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PPIG 2011

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 1 Dec 2017, 14:21

 I recently had the pleasure of attending the PPIG 2011 workshop between 6 and 8 September.  As I might have mentioned in an earlier blog, PPIG is an abbreviation for the Psychology of Programming Interest Group.  There used to be an American equivalent which was called ESP (Empirical Studies of Programmers), but this community seem to have disappeared.  PPIG, on the other hand, is going strong.

This year it was held in the University of York computer science department.  The department had moved since I was last there, forcing me to circumnavigate the campus and arrive at a time when almost all the tea and sandwiches had disappeared.  Thomas Green gave an opening address, and then it was swiftly on to the first presentation.

Mathematics and Visual Impairments

Alistair Edwards gave a talk entitled 'new approaches for mathematics in blind students'.  Mathematics, of course, relies on visual notations.  These notations, it was argued, are an integral part of working with maths.

Alistair holds that view (or, should I say that I understand that he holds the view) that there is more to it than just using an appropriate notation, or having that notation converted into another form.  We externalise parts of our working memory by using pen and paper.  Also, the idea of cancelling (or balancing) an equation by crossing of similar teams from both sides can be viewed as a visual manipulation.

Alistair mentioned a couple of projects, one of which was called Lambda, an abbreviation for Linear Access to Mathematics for Braille Device and Audio-synthesis.  Here, the challenges began to be clear: I didn't know this but different countries have different braille notation for mathematics.  There is, of course, the issue that using an interface to a notation immediately places cognitive barriers in the way that has the potential to make things more difficult to understand.  Users, it was argued, need more direct forms of interaction when working with mathematics.

All in all, a very thought provoking introduction, and it made me wonder how Green's cognitive dimensions of notations framework might be used to analyse interactions to notational systems (such as mathematics or programming languages) by users who may have different modality preferences (i.e. auditory over visual).

New Tech

The first main session of the workshop was called New Tech.  I'll do a very quick run through of the papers from each session.  Jon Rimmer presented the shyness project, and introduced the beguiling ambient computing device called the 'subtle stone', whereby class participants can communicate their emotional state to the lecturer by a click of a juggling ball.  Jon deftly directed us to a series of interesting papers about shyness.

The following paper was closely connected.  It was entitled 'self-reporting emotional experiences in a computing lab', by Judith Good (et al).  Us programmers go through a whole spectrum of different emotions during a programming session, from delight, through to wishing to jump on our laptop (although I don't recommend this).  This is an interesting direction: emotion connects to motivation, and traditionally the PPIG community have more focussed upon the cognitive.

Chris Roast, from Sheffield Hallam University, took us on a tour of a tool that helped to create different internationalised film posters; software localisation through abstraction.

One of the papers that I most enjoyed was by Chris Martin from the University of Dundee, who took dancing robots on a road trip to a number of different schools to further explore whether a robot dance workshop can inspire interest in a technical subject such as computer programming.  Or, does using robots 'sugar coat' a difficult subject, or is there more to it than this?  By robots, imagine small buggies.

In fact, Chris's robots use the same Arduino microcontroller that is central to the TU100 Senseboard. By dance, this is an activity that has a low threshold to success, is created, transcends culture, and where performance can be valued over competition (I made notes during this bit of Chris's talk).

The two other papers in this section described how to make music with a dry marker pen, a whiteboard and a mobile phone by defining your own musical notation (which was pretty cool), and considered the challenges that users of mobile spreadsheets face.

Human and algorithmic complexity

The next presentation was a 'work in progress' paper by yours truly.  I talked about a project (that has been making very slow progress, due to a myriad of different reasons) to explore whether it is possible to link measurements of program complexity to physiological measurements that are known to indicate human cognitive load. 

The workshop participants gave me a whole number of things to think about, including the names of a number of researchers, as well as a clear message of: 'stop procrastinating, just get on with it'.  I'm certainly going to take that last piece of advice.

The following presentation was about the challenge of working with test data.  A subject that can easily cause terror to many a software developer.

Language Formalities

Wednesday yielded a change of plan.  Thomas Green ran a session entitled, 'how to design a notation'.  A programming language is, of course, a form of notation.  Thomas posed interesting questions, like, 'how might we invent a different type of musical notation?', which led onto other questions such as its level of abstraction (what each element of a notation can represent), what you might wish to do with a notation, it's overall purpose, and how you might off load to external representations.

A theme underpinning all this debate was one that is familiar to many human-computer interaction and interaction design researchers: the idea of trading one thing off against another.

Giora Alexandron then presented his paper entitled 'programming with the user in mind' which led us towards considering something called live sequence charts, which is an extension of UML sequence diagrams.  We were introduced to the Play Engine and the PlayGo IDE.

This was followed by a presentation by Ahmad Taherkhani who spoke about 'automatic algorithm recognition based on programming schemas'.  I really liked this paper, since it was a new angle on some very early psychology of programming themes.  I particularly like how Ahmad was attempting to use existing theories to engineer a solution that may not only have practical use (in terms of providing tools to help educators to understand the programming code that students write), but also the act of programming a solution has the potential to allow us to learn more about the theories that are being applied.

The final paper in this session was a work in progress paper by Khuong A Nguyen who used a human-computer interaction technique called cognitive walkthough to learn more about the NXT-G visual programming language that can be used with the Lego Mindstorms hardware.

HCI for the future

Following a tour of a HCI and accessibility lab (which resembles a small apartment), a short panel discussion took place, with Nicholas Merriam and Luke Church taking centre stage.  Nicholas's perspective was especially welcome, since he spoke about the challenge of working with low level embedded software and the role that timing visualisation tools may play when attempting to solve programming problems that seem particularly intractable.  This linked back well to the earlier discussions of notation.

Learners and language design

This session contained two papers.  The first was a paper by Ahmed Alardawi, from Sheffield Hallam, aimed to explore the effect that object-oriented programming language class structure has on the comprehension of computer programs.  What was great about this research was that it clearly made use of existing work, and partially replicated earlier studies, thus adding to evidence.  Babak Khazaei, also from Sheffield Hallam, presented an empirical study on the influence of OCL, an abbreviation for Object Constraint Language (wikipedia). 

Motivation and affect

This part of the workshop contained a single presentation, by Rein Sach, from the Department of Computing at the Open University. 

Rein's paper was entitled, 'what makes software engineers go that extra mile?'  Rein asked software engineers what it was about their work that they enjoyed.  This gave way to an interesting discussion about the perception of the nature of programming work.  Even though developers might have to battle with misbehaving operating systems and maintain servers from time to time, perhaps these activities need to be considered as work rather than nuisances that get in the way of the real task, which is doing the intrinsically rewarding and creative work of creating code.

Invited paper

Thursday kicked off with a presentation by Gerrit van der Veer, from the Open University in the Netherlands and the Free University, Amsterdam.  Gerrit's presentation was about different aspects of design, how technology might be used to gather debate surrounding the artefacts that are created during the design process through a system called CAM, meaning Co-operative Artefact Memory.  A barcode sticker could be attached to different artefacts, such as a sketch or a physical prototype.  Design groups could then use these stickers, with mobile phones, to access a shared Twitter stream that relates to each object, allowing views and ideas to be shared.

Two thoughts came to mind during Gerrit's presentation.  Firstly, I wondered the extent of similarities between design practice (in different disciplines) and what occurs within software development practices that use agile methods, such as eXtreme Programming.  Secondly, CAM reminded me of a tool called OpenDesignStudio used for an Open University design course called U101, Design Thinking.

Another part of Gerrit's presentation was all about service design (i.e. design which yields a product that is not a tangible item).  Gerrit pointed us to a number of resources, such as the Service Design Tools site, and mentioned the importance of culture, by referring to the work of Hofstede (which is studied in the M364 Interaction Design Open University course). 

Cognitive considerations

The final session of the workshop contained two presentations that related to the cognitive dimensions of notations framework, papers by Anna Bobkowska, Maria Kutar and John Muirhead.  Anna introduced a language for the processing of multimedia streams through the use of a visual language.  Maria and John's presentation explored how a cognitive dimensions questionnaire might be used by non-experts.

Miguel Monteiro went on to speak about the cognitive foundations of modularity.  Miguel referred to a programming paradigm called Aspect-oriented programming (wikipedia), a subject that I have heard of many times, but one that I have not explored in a great deal of depth.  Learning more about AOP is certainly something to do at some point.

Qualitative and Quantitative

The final presentation of the workshop was by Gordon Fletcher from the University of Salford.  Gordon's presentation was entitled 'methods and practicalities of qualitative research', but it was so much more than this.  Gordon spoke about data collection in different communities, and mentioned the concept of biographical research (which made me wonder if anyone has thought about applying this technique, perhaps with regards to exploring motivation or software related careers.

