMachine offering an experimental client to support its client-server setup that is built around a very efficient alternative to the X protocol .

As the quality of TFT displays now mean that you can get a clear VGA display on a 4" diagonal, sufficient for many windowing applications, it opens up all the applications that you might care to make available. For instance, you could have a classroom with a server making available different applications to different clients, depending upon a student's level of progress. Much easier that engaging in the art of development for mobile computers and all its compatibility issues.

However, my experiences with Wikipedia make me feel that a thin client alone is not optimal. On my PDA I can find entries very fast every time, whereas when I connect to Wikipedia, even across a fast link, there can be quite a lag as the server is usually heavily loaded. And although network connectivity is ever-improving at the moment, it will be quite a while before it is dependable wherever you travel.

So for the moment, although I'll keep an eye open on thin client developments, the processors on my PDAs will be busy as ever with a bundle of apps reading from fat memory cards.

However, it also makes me wonder about gazing into a crystal ball...

- Paul

Monday, January 10, 2005

Pervasive e-Learning in your hands - Part 3: Ideas for Implementation

At the heart of the OxPDA vision is a replacement for the Oxford University pocket diary. A quick reminder of the diary's usefulness is provided in the Oxford Study Abroad Programme's Student Handbook which supports students coming from outside the UK and who are associated with Colleges of the University. In the preface, it states:
g. You should pick up an Oxford University diary upon your arrival. The book will be invaluable to you. It will allow you to write in your tutorial appointments, which may vary a bit from week to week, and to keep track of other events. It lists address and phone numbers of all the colleges, a handy map, and train and bus schedules. [You should get the latest schedules when you arrive since they change every now and then. There are special passes for those under 25 years old. Ask at the bus and train station.]
It recommends quite a number of other items, many of which could be incorporated to enhance OxPDA' provision of services. These include the Oxford [Student] Handbook available as one of OUSU's publications, plus guides to clubs and societies, college rules etc. Most of these are paper-based items, subject to becoming out of date, so ripe for digitisation. By incorporating many other digital sources of information, I envision OxPDA enabling an undergraduate student to more fully keep up-to-date and connected with whatever the day might bring. Ideally, OxPDA should fit like a glove.


Here are some software components that might provide the right kind of 'infrastructure'. Some require a lot of development, but I hope that it is nevertheless a credible setup overall. Unless otherwise stated, these are all features of the PDA.
  1. (server side) Relational database and management system (RDBMS) in which to store, update all the relevant details. It should expose the data in ways that are readibly accessible to the PDA and should be updateable via the Web, so probably should be implemented using Web services. Providing syndicated newsfeeds in Atom and RSS would be a simple and effective way to achieve the 'read' requirements.
  2. A highly polished software implementation of the Oxford University Pocket Diary itself - easy, intuitive and complete as is practical
  3. Close integration with DailyInfo or access to its types of information - so that items relating to events etc can be easily incorporated in the diary, say. (Will need to co-ordinate with the site).
  4. Good capacity for Internet connectivity, especially through WiFi and Bluetooth
  5. Internationalisation - a high proportion of Oxford's students are from overseas and who knows, perhaps OxPDA could be a product to market abroad one day?
  6. Internal hyperlinking supporting multiple access routes to information ...
  7. Bookmarks and annotations of various types ...
  8. Path creation schemes to navigate the routes... Software has been developed at Oxford that allows the user to create their own paths through learning, initially implemented in Virtual Seminars, more recently as Pacific pathways for the Pitt Rivers museum.
  9. Community support - tools for reading from and contributing to internal and external sources (e.g. online fora, blogs, wikis etc..)
  10. Pocket reference works - University handbooks, dictionaries, thesauri and even encyclopaedia should be available. For instance, Wikipedia is undoubtedly a valuable and extensive encyclopaeadia. Software such as Tomeraider allows its text archives to be browsed offline (around 200MB at present), which can easily fit on a memory card. Its academic rigour is questionable, but actually tutors and lectures can train students to critically analyse such sources of information, which is an essential skill.
  11. Dependable - reliable in operation, data backup regime, etc.
  12. Secure - multi-level security depending upon sensitivity of data
Now let's look in more detail ...

