Tag Archives: education

How secure are your course materials online?

If you’re using an online service such as Google Docs to share your teaching materials or for students to publish their work, you’ll never want to see a news item like this:

Gurgle Docs Is History

Disgruntled employee pulls the plug

Earlier today, a Gurgle spokesperson expressed regret that the popular document sharing service is no longer available.

“Everyone kind of assumed we had a big server farm running Gurgle Docs, but actually it was all on an old iMac in someone’s office. When that employee was laid off recently, he formatted the hard disk on the way out.”

The spokesperson continued that while the company had no backup and no way of restoring users’ documents, he was sure that users did have backups of any important files.
(cont on page 3)

Tongue in cheek, of course, but there’s a serious issue here: how to ensure the security and continued availability of online resources. Whether they are resources developed by the teacher or the learner, if there is only one accessible copy the resource is not secure.

While the incident described in the spoof news item above is very unlikely, a number of things can go wrong with online services. Firstly, the service can withdraw or stop developing a feature, such as Google did with Notebook which is no longer available for new users. If you’re lucky (as with Notepad), the service provider will let you export your data. Another example is the withdrawal of an RSS feed service by Facebook.

A more serious problem is when a service fails for business or technical reasons – this happened recently when ma.gnolia had a serious technical failure and user data was lost. Even if you were lucky enough to retrieve all or some of your data, this would clearly be a major disruption to a teacher relying on the service for course delivery.
(See also http://mashable.com/2009/01/30/magnolia-data-loss/)

Some learner-contributed content (such as forum postings) tend to be reasonably transient, and their loss might not be a disaster. But imagine the problems caused by loss of access to data where learners are encouraged to create an e-portfolio directly in Google Docs. As I’ve suggested elsewhere in relation to YouTube’s Quick Capture, it’s much safer to create local files and upload them than to work directly in the online service.

When incorporating the use of online services into a course, I recommend that teachers:

  • Check the terms of service – who owns the copyright of contributed content? Can the service provider start changing for the service? Do they have the right to withdraw the service without notice? Do they have the right to delete any content without notice?
  • Advise learners on clear strategies for ensuring backups of all files, and on any limitations imposed by the terms of service.

Loss of data can cause irreparable damage to a student cohort. Online services can prove to be very valuable components to teaching and learning, but we do need to take a few sensible precautions to ensure security of content and ongoing access. Most of us have experienced loss of data through careless backup procedures: the loss of teacher-generated and learner-generated content for a whole course could be much more embarrassing!

WordPress 2.7.1 an improved tool for teachers and writers

Wordpress logo

Like many education bloggers, I tend to write less frequent posts but have a lot of drafts that I am working on. It often takes some time to fully develop the ideas in these posts so they are ready to publish. So managing my draft posts is important to me.

I also use WordPress in my professional development activities with teachers, helping them to use it as a tool for their own reflective practice as well as explore how they might use it on their own teaching. They too need to be able to manage drafts effectively and easily.

However, using the old WordPress dashboard interface (up to version 2.6) to access your drafts was a little clunky. And when working with teachers, I found the interface to be non-intuitive and a barrier to their effective use.

The new version puts a list of recent drafts right onto the dashboard page – this is a great improvement for anyone like me who has lots of draft posts on the go at once. And it will remove a barrier for teachers learning to use a WordPress blog as part of their own professional development or in their courses. It’s a simple change but a significant improvement.

A few other changes I’ve noted:

  • Earlier versions had a problem with the dashboard ‘External links’ block – any changes to the configuration were not properly saved. I’m pleased to see this is now fixed.
  • The Flash-based image uploader tool no longer works as expected on Mac running Firefox. When the image is uploaded, the ‘insert into post’ button does not work the first time round. The fix is to use the browser uploader tool, or insert a new image in two stages: ‘insert into post’ seems to work fine with images that have previously been uploaded.
  • Because the dashboard screen layout is slightly different, older plugins that write text to admin screens need a little tweaking to display correctly. For example, I had to change my Scottish Proverbs plugin slightly – luckily, the version of the Hello Dolly plugin distributed with WordPress 2.7.1 provides a clear guide to exactly what needs to be changed!

All up, WordPress 2.7.1 is a ‘must-have’ release and incorporates a much more user-friendly dashboard interface. It’s an excellent example of how effective the open-source approach can be in developing great software tools.

Exploring the assumptions underlying learning technologies

Teachers don’t always find it easy to analyse the assumptions about learning that underpin specific examples of learning technology. A simple scenario can be used in a professional development setting as a trigger for discussion of these assumptions and the links between technology and education theory.

In my professional development work with teachers, I love seeing them learn how to use the new tools and develop an enthusiasm for using these tools with learners. But skills and enthusiasm are not quite enough – to decide how and when to integrate technology tools, teachers also need to be able to understand the educational models on which the technology is based.

Even when a teacher ‘knows’ some education theory, it is not always easy for them to integrate theory and practice. So the theory often remains as ‘book learning’ and doesn’t fully inform their decision-making about planning and using technology.

I recently developed a simple scenario as an attempt to deal with this:

I incorporated the scenario into the session and used it to generate discussion around a few simple questions. On their own, the small groups touched on a few links to education theory, but the payoff came when reporting back – as a group, we identified lots of ideas about the sorts of assumptions about learning and the links with theory.

The fact that it was only a scenario and not hands-on I believe helped the participants because there was no ‘seduction’ factor – there was no possibility of being distracted by the technology and the fun of exploring its features. And it reinforced the concept that every application of technology in learning is based on implicit assumptions and theories about learning, and that informed teachers can make these explicit through dialogue and collaboration.

Wikis, learning and faulty knowledge

Information and knowledge in a vocational education setting often has a significance beyond that in more academic courses: in fact, the life and well-being of the students and members of the public may depend on its accuracy. Consider the following scenario:

CC: photo Robert LawtonJan is a nursing lecturer in a department which has recently begun to incorporate a ‘community of practice’ approach, including the use of a wiki for students and staff to collaboratively build publicly-accessible knowledge resources. She logs in one Monday morning and sees that a student has added to the page on clinical practice, including information which is contrary to accepted practice and could put patients’ health at risk.

Jan is appalled: What if another student read that information over the weekend and put it into practice? What if a practising nurse has read it and is about to complain to Jan’s head of department? Jan immediately deletes the incorrect information, then wonders whether she has done the right thing.

How should Jan have reacted? In fact, if Jan’s department had been through a thorough planning process, the risk of faulty information being contributed as well strategies for dealing with it would have been identified prior to implementing the collaborative activity. So Jan would have known exactly how to react.

Some e-learning specialists feel that Web 2.0 tools like wikis have no place at all in vocational education because the risks of ‘faulty knowledge’ are potentially so great. I don’t happen to believe that, but I do believe we need to identify the risks when we are planning, along with what we will do when ‘faulty knowledge’ is contributed. And we need to share this with students beforehand, so that they too understand the risks and how these will be handled.

If we do identify that there is a risk of ‘faulty knowledge’ being contributed, we need to also identify how we will:

  • Monitor the wiki (ie how will we know incorrect information exists?)
  • Deal with the published incorrect information (eg is it deleted, corrected or annotated?)
  • Correct the students’ faulty knowledge (ie that underlies the incorrect information)
  • Maintain a democratic and motivating collaborative environment while retaining the right to intervene
  • Communicate the risks and how we’ll deal with them to students

I believe the potential benefits of exposing ‘faulty knowledge’ outweigh the risks – but we do need a well thought-out plan for dealing with incorrect and potentially dangerous information.

Photo by Robert Lawton