I came away with a number of messages, namely, it can be relatively easy to gather qualitative data, but figuring out what to do with it is a whole other issue.  Also, both quantitative and qualitative research can be both systematic and rigorous; these different approaches to research have a lot in common.  An interesting quote was, 'the method has to fit the researcher even more than it has to fit the research'.

Gordon's presentation gave way to a memorable debate on the use of terms.  Undoubtedly the use of language will remain a perpetual challenge when carrying out multidisciplinary research.

Themes

A number of diverse themes were evident within the PPIG '11 workshop, representing its broad membership.  There was a strong theme of computing education and pedagogy.  Programming and educational motivation was also apparent, mixed in with the use and design of visual programming languages.  This connected to the important theme of cognitive dimensions, notational systems and notational design. 

Two interesting inclusions were links to the broader subject of design, and accessibility.  Human-computer interaction and interaction design remains important theme too.  A final theme is (perhaps that isn’t as strong as in previous years) is the application of ethnographic methods to further understand the activity of programming.  It was great to hear from a broad spread of presenters who are exploring many different research areas.

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1st International Aegis Conference

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 Aegis project logo: Open accessibility everywhere - groundwork, infrastructure, standards

7-8 October 2010

It seems like a lot of time has passed between this blog post and my previous one. I begin this entry with an explicit statement of: less time will pass between this one and the next!

This post is all about an accessibility conference that I recently attended in Seville, Spain, on behalf of the EU4ALL project in which the Open University has played an important part. Before saying something about the themes of the Aegis conference and summarising some of the notes that I made during some of the presentations, I guess I ought to say something about the project (from an outsiders perspective).

Aegis is an EU funded project that begins with a silent O (the O stands for Open). It then continues to use the first letters of the words Accessibility Everywhere: Groundwork, Infrastructure, Standards. My understanding is that it aims to learn more about the design, development and implementation of assistive and accessible technologies by not only carrying out what could be termed basic research, but also through the development and testing of new software.

Without further ado, here is a rough summary of my conference notes, complete with accompanying links.  I hope it is useful to someone!

Opening

After Evangelos Bekiaris presented the four cornerstones of the project (make things open, make things programmatically accessible, make sample applications and make things personalisable), Miguel Gonzalez Sancho outlined different EU research objectives and initatives. It was stated that 'there must be research in the area of ICT and accessibility, and this will continue'.

Pointers towards future research included a FP7 call that related to ICT for aging and well being. Other subjects mentioned included the areas of 'tools and infrastructures for mainstream accessibility', 'intelligent and social computing for social interaction' (which would be interdisciplinary, perhaps drawing upon the social sciences) and 'brain-neuronal computer interfaces' (BNCI), as well as plans to develop collaborations with other parts of the world.

It was useful not only get an overview of the domains that the funders are likely to be interested in, but also useful to be given a wealth of information rich links that researchers could explore later. The following links stood out for me: the EC ICT Research in FP7 site and the e-Inclusion activities page.

The Aegis Concept

Peter Korn from Oracle presented a very brief history of accessibility, drawing on the notion of 'building in accessibility' into the built environment. He presented a total of six steps, which I hope I have noted down correctly.

The first is to define what 'accessible' is. This may involve the taking of measurements, such as the width of doors and maybe the tones of elevators, or the sounds that are made of road crossings. The next (second) stage is to create standard building materials. Here you might have a building company creating standard door frames or even making electronic circuits to make consistent tones and noises (this is my own paraphrasing!). The next step is to create some tools to know how best to combine our pieces together. The tools may take the form of standardised instructions.

The next three items are more about the use of the physical items. The fourth step is that you need to make a choice as to where to place a building. Ideally it should be situated close to public transport and in a convenient place. The fifth step is to go ahead and to 'build' the building. The final step is all about dissemination: the telling of people about what has been created.

Peter drew a parallel between the process of creating physical acccessibility and creating accessibility for ICT systems. There ought to be 'stock' components of interface elements (such as the Fluid component set), developers and designers should adhere to good practice guidelines (such as the WCAG guidelines), applications need to be then created (which is akin to going ahead and making our building), and then we need to tell others what we have done.

If my memory is serving me well, Peter then went onto talk about the different generations of assistive technologies. More information about the generations can be found by jumping to my earlier blog post. From my own perspective (as a technologist), all this history stuff is really interesting, but there's such a lot of it, especially when technology is moving on so quickly. Our current challenge is to begin to understand the challenge of mobile devices and learn about how to develop tools and systems that remain optimally functional and accessible.

Other Projects

One of the great things of going to conferences (other than the cakes, of course) is an opportunity to learn about loads of other stuff that you had never heard of before. Blanca Alcanda from Technosite (Fundacion ONCE) spoke briefly about a number of projects, including T-Orienta (slideshare), Gametel (the development of accessible games) and INREDIS (self-adaptive inverfaces).

Roundtable Discussion

Karen Van Isacker was our question master. He kicked off with few killer questions (a number of which he tried to answer himself!) The panel comprised of a journalist, industrialists, researchers and user representatives. The notable questions were: ' what are your opinions about the [Aegis] products that are being developed?', 'how are you going to make sure users know about the tools [that are being developed]?', 'what are the current barriers people face?', and 'can you say something about the quality of AT training in Europe?'

In many ways, these questions were addressed by many of the conference presentations as well as by the panel. Challenges relating to the development of assistive technologies include the continual necessity of maintenance and updates, that users ought to be more aware of the different types of technologies that may be available, the price of technology is significant and one of the significant challenges relating to training is the fact of continual technological change.

After a short break the conference then split into two parallel sessions. I tended to opt for sessions that focussed on more general issues rather than those that related to particular technologies (such as mobile devices) or operating systems. This said, there is always a huge amount of cross over between the different talks.

Parallel session 1b (part 1)

It was good to see a clear presentation of a user centred design methodology (UCD) by Evangelos Bakiaris. Evangelos described user research techniques such as interviews, questionnaires and something called contextual enquiry. His talk reminded me of materials that are presented through the Open University course Fundamentals of Interaction Design (a course which I wholeheartedly recommend!)

My colleague Carlos Velasco from FIT, Germany, gave a very concise outline of early web software before introducing us to WCAG (W3C). Carlos then went onto summarise some intresting research from something called the 'technology penetration report' where it was discovered that out of 1.5 million websites, 65% of them use Javascript (which is know to yield challenges for some assistive technologies). The prevalance of Javascript relates to the increasing application and development of Rich Internet Applications (or RIAs, such as Google Maps, for instance). The characteristics of RIAs include the presentation of engaging UI's and asynchronous content retieval (getting many bits of 'stuff' at the same time). All these developments led to the creation of the WAI-ARIA guidelines (Accessible Rich Internet Applications).

Carlos argued that it was once relatively straightforward to test earlier types of web application, since the pages themselves didn't change. You could just send the pages to an 'page analysis server' or system (perhaps like Imergo), which may then persent a report, perhaps in a formal language like EARL (W3C). Due to the advent of RIAs, the situation has changed. The accessibility of a system very much depends on the state in which it is, and this can change. Testing web accessibility has therefore changed into something more resembling traditional usability testing.

A higher level question might be, 'having an application or product that is accessible is all very well, but do people have access to assistive technology (AT) that enable web sites to be used?' Other related questions include, 'if people have access to AT, do they use it? If not, why not?' These were the questions that Karel Van Isacker aimed to address.

Karel began by saying that different definitions within Europe leads to different estimates of the number of people with disabilities. He told us that the AT supplier market is rather fragmented: there are many suppliers in different countries and there are also substantial differences in terms of how purchases of AT equipment can be funded. He went on to suggest that different countries applied different models of disability (medical, social and consumer) to different market segments.

Some of the challenges were clear: people were often unaware of the solutions that best meet their ICT needs, users of AT's are just given very rudimentary training, and many people may even have a computer that they have used once, and there is a high level of users discarding their AT due to low levels of satisfaction.

Parallel session 1b (part 2)

Francesca Cesaroni began the next part of the afternoon by describing a set of projects that related to the broad theme of user requirements. These included the VISIOBOARD project (which related to eye tracking) and the CAALYX project (Complete Ambiant Assisted Living Experiment).

Harry Geyskens then went on to consider the following question from the perspective of someone with a visual impairment: 'how can I use a device in a comfortable and safe way that is good as a non-disabled person?' Harry then presented different design for all principles (wikipedia) : that a product must be equitable in use, be flexible, be simple and intuitive, provide perceptable information, be tolerant for error, permit usage through low physical effort.

Begona Pino gave an interesting presentation about the use of video game systems and how they could potentially be used for different groups, whilst clearly expressing a call for design simplicity.

The final talk of the day was given my yours truly, where I tried to present a summary of four year project called EU4ALL in twenty minutes. To summarise, the aim of EU4ALL is to try to consider how to enhance the provision of accessible systems and services in higher eduction through the creation of a small number of prototype systems. A copy of my presentation and accompanying paper can be found by visiting the OU knowledge network site (a version will eventually be deposited into the Open Research Online system).