Oxford University's Pocket e-Diary

This should be the 'jewel in the crown' and this is where I reckon effort is well spent in combing the present diary page by page, considering each and every aspect, determining what and how to realise digitally. So the ideas below are just starters! 1. General: the display should allow lots of flexibility in personalisation, especially in the configuration of display (layout, foreground and background colours, fonts, etc), thereby being accessible, and convenient. Perhaps it could contain as the 'Today screen' a mini portal in which you can plug in components such as today's lectures, to do items, photo, etc.? 2. Interactive University Maps An interactive 'Oxford colleges and departments' map (might work similar to MS Pocket Streets, for which a rather lean Oxford map is available) with the following features:
  • vector-based, zoomable,
  • database driven
  • updateable (via Internet connectivity)... data objects stored in and retrieved from online database, with hyperlinks to web sites for these objects
  • connectivity to other University sources e.g. photo databases that can augment the maps
  • allows contributions from users, e.g. for places that are not yet listed
  • GPS-aware... think of: "Show me how to get from A to B in words and pictures..."
  • viewing modes: e.g. virtual mode: Diary as eBook, where you can turn pages etc, but access is augmented by rich hyperlinking
  • viewing options: checkboxes for different elements - colleges, tourist attractions, bus stops, etc.
  • clicking on dept or college can bring up: - list of general contacts, personal contacts - photos - general info - link to web site, Wikipedia entry, etc
3. Calendar system supporting Oxford terms, including:
  • term dates for several years
  • A 'Today' view - Term, Week, Day view
  • lecture lists
  • degree days
  • exam days
  • feast days (can link to a calendar of religious festivals, pity SHAP is no longer available online)
  • holidays
  • timetable information should be current (lecture courses, seminars)
The calendar should be linked into a logbook/journal/diary, which can be published as a blog containing text, images and perhaps even video. 4. Contacts Details as provided in the present diary, with mainly personal additions.
  • friends and family
  • university officers
  • colleges
  • departments
  • museums
  • clubs and societies
  • ...
These could be colour coded - for days, weeks, kinds of information, with individual icons for each type. 5. External sources of information such as: 6. Special Features Oxford has such a wealth of arts and cultural resource, that it would be valuable to incorporate this somehow - e.g. on touring a museum, one can download data and prompts on the objets d'arts, and leave comments for others to read. A few galleries and museums have already experimented with this kind of thing.

Seeking an Implementation

How might this materialise and work in practice? I think the key is appropriate wireless technology. The growth of WiFi community networks look very promising and Oxford's campus is fairly compact, allowing an efficient distribution of transmitters (base stations etc), so I feel we ought to be logging on in the streets soon. However, we have to convince OUCS' security team first and then the IT managers of all the colleges and departments ...! So far it seems to be mainly visiting academics from the USA who create the most fuss about not having it, but as such networks mushroom I think the demands will become much more vocal. I'm sure a marketing guru could conjure up a wealth of possibilities - on a fine summer's day some students are huddled together in University Parks discussing finer points of philosophy, waving their arms and in the background a fine strike of the ball from a game of cricket; meanwhile others are gliding through the narrow streets, walking past a college, picking up notices about forthcoming lectures, consulting their e-diaries; or emailing responses to their tutors; or viewing some of the fine architecture with notes, images and videos downloaded on demand. etc... etc... etc...

Some hardware and software specs

I haven't given much thought to this, but a suitable hardware spec shouldn't require the latest and greatest. The following should be fine:
  • a 16 bit colour PDA, 3.5" TFT screen, at least QVGA
  • 64 MB RAM
  • memory card slot, SD and/or Compact Flash
  • 200MHz processor
  • WiFi (802.11x or 802.1x) and/or Bluetooth - the former has greater range, needed for roaming, but consumes quite a lot more power; the latter uses low power, but has limited range (basically for a 'Personal Area Network' within a small room)
  • lightweight (less than 150g)
  • audio input with good inbuilt microphone
  • supports an external (collapsible) keyboard
Built-in software spec:
  • Web browser with CSS, JavaScript, and SSL support, in the latter case, especially for certificates used in WebAuth, the Secure Single Sign-on system being used here for the Web.
  • diary/calendaring
  • Mail client SSL/IMAP
  • Atom, RSS feed reader, aggregator
  • moblog authoring software allowing offline authoring and supporting common APIs such as Blogger API, Metaweblog API
  • Pocket office applications - especially Word-processing
  • Multimedia players (audio - MP3, video)

Taking an initial step to Realisation

Technically, I think we can quickly convey quite a good idea of the e-diary by developing mockups in Macromedia Flash, which is cross platform and being vector-based should suit the small screen. It may well be part of the final solution. However, if this is really to happen, then a lot of parties would need to be involved from students to PDA manufacturers. It is the kind of venture where many hands can help :-)

Sunday, January 09, 2005

OxPDA: Pervasive e-Learning in your hands - Part 2

So far, in part 1, I introduced OxPDA as an idea for a specially tailored PDA, at its core a replacement for a University diary. Is this feasible, can such a device really support the educational context, and if so what might be appropriate as technical solutions? What hardware and software platform should be used?

