Apr 05

My intent for this blog was to focus on open source software for learning and, even though the open learning thread got going first, it’s time to come back to the open source theme.

Two fantastic open source applications that are made even better because they work well together are Zotero and VUE. Zotero is a FireFox pluggin for organizing, managing, citing, and accessing research sources and resources of all kinds. [Note: Zotero handles resources in closed systems like the ESC on-line Library and other other reference collections. If you are not logged in you are prompted to do so, and once you are logged in you go straight to the resource - it handles this very smoothly]


Zotero has all of the features you’d expect in a citations manager, and if you sign up for a (free) account, you can store you references on their server so that they are available on any computer. There are limits on disk space, but you can pay for more space if you need it. Why would you need more space? Well, if you have documents on your local computer that you want to be able to access from anywhere you’ll have to copy them to a web location. Zotero will do this for you automatically so that all of the documents you reference are available wherever you go. You can put your references into folders, add tags and notes, and generally keep track of a lot of stuff. To add a reference, just open the Zotero pane (it opens like the Firefox bookmarks pane) and drag the URL of the page to the folder you want to put it in. There are other ways of course and it’s all very slick.

VUE – The Visual Understanding Environment was create by a groups at Tufts and this is an absolutely fantastic piece of software. First of all it’s a pretty nifty diagramming tool that you can use to do all sorts of diagrams (be sure to note that it allows for layers – very powerful). But VUE also allows images, documents of all kinds, and links to documents and web pages to be dropped into your diagram where they are then displayed as nodes. You can draw connections among nodes, and you can associated data with the connections. So if one node is your “subject”, and another is your “object”, and the connection is a “predicate” you have the makings of an RDF editor and VUE will create RDF for you from your diagrams. It can also do semantic analysis of HTML pages and other files containing structured data and you can open data files and use VUE to analyze it in intriguing ways.


So you can use VUE for diagramming, as a sort of semantic web toolkit/editor, and as a design tool. But wait there’s more! Wouldn’t it be great if VUE and Zotero could work together? Yes, it would and they can. VUE and Zotero are integrated and can use the combination to organize and track information and diagram and analyze the connections. This has great potential for turning data and information into knowledge – an elusive goal if there ever was one. I recommend installing Zotero and using it to get a basic level of comfort with how it works. Then download and Install VUE and play around with it to get familiar with the basic features. Both products have video tutorials to help get you up to speed.

Then try the VUE/Zotero Firefox add-in that combines the two products. As is so often said, we all need new and better tools for managing the info-glut in which we exist. VUE and Zotero are two tools for doing just that – and they both deserve your use and support.

Mar 09

So far the surfaces of open education and open source softwares have been scratched <barely>

But many people are asking, “What about open data?” (OK, it’s just me).

This is a bit harder to explain, and time being in short supply, it was left undone. Then I saw this.  A video of a short talk (5 minutes) by Tim Berners-Lee.

Feb 16

Bubble: the cost of something perceived to have long term value becomes disconnected from the value.
In a previous post I wrote that Higher Ed (HE) is in a bubble due for a collapse and that this is a good reason for alternative models that might fit under the “open education” umbrella. From that you might mistakenly think that I’m advocating for open-ed solely on the basis of economic necessity. That is not correct. Opening up educational opportunities to as many people as possible is the right thing to do. In my little slice of heaven it’s right on a moral basis; it’s right on social and political grounds, and it’s  an economic necessity.  The economic necessity part is not the primary reason to open up our education system, but it does provide an opportunity to encourage change in a system with deeply entrenched interests.

And I thought this was my idea
If you are local to Saratoga Springs, the local paper –the Saratogian– has started running a series of articles under the general heading: Higher Education: Is the expense still worth it?


So is it the cost or the value that is out of whack?
To be clear, I’m not arguing that the value of education is declining – the opposite is true, the value of education is escalating rapidly. The problem is that the cost is escalating even faster and much of that increase is being supported by structures that create artificial shortages.

Open Education is the Answer – But we have to figure out what that should look like
The strategic plan of the Dutton e-Education Institute at Penn State makes the case in a way that is less likely to scare the wits out of people then what I would probably write.


Feb 12

I had comments disabled by mistake. Please feel free to comment.

Feb 11

There are a variety of reasons why higher education should gravitate to open source software. They include value, transparency and, most importantly, that many open source products/packages/systems are now superior to the commercial alternatives (a good case can be made that Open Office is simply better than MS Office at this point). This is not an accidental outcome. The open source software development model has a long slow start-up period but once a project gains momentum the model consistently outperforms the product life-cycle models that drive most commercial software vendors. Commercial software development follow the opposite curve –it typically starts strong and decays- the overhead of maintaining secrecy and of creating the “features”, licensing schemes and marketing programs needed to get existing customers to pay for upgrades doesn’t generally serve customer’s needs. And negative incentives eventually produce negative results, not to mention slimy behavior (cough: blackboard). More to come on this…

The other topic for this blog is open education. Open education means different things to different people and I’ll return to this in a future post. But, a little test to see see if anyone is reading this: higher ed is in a bubble expanding rapidly towards a collapse.

“What’s that you say, a bubble? Isn’t that when the cost of something escalates out-of-proportion to the value?”

“Yes, that’s it exactly, the price structure of higher ed today rests on artificial constraints that create an artificial shortage and an artificial cost structure.”

I’ve read the Black Swan and I’m well aware that there is a danger in seeing patterns in sequences of chance events, BUT, the pattern where a new technology makes a set of artificial constraints supporting the cost structure in some system/institution/industry irrelevant has had a long run. In a recent example Napster made record companies irrelevant (it doesn’t have anything to do with intellectual property – music producers and music consumers no longer need record companies).

I check the news each day to see if the “Napster of Higher Ed” has appeared. The recent announcement that the ALF-CIO is creating the “College for Working Families” might be it –we won’t know for a while,  the devil is in the details. But if this misses it’s just a matter of time.

A.F.L.-C.I.O. Creates Online College for Union Families



Open Source for Open Education