Day 2 keynote

Gregg Venderheiden kicked off day 2 with a keynote entitled 'Roadmap for building a global public inclusive infrastructure'. Gregg imagined a future where user interfaces change to the needs of individual users. Rather than presenting a complicated set of interfaces, a system (a PC or mobile device) may present a more simplified user interface. Gregg pointed us to a project called NPII (National Public Inclusive Infrastructures). It was good to learn that some of the challenges that Gregg mentioned, specifically security and ways to gather preferences were also lightly echoed in the earlier EU4ALL presentation.

Parallel session 2a: Rich RIA!

RIA is an abbreviation for Rich Internet Application. The canonical example of a RIA is, of course, Google Maps or Gmail. Web application development techniques (such as AJAX, wikipedia) that were pioneered by Google and other organisations have now found their way into a myriad of other web products. From their inception RIAs proved to be troublesome for users of assistive technologies.

Juta Trevianus gave a talk with an intreguing title: 'changing the world - on a tiny budget'. She began by saying that being on-line and being connected is no longer an option. Digital exclusion can lead to social exclusion. The best bargain is often, in my experience, one that you can find through a web browser. I made a note of some parts of her talk that jumped out at me, i.e., 'laws work when they are clear, simple, consistent and stable', but, 'laws cannot create a culture of change'. Also, perhaps we need to move from a case where one size fits all (universal design) to the case where one size fits one (personalised design, which may be facilited through technology).

Being an engineer, I was struck by Juta's quote from computer scientist Alan Kay: 'the best way to predict the futuer is to invent it'. It's not too difficult to relate this quote back to the Aegis theme of openness and open source software (OSS): freedom of code has the potential enable the freedom of invention.

The first session was concluded by Dominique Hazael-Massieux from the W3C mobile web initative (W3C). The challenges of accessibility now reach much further than the increasingly quaint desktop PC. They now sit within the hands and pockets of users.

One early approach to dealing with the explosion of new devices was to provide a separate websites: one for mobile devices, another for 'traditional' computers. This approach yields the inevitable challenge of maintenance. Dominique told us about HTML 5 (wikipedia) and mentioned that it has the potential to help with site navigation and make it easier for developers (and end users) to work with rich media.

The remainder of the day was mainly focused upon WAI-ARIA. I particularly enjoyed Mike Squillace's presentation that returned to the challenge of testing rich internet applications. Mike presented some work that attempted to codify with WCAG rules into executable Javascript which could then be used within a test engine. Jan Richards, from OCAD, Canada, presented the Fluid project.

Parallel session 3b: Standardisation and valorisation

I split my time in the final afternoon between the two parallel sessions, visiting the standardisation session first, then moving onto the coordination strand half way through. There were presentations that described the process of standardisation and its importance in the process of accessibility. During this session Loic Martinez presented his work on the creation of a tool to support the development of accessible software.

Parallel session 3a: Coordinating research

The final session of the conference yielded a mix of presentations, ranging from description of physical centres that people could visit through to another presentation about the EU4ALL project made by my colleague from Madrid. This second EU4ALL presentation outlined a number of proposed prototype accessibility information services. Our two presentations complemented each other very well: my presentation outlined (roughly) an accessibility framework, whereas this second presentation seemed to an alternative perspective on how the framework might be applied and used within an institution.

Summary

One of the overriding themes was the necessity to not only make assistive technology available to others but also to make sure the right kind of technology was selected, and to ensure that users were given ample opportunity to learn how to use it. If you are given a car and you have never driven before you shouldn't just get into it and start driving: it takes time to learn the controls, and it takes time to build confidence and to learn about the different places you might want to go to (and besides, it's dangerous!) To risk stretching a metaphor too far, this is a bit like assistive technologies: it takes time to understand what controls you have at your disposal and where you would like to travel to. As Karol pointed out in his talk: far too much technology sits unused in a box.

Another theme of the conference was about the solidity of 'this box'. Rather than having everyting in 'a box' or installed on your computer (or mobile device), perhaps another idea might be to use technology 'on demand' from 'the cloud' (aka, the internet). Tools may have the potential to be liberated, but this depends on other types of technology 'groundwork' being available, i.e. good, fast and reliable connectivity.

Finally, another theme (and one that is pretty fundamental) is the issue of usability and simplicity. The ease of use of systems will continue to be a perpetual challenge due to the continual differences between people, task and context (where the person and the task takes place). Whilst universal design offers much possibility in terms of making product for the widest possible audience, there is also much opportunity to continue to explore the notion of interface, product and system personalisation. Through simplicity comes accessibility, and visa versa.

All in all, a very interesting couple of days. I came away feeling that there was a strong and vibrant community committed to creating useful technologies to help people in their daily lives. I also came away feeling that there is so much more to do, and a stronger feeling that whilst technology can certainly help there are many other complementary actions that need to be taken before technology can even begin to play a part.

The latest project newsletter (available at the time for writing) can now be downloaded (pdf).

See also Second International Education for All Conference (blog post), 24 October 2009.

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Second International Education for All Conference

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 21 Nov 2019, 11:24

This blog post represents a review of the second International Education for All conference that I was lucky enough to attend in September 09.  I originally intended to post a review earlier, but mitigating circumstances (which I hope will become clear at the end) prevented this.

Like the first conference, held in '07, this conference was also hosted at the University of Warsaw.  The '07 conference represented a finale of an EU project, a collaboration between universities and other organisations from Germany, Poland, Estonia, Croatia and others (please forgive my poor memory!), but this one was slightly different.

Below I attempt to present a brief summary of some of the sessions that I attended.  There were three parallel sessions, so I had to choose carefully.  This is then followed by what I took away in terms of the themes of the conference.

Opening Keynote

The opening keynote was by Dianne Ryndak from the University of Florida.  Dianne explored the topic of inclusion, particularly the differences between generalised and specialised education.  Dianne explained how personalised support and learning activities could be provided as a part of general learning activities.

She went on to present a powerful description of two students: one who was educated within a segregated school, the other who was educated, with the provision of additional support, through a main stream (or general education) school.  I remember her saying that 'education is a service that goes to the student, not a place where the student goes' and that education should be 'only as special as necessary'.

Although Dianne's presentation primarily related to high school education the themes she highlighted can be directly brought to bear on higher education too.  Technology can be used as a way to help with the inclusion of people with disabilities main stream education.  This said, teachers have a more important role where they need to be viewed as collaborators as well as educators.

Three dimensional solid science models for tactile teaching materials

I sometimes like to visit museums.  One of the things that frustrate me is the sight of signs that say 'please do not touch!'  This strikes me as particularly unfair when I discover sculptures in art galleries.  Given that sculptors use their haptic sense when creating an object, it seems unfair to deny visitors the possibility of using this same modality.

Yoshinori Teshima, from the Digital Manufacturing Research Centre in Japan, gave an inspiring presentation where he showed a number of different models, ranging from abstract objects (such as polyhedra) through to hugely magnified representations of microscopic creatures that can only be seen under a microscope (imagine a microscoping monster the size of your fist!)

Yoshinori briefly spoke about the manufacturing methods, which included stereolithography and 3D printing using either plaster on nylon powder.  His relief emphasised models of the earth and mars were fabulous.

It struck me that his models could be used by all students, regardless of visual abilities.  It also struck me that the ultimate use of such models within the classroom depends ultimately upon the skills and the expertise of the teacher.

Talking Tactile Tablet

I have heard about tactile tablets before.  This presentation demonstrated a product that was also included within the assistive technology exhibition that was also hosted at the conference.

I came away with two points from this presentation.  Firstly, referring to three dimensional objects using two dimensional symbols is a skill that I take for granted.  Secondly, it is now possible for educators to author their own tactile materials.  We were shown how it was possible to create a small family tree.  Audio materials were recorded using Audacity (Wikipedia), which were then associated to positions on a tablet.  Corresponding tactile representations could be produced using embossers.

Opening Linux for the Visually Impaired

This presentation primarily focused upon a screen reader called Sue (Screenreader Usability Extensions) that was developed by the Study Centre for the Visually Impaired Students (SZS) based at the University of Karlsruhe, Germany.  This presentation reminded me a little of a presentation of the Orca screen reader, made at the Aegis project dissemination event that I wrote about a couple of months ago.

One of the interesting things about Sue was that it could be connected to both a refreshable braille display (Wikipedia) (visiting this page was interesting, since it mentioned a new type of refreshable display called a rotating-wheel display) and a screen magnifier at the same time.

Although Sue could be considered to be 'yet another screen reader', having multiple versions of similar products is undeniably, in my view, a good thing.  Competition between individual products, whether it is in terms of popularity or functionality can help their development and enhancement.