It's easy to think of 'cool features', but a system with a long list full of features is not necessarily supportive of pedagogy, the whole can become considerably less than the sum of its parts. PDAs today have the processing power and contain many applications comparable to desktop PCs of 5 years ago, yet the use of this in education has been limited and sporadic. Why is this the case? Although the reasons may be complex, it is worth puzzling over, I think.

The developers of the operating systems and manufacturers of the devices seem to have consistently aimed at the business market, especially corporations. Hence the need to read office documents on the move, maintain a list of contacts, to dos etc, often oriented to client meetings. The needs of HE are very different, not just in terms of information - different kinds and different ways of working - but also essentially in terms of guidance and support, which appears to be a missing element. The latter is needed because these small devices lend themselves to working independently of the physical learning environments, where support is on hand.

So it is not surprising that 'out of the box' the resulting products remain incongruous for HE. However, they do have the potential to fit our needs and as the next step I would like to define some requirements, that are built on a few principles that I feel favour the educational context.

Requirements - desirable characteristics for education-oriented PDAs

  • supports creation and authoring as much as reception of communication and information. I view creating content, making contributions as a very important aspect of successful adoption of PDAs. It is not sufficient to support institutional delivery as provided by VLE systems, if it means that content is channelled in only one direction - even if it is dressed up as 'interactive multimedia lectures' it may essentially be just broadcasting.
  • (Following on) Good means for input, especially of text and audio as for more than token authoring of content, there will need to be support for a lot of text entry. Audio recordings will be need to be of high quality for taping lectures and may even be used in conjunction with speech recognition, though that won't be suitable in all environments - so will need to support a good quality microphone.
  • configurable for educational needs - I'm thinking here particularly the means by which an institution can create a framework suitable to support a student's academic life.
  • supports online and offline working anywhere and any time - it is important to maintain continuity of the learning process.
  • very portable This is determined by several factors. Although we can set some upper bounds in weight and dimensions, it may be estimated as some function of design, fitness for purpose, functionality, physical dimensions, shape, size and general ergonomics.
  • a responsive device - a lean set of applications on a device with a moderately fast processor and memory may well perform more sprightly than an overly complex app on a very fast processor with lots of RAM.
  • sufficient in-built memory to store main suite of programs plus personal files - some key applications will need to be ever present.
  • support for standard memory cards - ready for audio, video and other large files and available at modest cost
  • a clear and good-sized screen that can display lots of info in many publication formats - the diversity of educational needs will require displays of variously layouts containing text, images and perhaps video. The Web is increasingly becoming the gateway to applications, so the display will need to be suitable for this.
  • equitable - those with OxPDA should have same levels of access as each other
  • cost-effective and sustainable over medium to longer term - we should expect other benefits such as reduced costs on PC hardware, printing, etc... if students require less the use of PC suites; there may even be significant power savings compared with laptops and desktops.
  • easy to support technically - large numbers of devices will need to be rolled out and supported, tailored to the needs of the University.
What are the candidates? We can start with mobiles phones - they certainly allow balance of creation and reception. In the past year or two, mobile phones have been getting increasingly sophisticated - the smartphones run operating systems that are comparable in features to PDAs offered by Palm, HP et al. The vast majority of students own one and for many it has become an indispensible personal possession.Some argue that people only want to carry around one device with them and deduce that the mobile phone is going to be the device that does everything. However, there are other cherished devices, notably iPods, which students will happily carrry around in addition to their phones. [IPods have been identified for their learning potential - not just for playback of audio (which can include recorded lectures), but also for the ability to record. Duke University has been distributing iPods to students, and reports quite a number of educational uses. However, the iPod is essentially a device dedicated to the storage and delivery of audio. Although it can be put to a variety of uses, it would be quite a stretch to make it fulful more general purposes of OxPDA.] There are a number of drawbacks to mobiles:
  • Many, including myself, prefer phones to be small and light, which constrains what you can pack into them, the input methods, screen size etc; if phones are bigger, with large, brighter screens, then they become more bulky, battery life diminishes, the weight goes up and so on.
  • Phones are very varied in functionality and capability, so I'd expect only the more expensive smartphones to support the sophistication required for some of the more advanced applications...
  • as students already have them, many will want to stick with their chosen model, whilst some will want to keep changing ... so to ensure that we are not left with 'haves' and 'havenots', would mean buying expensive phones for all.
  • supporting phones is an unknown quantity ... expect there to be a lot of support issues ...
I want to stress how important is the first point. I think we can see that this is the case by stepping back in time to consider PDAs that run the Windows CE operating system, putting aside for the moment the smartphones. Devices running version 1.0 were first available in 1996. I happened to buy one (an HP 320LX) in January '98 and like other devices at the time it was a 'clamshell' with built-in keyboard, termed palmtop PC, but now more usually called handheld PC. They weighed typically around half a kilogram, were meant to be used as very small subnotebooks, replicating much of the functionality of the Windows desktop operating system. With the arrival of later versions of CE, the more familiar Pocket PCs emerge, much smaller and lighter and hence more portable, but as explained by Doug Dedo, Lead Product Manager for Mobile Devices (in an interview for PocketPC Magazine, Mar 01) the smaller devices were designed with different purposes in mind, and so quite different (generally humbler) in functionality. There is a comparison chart on Microsoft's TechNet site which illustrates what this meant, for instance, with the Web browser, Pocket IE. Those articles are several years old, but are useful to explain how the form factor affects what might be expected from a device. It affects e.g. how one can work with an institutional VLE - in this case a Handheld PC2000 user can do a great deal more with a full VLE than a Pocket PC user - as intimated in an experiment on accessing a VLE with PDAs.