Distance Education and Training Programme on Accessible Web Design

I was drawn to this presentation due to involvement in the Open University Accessible online Learning and Fundamentals of Interaction Design courses.  I was not to be disappointed.  There were some strong echoes with these current courses, but I should say the curriculum is perhaps complementary.

The course was developed as a part of a European project called Accweb with the intention of creating distance learning materials that could address a need for a professional qualification or a certificate in accessible web design. The materials comprised of eighteen units which could be delivered through the ATutor VLE, amounting to the equivalent of 60 points of study.

Key elements of the curriculum included:

  • Fundamentals of web accessibility
  • Guidelines and legal requirements
  • Assistive technologies
  • Accessible content creation (which included issue such as methodology, evaluation, rich internet application and authoring tools)
  • Design and usability (themes from human-computer interaction)
  • Project development

The materials do not seem to be available through this site at the moment, but I hope they will be available in time.

Helping children to play using robots: IROMEC project experience

This presentation, by Francesca Caprino, outlined the IROMEC project, which is an abbreviation of Interactive Robotic Social Mediators as Companions and a sister project called the adapted robot project.  Francesca began by describing play: what it is, what it can do and considered the effect of play deprivation on the development of children.  Robots, it was argued, can help children with physical disabilities and other impairments participate in play activities.

The robots that were described were essentially toy robots that were modified to allow them to be controlled in different ways.  Future research objectives included uncovering of new play scenarios, considering how to adapt or modify other robots and assessing the educative and therapeutic outcomes of robot assisted  play interventions and developing associated guidelines.

Studying Sciences as a Blind Person: Challenges to AT/IT

Joachim Klaus introduced us to the Centre for the Visually Impaired Students, which seemed to have similarities to the Open University Office for Students with Disabilities (more information is available through the services for disabled students portal).

After presenting an overview of the centre, Joachim presented the ICC: International Camp on Computers and Communication.  The ICC 'tries to make young blind and visually impaired students aware what technology can do for them, which computer skills they have to have, where they should put efforts to enhance their technical skills, the level of mobility as well as their social skills'.  Using and learning to use assistive technologies can be difficult.  This international camp, which is held in different countries, can help people become more skilled at using assistive technologies, thus removing substantial barriers to access.

Improving the accessibility of virtual learning environments using the EU4ALL framework

During the conference, I gave a short talk about the EU4ALL project I am working on.  The presentation focussed on an architecture that the project has been creating and how it can improve the accessibility of services that are delivered to students.  The architecture takes into consideration a number of different stakeholders, each of which has a responsibility in helping to deliver accessibility.  My slides are available on-line through the Open University Knowledge Network (presentation information).

At the same time as my presentation, my colleague Elisabeth Unterfrauner from the Centre for Social Innovation, Technology and Knowledge, Vienna, was presenting her research, the socio-economic situation of students with disabilities, also carried out within the EU4ALL project.

Fostering accessibility through Design4All education in mainstream education

Continuing the theme of EU projects, Andrea Petz gave an interesting presentation about universal design, or Design4All.  Andrea has been involved with EDeAN, and abbreviation for the European Design for All e-Accessibility Network.  EDeAN has studied how D4ALL is covered or treated in different universities across Europe and has helped to guide the development of a masters programme.

Andrea began her presentation by saying that D4ALL is not design for the average, but for the widest possible group of users and went on to talk about the principles of universal design (Wikipedia):

  1. Equitable use
  2. Flexibility in use
  3. Accessible information
  4. Tolerance for errors
  5. Simple and intuitive
  6. Low physical effort
  7. Size and space for approach and use

Andrea pointed us towards a conference called the International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs (IICHP).

Inclusive science strategies

Greg Stefanich added two more to Andrea's list of principles, namely:

  1. Build a community of learners
  2. Create a positive instructional climate, i.e. one that is welcoming.

Greg also connected his talk to the theme of inclusive education by saying 'a person in a regular class room setting will have better relationships with the general public, family and be employed' and emphasised the view that inclusion of all students will have no real consequence on other students.  An important point is to spend time to get to know the needs of individuals so they can be effectively supported.

Foreign language courses for students with hearing impairments

Ewa Domagała-Zyśk talked about her experience of teaching English to hearing impaired students.  Her presentation made me reflect on my own experience of using the virtual world SecondLife (although Ewa's presentation was mostly about why teaching foreign languages is a good thing and what some of the challenges might be).

Quite some time ago, I was adventurous enough to visit a couple of 'Polish speaking' virtual bars where I tried to interact, using text, with some of the 'regulars' and found myself totally lost.  This experience showed me that this was an interesting and predominately unthreatening way to help to learn (and understand) written language. It did make me wonder whether virtual worlds (in combination with real-word assistance, of course), might be an interesting way to expose people to new languages.  The issue of whether such environments promote the creation of new dialects is, of course, a whole other issue.

Educational practices towards increasing awareness among academic teachers

Dagmara Nowak-Adamczyk (or one of her colleagues) spoke about the DARE project, a disability awareness project.  The project website states, 'The long-term objective of the project and the DARE Consortium is raising public awareness of disability and the way people with disabilities function in modern (knowledge-based) society'.  The project has produced some training materials which are currently being evaluated.

Access for science students with disabilities in an open distance learning institution in South Africa

I was particularly looking forward to this presentation since its title contained particularly interesting themes.  Eleanore Johannes, from the University of South Africa, spoke about different models of disability, introduced us to the Advocacy and Resource Centre for Students with Disabilities (ARCSWiD) office and spoke of some of the challenges that students face: funding, electricity, inaccessibility web pages and training.  She also described a qualitative research project that is exploring the experiences of science students with disabilities that is taking place over a period of three years.

No contradiction : Design4All and assistive technologies

Michaela Freudenfeld introduced the INCOBS web portal that provides information about assistive technologies that are available in Germany.  The INCOBS portal has the objective of carrying out market surveys of products and services, testing of assistive devices and workplace technologies, evaluating the accessibility of software applications and offer seminars for facilitators and advisors.

Understanding educational needs of students with psychiatric disabilities

Enid Weiner, from the Counselling and Disability Services, York University, Canada, gave an impressive hour long talk on the theme of mental health difficulties.  The subtitle of her presentation was 'making the invisible more visible'.

Enid spoke about a number of interesting related themes, such as different illnesses, the effect of medication and that some illnesses can have an episodic nature, which may cause the place of learning to be slower or take place over an extended period.  Accommodations are to be made on a case by case basis.

Enid emphasised the importance of a 'community of support' and said how important it is for educational providers not to 'get hung up' on an individual diagnosis and instead focus on individual accommodations i.e. what learners need to study.

Environmental influences on participation with disabilities: a Sri Lankan perspective

This was an interesting presentation since it presented a different perspective.  Samanmali Kularatne outlined the situation in Sri Lanka and then described a study that is aiming to explore the experiences of children with disabilities in mainstream schools.

The study adopts a qualitative approach.  Interviews are carried out in class rooms, which are then transcribed and subjected to thematic analysis.  The participants include children, teachers, parents and non-participative observers.  Themes identified included: attitudes, values and beliefs, support and relationships, products and technology, natural and built environment.

The conclusion was that inclusion is not really a reality and that there is a lack of resources.  The actions resulting from the study includes further communication with educational authorities, an awareness programme for parents and launching a project to try to initiate more inclusion.

How AT can help with learning maths for people who are print disabled

The presentation and manipulation of mathematical notation is a perennial problem.  When some mathematical expressions are translated into spoken language ambiguities can easily arise.  One proposed solution is to make use of the LaTeX (Wikipedia) language.

The challenge is not just technical.  Acceptance of technology relates to the willingness of learners to accept technological solutions and effectiveness of teachers to communicate their potential benefits.  It also relies upon educators having both the time and wiliness to understand different tools.

Considering different definitions of disability

Paweł Wdówik from the University of Warsaw Office for Persons with Disabilities spoke about the different definitions of disability and the differences that exist between primary and secondary education.  Paweł highlighted that through the medical model, if you don't have a medical model, then a disability is not likely to exist.  As a result, people who do have disabilities are likely to slip through the system.  Paweł emphasised that the views of the individual should always be fundamental.

Working towards inclusive education in Europe

Andrea Watkings from the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education spoke about the different agency projects and mentioned the UNESCO Salamanca statement and asked the question, 'how do we change our systems so they are inclusive from the beginning?' and made the point that inclusion needs to take account of all peoples and groups.  Amanda emphasised that inclusion is a process, not a state.

Closing Keynote

The final presentation of the conference was made by Yvonne Bonner, Reggio Emilia, Italy.  Yvonne presented a range of very thought provoking images.  She asked the question, 'why work in this area?'  She answered philosophically (and, of course, I paraphrase) that by working in this area  you are considering (and hopefully challenging others to enhance) the rights of all people.  It was a great way to close the conference.

Conference themes

One of the ways that this conference differed from the previous event was that there were more distinct themes.  Whereas the previous event focused quite a lot on an EU project that had just concluded, this conference I felt was slightly more wide ranging (but this could be cause I was more attuned to what to look out for).

One of the more prominent theme were debates surrounding inclusion or exclusion, or more specifically, how to help ensure that people with additional needs could be effectively brought into mainstream education.  This theme was clearly articulated within the opening and closing keynote speeches.  There are differences between countries (and the models of disability that are applied).  Sharing understanding of definitions was certainly a subject that was considered to be important.

Another theme was the need to listen to the individual.  I recall two projects that are aiming to learn more about the experience of individuals.

Quite a few of the presentations related to on-going projects and programmes.  Ideally I would have liked to go away with a more fuller set of conference proceedings to help me remember what was said and recall the arguments that were presented.  Hopefully, as the conference series proceeds, this may be something that the organisers may consider, but hopefully without detracting from an underlying sense that delegates are happy to discuss, share and learn from each others practice.

Addendum

After the conference ended I had some free time.  It was suggested that a fun thing to do would be to go hiking in the Tatra mountains.  I had been told a lot about a town called Zakopane and how it once exerted a strong draw for artists and Bohemians, and how a special cheese was likely to be sold everywhere in the town.  I was not to be disappointed.  As well as having extraordinary mountains and restaurants, tourists walking down the main street would stumble across cheese purveyors (Wikipedia) very thirty or so metres.

My choice of words is no accident, but instead I was embroiled in one.  Rather than literally stumbling across cheese sellers, I literally stumbled down the side of a mountain and broke my arm (although I should add that the stumble was a relatively modest one of about forty or so centimetres).  Visiting the accident and emergency ward was an experience, where a sharp witted paramedic, upon hearing that I was from the UK asked, 'were you walking on the wrong side of the path?'  There were more jokes, but their charm has long since worn away!

The upshot of the accident was that I found myself temporarily disabled, my dominant arm immobilised in plaster.  It all came as a bit of a shock.  Simple tasks suddenly became trials of patience and took considerable longer, if I could figure out how do them at all.  Shoe laces became a liability and shirt buttons became almost impossible.  I had to go about cancelling events and activities that were scheduled for the time after I was to return to the UK.

Upon return to the UK, my motivation levels nose dived. I quickly recalled the universal design principles when doors became difficult to open and jars and cans a frustrating challenge. I also had entered the UK health system, but I had no real sense of who I should ask about information about things.  Whilst monolithic institutions are there to help, individuals are necessary to provide support and peace of mind.

Despite my frustrations, I still had an overwhelming desire to do stuff.  Although I wasn't able to attend a weekend meeting I was scheduled to attend, one of my colleagues from the University of Leeds helped me to participate.  Using Skype text chat, it was possible to take part in a short group discussion activity which helped to lift my mood.  This showed me what a positive impact technology can by providing effective alternative ways of communication.  It also distinctly underlined on of the conference themes: the importance (and power) of inclusion.

I think I'm on the mend now, but I understand it's going to take some time.  All in all, the trip (both to the conference, and over a part of mountain) was an interesting experience.  I've certainly learnt a few things.

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Aegis Project : Open accessibility everywhere

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 21 Jul 2010, 18:20

Aegis project logo: Open accessibility everywhere - groundwork, infrastructure, standards

I recently attended a public dissemination event that was held by the AEGIS project, hosted by the European headquarters of the company that developed the Blackberry, Research in Motion.

The Aegis project has the strapline that has three interesting keywords: groundwork, infrastructure and standards.  When I heard about the project from a colleague, I was keen to learn what lay hidden underneath these words and how they connect to the subject of accessibility.

The Aegis project website states that it 'seeks to determine whether 3rd generation access techniques will provide a more accessible, more exploitable and deeply embeddable approach in mainstream ICT (desktop, rich Internet and mobile applications)' and goes on the say that the project will explore these issues through the development of an Open Accessibility Framework (or OAF).  This framework, it is stated, 'provides embedded and built-in accessibility solutions, as well as toolkits for developers, for "engraving" accessibility in existing and emerging mass-market ICT-based products'.  It goes on to state that the users of assistive technologies will be placed at the centre of the project.

The notion of the 'generations' of access techniques is an interesting concept that immediately jumped out at me when reading this description (i.e. what is the third generation and what happened to the other two generations?), but more of this a little later on.

Introductory presentations

The dissemination day began with a couple of contextualising presentations that outlined the importance of accessibility.  A broad outline of the project was given by the project co-ordinator who emphasised that the point that the development of accessibility required the co-operation of a large number of different stakeholders, ranging from expert users of assistive technology (AT), tutors, and developers.

There was a general call for those who are interested in the project to 'become involved' in some of the activities, particularly with regards to understanding different use cases and requirements.  I'm sure the project co-ordinator will not be offended if I provided a link to the project contacts page.

AT Generations

The next presentation was made by Peter Korn of Sun Microsystems who began by emphasising the point that every hour (or was it every second?) hundreds of new web pages are created (I forget the exact figure he presented, but the number is a big one).  He then went on to outline the three generations of assistive technologies.

The first generation of AT could be represented by the development of equipment such as the Optacon (wikipedia), an abbreviation for Optical to Tactile Converter.  This is the first time I had heard of this device before, and this represented the first 'take away' lesson of the day.  The Wikipedia page looks to be a great summary of its development and its history.

One thing that is missing is the lack of an explicit link to a personal computer.  The development of a PC gave way to a new second generation of AT that served a wider group of potential users.  This generation saw the emergence of specialist AT software vendors, such as companies who develop products such as screen readers and screen magnifiers.  Since computer operating systems are continuing to develop and hardware is continually changing (in terms of increases in processing power), this places unique pressures on the users of assistive technology.

For some AT systems to operate successfully, developers had have to apply a number of clever tricks.  Imagine a brand new application package, such as a word processing program, that had been developed for the first generation of PCs, for example.

The developers of such an application would not be able to write code in such a way that allows elements of the display to be presented to users of assistive technology.  One solution for AT vendors is to rely on tricks such as the reading of 'video memory' to convert on-screen video displays that could be presented to users with visual impairments using synthetic speech.

The big problem of this second generation of AT is that when there is a change to the underlying operating system of a computer it is possible that the 'back door' routes that assistive technologies may use to gain access to information may become closed, making AT systems (and the underlying software) rather brittle.  This, of course, leads to a potential increase in development cost and no end of end user frustration.

The second generation of AT is said to have existed between the late 1980s to the early 2000s.  The third generation of AT aims to overcome these challenges since operating systems and other applications begin to providing a series of standardised Accessibility Application Programming Interfaces (AAPIs).

This means that different suppliers of assistive technology can write software that uses a consistent interface to find out what information could be presented to an end user.  An assistive technology, such a screen reader, can ask a word processor (or any other application) questions about what could be presented.  An AAPI could be considered as a way that one system could ask questions about another.

Other presentations

Whilst an API, in some respects can represent one type of standard, there are a whole series of other standards, particularly those from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) (and other standards bodies) that can provide useful guidance and assistance.  A further presentation outlined the complex connections between standards bodies and underlined the connection to the development of systems and products for people with disabilities.

A number of presentations focussed on technology.  One demonstration used a recent release of the OpenSolaris operating system (which makes use of the GNOME desktop system) to demonstrate how the Orca screen reader can be used in conjunction with application software such as OpenOffice.

With all software systems, there is often loads of magic stuff happening behind the scenes.  To illustrate some of this magic (like the AAPI being used to answer questions), a Gnome application called Accerciser was used.  This could be viewed as a software developer utility.  It is intended to help developers to 'check if an application is providing correct information to assistive technologies'.

OpenOffice can be extended (as far as I understand) using the Java programming language.  Java can be considered as a whole software development framework and environment.  It is, in essence, a virtual machine (or computer) running on a physical machine (the one that your operating system runs on).

One of the challenges that developers of Java had to face was to how to make its user interface components accessible to assistive technology.  This is achieved using something called the Java Access Bridge.  This software component is, in essence, 'makes it possible for a Windows based Assistive Technology to get at and interact with the Java Accessibility API'.

On the subject of Java, one technology that I had not heard of before is JavaFX.  I understand this to be a Java based language that has echoes of Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight about it, but I haven't had much of a time to study it.  The 'take home' message is that rich internet applications (RIA) need to be accessible too, and having a consistent way to interface with them is in keeping with the third generation approach to assistive technologies.

Another presentation made use of a Blackberry to demonstrate real time texting and show the operation of an embedded screen reader.  A point was made that the Blackberry makes extensive use of Java, which was not something that I was aware of.  There was also a comment about the importance of long battery life, an issue that I have touched upon in an earlier post.  I agree, there is nothing worse than having to search for power sockets, especially when you rely on technology.  This is even more important if your technology is an assistive technology.