At the time, I hadn't realised how fundamental were the differences in the browsers for Handheld PC and Pocket PC and just assumed that a PDA ought to accomplish much of what can be done in the same way as on a desktop PC.

In short, we cannot expect the ways of working on a desktop to be replicated on a device if it is physically limited in terms of size etc. It is possible that engineering feats will mean that mobile phones become so well miniaturised that they are multiply collapsible, e.g. there could be large foldout screens or even support for external projection. Or perhaps devices will become modular - so you can assemble only what you need for a day at the office, conference, visit to friends, night out etc.. But I don't expect this in the short to medium future. Hence, on the basis of the above requirements, mobile phones have many weaknesses as candidates for OxPDA. A more general purpose PDA (not sure what term I should use here) seems a more promising candidate to me. When considering such devices, such as iPaqs and PalmOne PDAs we find:
  • These PDAs are larger (though still pocketable), affording bigger screens, better ergonomics for input, especially for written text, particularly through the use of external keyboards
  • generally have more memory
  • are somewhat more standard - figures from Gartner indicate that Windows CE and PalmOS accounted for a little under 80% of PDA sales in Q3 of 2004. Figures from the same period in previous year was higher. (Note also the rise of Blackberry devices)
  • PDA ownerships among students is low, just a few percent compared with near saturation for phones. This should make it easier for the University to distribute en masse and configure the devices to enable especially the academic services.
But there are still support issues. There are a few institutions that have made available PDAs to their students in large numbers. The Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore operated a PDA loan system for several years, where handheld PCs, particularly 1000 HP Jornada 720 (clamshell device), were pre-installed with a raft of applications, especially tailored to access facilies on the local network. However, several years after HP's withdrawal of support for the Jornada 720, support was discontinued as from last month (Dec 04). Now NTU recommend ultra notebooks. So is that the way to go? I think that when considering the requirements and especially the specific niche requirements, then going into mini PC territory is not necessary and goes too far away from true portability - in terms of size, weight, and battery life. I'm not aware that NTU used the PDA as a replacement for something so intrinsic as a University diary. In any case, there is a separate place for laptops, fast becoming desktop replacements. It is difficult to really know what will work best, but for the moment I'm assuming it is most likely to be the likes of the iPaqs and Palm Zires/Tungsten series. We can then move onto features in the next part ... :-)

- Paul Trafford

Saturday, January 08, 2005

OxPDA: Pervasive e-Learning in your hands - Part 1

All staff and students at Oxford University are entitled to a pocket diary. It comes in a standard format measuring approximately 16cm * 8cm *1cm with a dark blue hardback cover emblazoned with a University crest. Opening the cover reveals it packed with various information specific to the life of the University - term dates, maps, contacts and so on.