Towards the fourth generation

Gregg Vanderheiden gave a very interesting talk where he mentioned different strategies that could be applied to make systems accessible, such as making adaptations to an existing interface, providing a parallel interface (for example, you can carry out the same activities using a keyboard or a mouse), or providing an interface that allows people to 'plug in' or make use of their own assistive technology.  One example of this might be to use a software interface through an API, or to use a hardware interface, such as a keyboard, through the use of a standard interface such as USB.

Greg's talk made me think about an earlier question that I had asked during the day, namely 'what might constitute the fourth generation of assistive technologies?'  In many respects this is an impossible question to answer since we can only identify generations when they have passed.  The present and especially the future will always remain perpetually (and often uncomfortably) fuzzy.

One thought that I had regarding this area firmly connects to the area of information pervasiveness and network ubiquity.  Common household equipment such as central heating systems and washing machines often continue to remain resolutely unfathomable to many of us.   I have heard researchers talking about the notion of 'networked homes', where it is possible to control your heating system (or any other device) through your computer.

I remember hearing a comment from a delegate who attended the Open University ALPE project workshop who said, 'the best assistive technologies are those that benefit everyone, regardless of disability, such as optical character recognition'.  But what of a home of networked household goods which can potentially offer their own set of wireless accessible interfaces?  What benefit can such products provide for users who do not have the immediate need for an accessible interface?

The answer could lie with increasing awareness of the subject of energy consumption and management.  Washing machines, cookers and heating systems all consume energy.  Exposing information about energy consumption of different products could allow households to manage energy expenditure more effectively.  In my view, the need for 'green' systems and devices may facilitate the development and introduction of products could potentially contain lightweight device level accessibility APIs.

Further development directions

One of the most interesting themes of the day was the idea of the accessibility API that has made the third generation of assistive technologies what they are today.  A minor comment that featured during the day was the question of whether we might be able to make our software development tools and environments accessible.  Since accessibility and usability are intrinsically connected, the question of, 'are the current generation of accessibility API's as usable as they can be?'

Put another way, if the accessibility APIs themselves are not as usable as they could be, this might reduce the number of software developers who may make use of them, potentially reducing the accessibility of end user applications (and frustrating the users who wish to make use of assistive technologies).

Taking this point, we might ask, 'how could we test (or study) the accessibility of an API?'  Thankfully, some work has already been carried out in this area and it seems to be a field of research that is becoming increasingly active.  A quick search yields a blog post which contains a whole host of useful resources (I recommend the Google TechTalk that is mentioned).  There is, of course, a presentation on this subject that I gave at an Open University conference about two years ago, entitled Connecting Accessibility APIs.

It strikes me that a useful piece of research to carry out is to explore how to conduct studies to evaluate the usability of the various accessibility APIs and whether they might be able to be improved in some way.  We should do whatever we can to try to smooth the development path for developers.  Useful tools, in the form of APIs, have the potential to facilitate the development of useful and accessible products.

And finally...

Towards the end of the day delegates were told about a site called RaisingTheFloor.net (RTF).  RTF is described as a consortium of organizations, projects and individuals from around the world 'that is focused on ensuring that people experiencing disabilities, literacy problems, or the effects of aging are able to access and use all of the information, resources, services and communities available on or through the Web'.  The RTF site provides a wealth of resources relating to different types of assistive technologies, projects and stakeholders.

We were also told about an initiative that is a part of Aegis, called the Open Accessibility Everywhere Group (OAEG).  I anticipate that more information about OAEG will be available in due course.

I also heard about the BBC MyWebMyWay site.  One of the challenges for all computer users is learning and knowing about the range of different ways in which your system can be configured and used.  Sites like this are always a pleasure to discover.

Summary

It's great to go to project dissemination events.  Not only do you learn about what a project aims to achieve, but sometimes the presentations can often inspire new thoughts and point you toward new (and interesting) directions.  As well as learning about the Optacon (which I had never heard of before), I also enjoyed the description of the different generations of assistive technologies.  It was also interesting witness the various demonstrations and be presented with a teasing display of the complexities that lie very often hidden amidst the operating system of your computer.

The presentations helped me to connect the notions of the accessibility API and pervasive computing.  It also reminded me of some research themes that I still consider to be important, namely, the usability of accessibility APIs.  In my opinion, all these themes represent interesting research directions which have the fundamental potential of enhancing the accessibility and usability of different types of technologies.

I wish the AEGIS project the best of luck and look forward to learning more about their research findings.

Acknowlegements

Thanks are extended to Wendy Porch who took the time to review an earlier draft of this post.

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Formative e-assessment dissemination day

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 19 Nov 2018, 10:40

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be able to attend a 'formative e-assessment' event that was hosted by the London Knowledge Lab.  The purpose of the event was to disseminate the results of a JISC project that had the same title.

If you're interested, the final project report, Scoping a Vision for Formative e-Assessment is available for download.  The slides for this event are also available, where you can also find Elluminate recordings of the presentations.

This blog post is a collection of randomly assorted comments and reflections based upon the presentations that were made throughout the day.  They are scattered in no particular order.  I offer them with the hope that they might be useful to someone!

Themes

The keynote presentation had the subtitle, 'case stories, design patterns and future scenarios'.  These words resonated strongly with me.  Being a software developer, the notion of a design pattern (wikipedia) is one that was immediately familiar.  When you open the Gang of Four text book (wikipedia) (the book that defines them), you are immediately introduced to the 'architectural roots' of the idea, which were clearly echoed in the first presention.

The idea of a pattern, especially within software engineering, is one that is powerful since it provides software developers with an immediate vocabulary that allows effective sharing of complex ideas using seemingly simple sounding abstractions.  Since assessment is something that can be described (in some sense) as a process, it was easy to understand the objective of the project and see how the principle of a pattern could be used to share ideas and facilitate communication about practice.

Other terms that jumped out at me were 'case stories' and 'scenarios'.  Without too much imagination it is possible to link these words to the world of human-computer interaction.  In HCI, the path through systems can be described in terms of use cases, and the settings in which products or systems could be used can be explored through the deployment of descriptive scenarios and the sketching of storyboards.

Conversational framework

A highlight of the day, for me, was a description of Laurillard's conversational framework.  I have heard about it before but have, so far, not had much of an opportunity to study it in great detail.  Attending a presentation about it and learning about how it can be applied makes a conceptual framework become alive.  If you have the time, I encourage you to view the presentation that accompanies this event.

I'm not yet familiar enough with the model to summarise it eloquently, but I should state that it allows you to consider the role of teachers and learners, the environment in which the teacher carries out the teaching, and the space where a learner can carry out their own work.  The model also takes into account of the conversations (and learning) that can occur between peers.

Representation of the confersational framework which presents space for teacher, learner and other pratice and links between teacher, student and peers, indicating the types of conversations that can facilitate learning

During the presentation, I noted (or paraphrased) the words: 'the more iterations through the conversational model you do, the higher the quality of the learning you will obtain'.  Expanding this slightly, you could perhaps restate this by saying, 'the more opportunities to acquire new ideas, reflect on actions and receive feedback, the more familiar a learner will become with the subject that is the focus of study'.

In some respects, I consider the conversational framework to be a 'meta model' in the sense that it can (from my understanding) take account of different pedagogical approaches, as well as different technologies.

Links to accessibility

Another 'take away' note that I made whilst listening to the presentation was, 'learning theories are not going to change, but how these are used (and applied) will change, particularly with regards to technology'.

It was at this point when I began to consider my own areas of research.  I immediately began to wonder, 'how might this model be used to improve, enhance or understand the provision of accessibility?'  One way to do this is to consider each of the boxes the arrows that are used to graphically describe the framework.  Many of the arrows (those that are not labelled as reflections) may correspond to communications (or conversations) with or between actors.  These could be viewed as important junctures where the accessibility of the learning tools or environments that could be applied need to be considered.

Returning to the issue of technology, peers, for instance, may share ideas by posting comments to discussion forums.  These comments could then be consumed by other learners (through peer learning) and potentially permit a reformulation or strengthening of understandings.

Whilst learning technologies can permit the creation of digital learning spaces, such as those available through the application of virtual learning environments, designers of educational technologies need to take account of the accessibility of such systems to ensure that they are usable for all learners.

One of my colleagues is one step ahead of me.  Cooper writes, on a recent blog post,  'Laurillard uses [her framework] to analyse the use of media in learning. However this can be further extended to analyse the accessibility of all the media used to support these different conversations.'  The model, in essence, can be used to understand not only whether a particular part of a course is accessible (the term 'course' is used loosely here), but also be used to highlight whether there are some aspects of a course that may need further consideration to ensure that is as fully inclusive at it could be.

Returning to the theme of 'scenario', one idea might be to use a series of case studies to further consider how the framework might be used to reason about the accessibility status of a course.

Connections

There may be quite a few more connections lurking underneath the terms that were presented to the audience.  One question that I asked to myself was, 'how do these formative assessment patterns relate to the idea of learning designs?' (a subject that is the focus of a number of projects, including Cloudworks, enhancements to the Compendium authoring tool, the LAMS learning activity management system and the IMS learning design specification).

A pattern could be considered as something that could be used within a part of a larger learning design.  Another thought is that perhaps individual learning designs could be mapped onto specific elements of the conversational model.  Talking in computing terms, it could represent a specific instantiation (or instance).  Looking at it from another perspective, there is also the possibility that pedagogical patterns (whether e-assessment or otherwise) may provide inspiration to those who are charged with either constructing new or using existing learning designs.

Summary

During the course of the day, the audience were directed, on a number of occasions to the project Wiki.  One of the outcomes of the project was a literature review, which can be viewed on-line.

I recall quite a bit of debate surrounding the differences between guidelines, rules and patterns.  I also see links to the notion of learning designs too.  My understanding is that, depending on what you are referring to and your personal perspective, it may be difficult to draw clear distinctions between each of these ideas.

Returning to the issue of the conversational model being useful to expose accessibility issues, I'm glad that others before me have seen the same potential connection and I am now wondering whether there are other researchers who may have gone even further in considering the ways that the framework might be applied.

In my eyes, the idea of e-assessment patterns and the notion of learning designs are concepts that can be used to communicate and share distilled best practice.  It will be interesting to continue to observe the debates surrounding these terms to see whether a common vocabulary of useful abstractions will eventually emerge.  If they already exist, please feel free to initiate a conversation.  I'm always happy to learn.

Acknowlegements

Thanks are extended to Diana Laurillard who gave permission to share the presentation slide featured in this post.

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Inclusive Digital Economy Network event

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 9 Mar 2009, 09:29

I recently attended an event that was hosted by the Inclusive Digital Economy Network.  The network, led by the University of Dundee, comprises of a variety of groups who wish to collectively ensure that people are able to take advantage of digital technologies.

The event was led by Prof Alan Newell from Dundee.  Alan gracefully introduced a number of keynote speakers; the vice-chancellor from City University, the dean of Arts and Social Sciences and representatives from the government and the funding body: the EPSRC.

Drama

One really interesting part of the day was the use of 'theatre' to clearly illustrate the difficulties that some people can have when using information technology.  I had heard about the use of drama when I have spoken to people from Dundee before but this was the first time I was able to witness it.  In fact, I soon found out that I was going to witness a film premiere!

After the final credits had appeared, I was surprised to discover that two of the actors who played central roles in the film were in the audience.  The film was not the end of the ‘theatre’ event, it was the beginning.  The actors carried out an improvisation (using questions from the audience) that was based upon the roles we had been introduce to through the film.

The notion of drama and computing initially seemed to me to be a challenging combination, but any scepticism that had very quickly dissipated once the connections between the two areas became plainly apparently.  Drama and theatre relies on characters.  Computer systems and technologies are ultimately used by people.  The frustrations that people encounter when they are using computer systems manifest themselves in personal (and collective) dramas that might be as small as uttering the occasional expletive when your machine doesn't do what it supposed to do, to calling up a call centre to harass an equally confused call centre operative.

The lessons of the 'computing' or 'user' theatre were clear to see: the users should be placed centre stage when we think about the design of information systems.  They may understand things in ways that designers of systems may not have imagined.  A design metaphor that might make complete sense to an architect may seem to be completely nonsensical to an end user who has a totally different outlook and background.  Interaction design tools such as creating end user personas are powerful tools that can expose differences and help to create more usable systems.

Debates

I remember a couple of important (and interesting) themes from the day.  One theme (that was apparent to me) was occasional debate about the necessity to ensure that users are involved with the design of systems from the outset to ensure that any resulting products and systems are inclusive (user led design).  This connected to a call to 'keep the geeks from designing things'.  In my view, users must be involved with the creation of interactive systems, but the 'geeks' must be included too.  The reasons for this being that the geeks may imagine functionality that the users might not be aware exits.  This argument underlines the interdisciplinary nature of interaction design (wikipedia).

Much of the focus of the day was about how technology can support elderly people; how to create technologies and pedagogies that can promote digital inclusion.  Towards the end of the day there was a panel discussion from representatives from Help the Aged, a UK government organisation called the Technology Strategy Board, the BBC, OFCOM and the University of York.

Another them that I remember relates to the cost of both computing and assistive technologies.  There was some discussion about the possibility of integrating internet access within set top boxes (and a couple of comments relating to the Digital Britain report that was recently published by the UK government).  There was also some discussion about the importance of universal design (wikipedia) and tensions with personalised design (which connects to some of the themes underpinning the EU4ALL project).

Another recollection from the event was that some presenters stated that although there is much excellent work happening within the academic community (and within other organisations) some of the lessons learnt from research are often not taken forward into policy or practice.  This said, it may be necessary to take the recommendations from a number of different research projects to obtain a rich and complete understanding of a field before fully understanding how policy might be positively influenced.  The challenge is not only combining and understanding the results from different projects, but communicating the results.

Summary

Projects such as the Inclusive Digital Economy Network, from my outsiders perspective, attempt to bridge the gaps between different stakeholders and facilitate a free exchange of ideas and experiences that may point towards areas of investigation that can allow us learn more how digital technologies can make a difference to us all.

Acknowledgements: many thanks are extended to the organisers of the event – an interesting day!

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Source code accessibility through audio streams

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 21 Jul 2010, 18:12

A screenshot of some source code being edited by a software developer

One of my colleagues volunteers for the Open University audio recording project.  The audio recording project takes course material produced by course teams and makes audio (spoken) equivalents for people with visual impairments.  Another project that is currently underway is the digital audio project which aims to potentially take advantage of advances in technology, mobile devices and international standards.

Some weeks ago, my colleague tweeted along the lines of 'it must be difficult for people with visual disabilities to learn how computer programs are written and structured' (I am heavily paraphrasing, of course!)  As soon as I read this tweet I began to think about two questions.  The first question was: how do I go about learning how a fragment of source code works? and secondly, what might be the best way to convert a function or a 'slice' of programming code into an audio representation that helps people to understand what it does and how it is structured?

Learning from source code

How do I learn how a fragment of source code works?  More often than not I view code through an integrated development environment, using it to navigate through the function (or functions) that I have to learn.  If I am faced with some code that is really puzzling I might reach for some search tools to uncover the connections between different parts of the system.

If the part of the code that I am looking at is quite small and extremely puzzling, I might go as far as grab a pen and paper and begin to sketch out some notes, taking down some of the expressions that may appear to be troubling and maybe split these apart into their constituent components.  I might even try to run the various code fragments by hand.  If I get really confused I might use the 'immediate' window of my development environment ask my computer to give me some hints about the code I am currently examining.

When trying to understand some new source code my general approach is to try to have a 'conversation' with it, asking it questions and looking at it from a number of different perspectives.  In the psychology of programming literature some researchers have written about developers using 'top down' and 'bottom up' strategies.  You might have a high level hypothesis about what something does on one hand, but on the other, sections of code might help you to understand the 'bigger picture' or the intentions behind a software system.

In essence, I think understanding software is a really hard task.  It is harder and more challenging than many people seem to imagine.  Not only do you have to understand the language that is used to describe a world, but you also have to understand the language of the world that is described.  The world of the machine and the world of the problem are intrinsically and intimately connected through what can sometimes seem an abstract collection of words and symbols.  Your task, as a developer, is to make sense of two hidden worlds.

I digress slightly... If learning about computer programming code is a hard task, then it is possible that it is likely to be harder for people with visual impairments.  I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to be presented with a small computer program or a function that has been read out to you.  Much of the 'secondary notation', such as tabbing and white space can be easily lost if there are no mechanisms to enable them to be presented through another modality.  There is also the danger that your working memory may become quickly overwhealmed with names of identifiers and unfamiliar sounding functions.

Assistive technology for everyone

The tasks of learning the fundamentals of programming and learning about a program are different, yet related.  I have heard it said that people with disabilities are given real help if technologies are created that are useful for a wide audience.  A great example of this is, for example, optical character recognition.  Whilst OCR technology can save a great deal of cost typing, it has also created tools that enable people with low vision to scan and read their post.

Bearing the notion of 'a widely applicable technology' in mind, could it be possible to create a system that creates an interactive audio description that could potentially help with the teaching of some of the concepts of computer programming for all learners?

Whenever I read code I immediately begin to translate the notion of code into my own 'internal' notation (using different types of memory, both internal and external - such as scraps of paper!) to iteratively internalise and make sense of what I am being presented with.  Perhaps equivalents of programming code could be created in a form that could be navigated.  Code it not something that you read in a linear fashon - code is something you work with.

If an interesting and useful (and interactive) audio equivalent of programming code could be created there then might be the potential that these alternative forms might be useful to all students, not only to learners who necessarily require auditory equivalents.