For many they're an indispensible personal item - they are invariably pulled out at meetings. However, you only have to open to the inside cover to see the first of many limitations: the map of the University area (you'll have to log on to the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) if you are looking for a campus).

You have to squint to read many of the details and even then the locations aren't so clear. I turn a page and see a map of hospitals, but no indication of how to reach them. Later on there's a list of religious festivals, but I can't find any reference to the Buddhist celebration of Vesakh. And aren't the contact names likely to change? More fundamentally, the two page week-to-view format, though quite ample, becomes rather crowded when you've more than the odd meeting,which prompts some to order desktop diaries in addition. And so on...

Back at the meeting table, more and more people are not pulling out their diary, but instead there appear electronic personal digitial assistants (PDAs). These devices contain many other kinds of information such as contact details, to do lists, various documents, a selection of music, and much greater space for jotting notes. Yet, when it comes to making a simple check for availability, their owners are often fumbling about and invariably ask, "What week is that?" Oxford has its own calendaring convention - terms have names such as Michaelmas and weeks are numbered, of which standard calendaring software has no knowledge. In fact, in practice PDAs have been very weakly utilised in the context of higher education, generally only for some elements of personal organisers, perhaps a note pad and some music, nothing that distinguishes them from, say, business use.

I've been working at Oxford since 2000, and have owned a PDA since 1998. I often end up taking both the diary and PDA with me, as they're both provide distinct advantages. However, for a year or two I've been mulling over in odd moments how PDAs might provide not only a genuine improvement in what the paper-based diary has offered, but many other features. I started with what I have imagined might be aspects in the daily life of a student here, in which the diary is just a smallpart. It goes something like this:

  • Jane starts by reminding herself with her 'To Do' list ... written in the back of her blue diary or on a scrap of paper,
  • she then checks the term dates .. and looks in her blue diary
  • to consult the day's lecture list .. she goes to departmental noticeboard or a user area PC to log on and consult a VLE
  • to sit a trial run of an online examination .. she wanders over to the Department, logs onto a PC, shows some ID, receives an authorisation token, and logs on ..
  • to provide feedback on a lecture course ... she fills in a paper-based questionnaire
  • to attend some special seminars in another department .. she checks the map in her blue diary and then walks over
  • to know about some concerts in the evening .. she pops over to another notice board or consults Daily Information
  • to look for accommodation .. she consults Daily Information
  • ... and so on ...
Over Christmas I came across an obituary of John Rose, the founder of Daily Information, the popular publication in Oxford, mentioned above. He identified a need to make available in one place a wide range of information, on jobs, accommodation, events, sales and wants etc., but especially to make it up-to-date. Daily Info posters are everywhere and it now has a Web site It is very much part of University life, yet it is actually a public service and not directly about education. It is easy to reflect on the educational process being conducted in personal study rooms, lecture theatres and other traditional educational haunts, but not elsewhere. But, of course, education is seldom so hermetically sealed - what happens in the classroom is dependent to some extent on what happens outside.

During the past few months I've been leading a project in mobile weblogs and their integration in institutional learning environments - it's called RAMBLE - see the project site and the project blog. We gave PDAs (HP iPaq and Palm devices) to two small groups of students and instructed them to blog learning experiences - in Chemistry and Medical Sciences respectively. Through blogging, students were able to publish their ideas, reflections and so on with great flexibility. It was obvious from both how the students felt free to make the blogs their own and itis evident how closely leisure and study are interrelated.

So, for a PDA to be owned (and cherished) by students I think it needs to provide a harmonious whole, certainly more than purelyacademic needs...

Enter the Oxford Personal Digital Assistant (OxPDA for short). An all in one solution for an undergraduate student always in touch, informed and able to connect in a convenient and timely manner. It will combine an interactive digital version of the current Oxford diary, made more current with address details etc; timetable information (lecture courses, seminars), linked into DailyInfo, college facilities, University's central services, OxfordUnion, all up-to-date via wireless services.

On hand at any time of day will be electronic 'To Do' lists; term dates available in a variety of formats, displaying by week, month, year; searchable lecture lists; access to e-mail, electronic resources from library, VLE, newsfeeds for events of interest etc. That's the vision. Coming up in the next blog (Part 2) I'll chat about technical solutions.

- Paul Trafford