Development directions

There are a number of tools that could help us to create what might amount to 'interactive audio descriptions of programming code'.  The first is the idea of plan or schema theory (wikipedia) – the notion that your understanding of something is drawn from previous experience.  Some theorists from the Psychology of Programming have extended and drawn upon these ideas, positing ideas such as key lines of code such as beacons.

Another is Green's Cognitive Dimensions framework (wikipedia).  Another area to consider looking at is the interesting sub-field of Computer Science Education research.  There must be other tools, frameworks and ideas that can be drawn upon.

Have you got a sec?

Another approach that I sometimes take when trying to understand something is that I ask other more experienced people for help.  I might ask the question, 'what does this section represent?' or, 'what does this section do?'  The answers from collegues can be instrumental in helping me to understand the purpose behind fragments of programming code.

Considering browsing

I can almost imagine what could be an audio code browser that has some functionality that allows you to change between different levels of abstraction.  At one level, you may be able to navigate through sets of different functions and hear descriptions of what they are intended to do and hope to receive by way of parameters (which could be provided through comments).  On another level there may be summaries of groups of instructions, like loops, with descriptions that might sound like, 'a foreach loop that contains four other statements and a call to two functions'.  Finally, you may be able to tab into a group of statements to learn about what variables are manipulated, and how.

Of course this is all very technical stuff, and it could be stuff that has already been explored before.  If you know of similar (or related) work, please feel free to drop me a line!

Acknowledgement: random image of code by elliotcable, licenced under creative commons, discovered using Flickr.

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How Moodle block editing works: database (part 2)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 21 Jul 2010, 18:05

Pattern of old computer tapes intended to represent databases

This is a second blog entry about how Moodle manages its blocks (which can be found either at a site level or at a course level).  In my previous post I wrote about the path of execution I discovered within the main Moodle index.php file.  I discovered that the version of Moodle that I was using presented blocks using tables, and that blocks made use of some interesting object-oriented features of PHP to create the HTML code that is eventually presented to the end user.

This post has two objectives.  The first is to present something about the database structures that are used to store information about which blocks are stored where, and secondly to explore what happens when an administrator clicks on the various block editing functions.  The intention behind this post is to understand Moodle in greater detail to uncover a little more of how it has been designed.

Blocks revisited

Screen grab of the latest news block with moving and deletion editing icons

Blocks, as mentioned earlier, are pieces of functionality that can sit on the left hand or right hand borders of courses (or the main Moodle site page).  Blocks can present a whole range of functions ranging from news items through to RSS feeds.

Blocks can be moved around within a course page with relative ease by using the Moodle edit button.  Once you click on ‘edit’ (providing it is there and you have the appropriate level of permissions), you can begin to add, remove and move blocks around using a couple of icons that are presented.  Clicking on the left icon moves the block to the left hand margin, clicking the down arrow icon changes its vertical position and so on.

One of my objectives with this post is to understand what happens when these various buttons are clicked on.  What I am hoping to see are clearly defined functions which will be called something like moveBlockUp, moveBlockDown or deleteBlock.

Perhaps with future versions it might be possible to have a direct manipulation interface (wikipedia) where rather than having buttons to press, users will be able to drag blocks around to rapidly customise course displays.  Proposing ideas and problems to be solved is a whole lot more easier than going ahead and solving them.  Also, to happily prove there’s no such thing as an original thought, I have recently uncovered a Moodle documentation page.  It seems that this idea has been floating around since 2006.

Before I delve into trying to uncover how each of the Moodle block editing buttons work, it is worthwhile spending some time to look at how Moodle remembers what block is placed where.  This requires looking at the database.

Remembering block location

I open up my database manipulation tool (SqlYog) and begin to browse through the database tables that are used with Moodle.  I quickly spot a bunch of tables that contain the name block.  One that seems to be particularly relevant is a table called block_instance.

The action of creating a course (and adding blocks to it) seems to create a whole bunch of records in the block_instance.  Block_instance appears to be the table that Moodle uses to remember what block should be displayed and when.

The below graphic is an excerpt from the block_instance data table:

Fragment of the block_instance datatable showing a number of different fields

The field weight seems to relate to the vertical order of blocks on the screen (I initially wondered whether it related to, in some way, some kind of graphical shading, thinking of the way that HTML uses the term weight).  Removing a block from a course seems to change the data within this table.

The blockid seems to link each entry within block_instance to data items held within the  Block table:

Fragment of the blocks table, showing the field headings and the data items

The names held within the name field (such as course_summary) are connected to the programming code that relates to a particular block.  The cron (and the lastcron) relate to regular processes that Moodle must execute.  With the default installation of Moodle everything is visible, and at the time of writing I have no idea what multiple means.

Returning to block_instance, does the pageid field relate to the id used in the course?  Looking at the course table seems to add weight to his hypothesis.

I continue my search for truth by rummaging around in the Moodle documentation, discovering a link to the database schema and uncover some Block documentation that I haven’t seen before (familiarity with material is a function of time!)  This provides a description of the block development system as described by the original developer.

Knowing that these two tables are now used to store block location my question from this point onwards is: how does this table get updated?

Database updates

To answer this question I applied something that I have called ‘the law of random code searching’: if you don’t know what to look for and you don’t know how things work, carry out a random code search to see what the codebase tells you.  Using my development environment I search to find out where the block_instance datatable is updated.

Calls to the database to be spread out over a number of files: blocks, lib, accesslib, blocklib, moodlelib, and chat/lib (amongst others).  This seems to indicate that there is quite a lot of coupling between the different sections of code (which is probably a bad thing when it comes to understanding the code and carrying out maintenance).

Software comprehension is sometimes an inductive process.  Occasionally you just need to read through a code file to see if it can yield any clues about its design, its structure and what it does.  I decided to try this approach for each of the files my search results window pointed to:

Accesslib
Appears to access control (or permission management) to parts of Moodle.  The comments at the top of the file mention the notion of a ‘context’ (which is a badly overloaded word).  The comments provide me no clue as to the context in which context is used.  The only real definition that I can uncover is the database description documentation which states, ‘a context is a scope in Moodle, for example the whole system, a course, a particular activity’.  In AccessLib, there are some hardcoded definitions for different contexts, i.e. CONTEXT_SYSTEM, CONTEXT_USER, CONTEXT_COURSECAT and so on.

The link to the blocks_instance database lies within a huge function called create_context which updates a database table of the same name.  I’ve uncovered a forum explanation that sheds a little more light onto the matter, but to be honest, the purpose of these functions is going to take some time to uncover.  There is a clue that the records held within the context table might be cached for performance reasons.  Moving on…

Moodlelib

Block_instance is mentioned in a function named remove_course_contents which apparently ‘clears out a course completely, deleting all content but don’t delete the course itself’.  When this function is called, modules and blocks are removed from the course.  Moodlelib is described as ‘main library file of miscellaneous general-purpose Moodle functions’ (??), but there is a reference towards another library called weblib which is described as ‘functions that provide web output’.

Blocks
A comment at the top of the blocks.php file states that it ‘allows the admin to configure blocks (hide/show, delete and configure)’.  There is some code that retrieves instances of a block and then deletes the whole block (but in what ‘context’ this is done, at the moment it’s not clear).

Blocklib
The file contains the lion’s share of references to the block_instance database.  It is said to include ‘all the necessary stuff to use blocks in course pages’ (whatever that means!)  At the top there are some constants for actions corresponding to moving a block around a course page.  Database calls can be found within blocks_delete_instance, blocks_have_content, blocks_print_group and so on.  The blocks_move_block seems to adjust the contents of the database to take account of moment.  There also appears to be some OO type magic going on that I’m not quite sure about.  Perhaps the term ‘instance’ is being used in too many different ways.  I would agree with the coder: blocklib does all kinds of ‘stuff’.

Lib files
Reference to block_instance can be found in lib files for three different blocks: chat, lesson and quiz.  The functions that contain the call to the database relate to the removing of an ‘instance’ of these blocks.  As a result, records from the block_instance table are removed when the functions are called.

So, what have I learnt by reading all this stuff?  I’ve seen how the database stores stuff, that there is a slippery notion of a course context (and mysterious paths), and know the names of some files that do the block editing work, but I’m not quite sure how.  There is quite a lot of complexity that has not yet been uncovered and understood.

Digressions

I have a cursory glance through the lib folder to see what else I can discover and find an interestingly named script file entitled womenslib.php.  Curious, I open it and see a redirect to a wikipedia page.  The Moodle developers obviously have a sense of humour but unfortunately mine had failed!  This minor diversion was unwelcome (humour failure exception), costing me both time and ‘head’ space!

Bizarrely I also uncover seemingly random list of words (wordlist.txt) that begins: ‘ape, baby, camel, car, cat, class, dog, eat …’ etc.  Wondering whether one of the developers had attended the famous Dali school of software engineering, I searched for a file reference to this mysterious ‘wordlist’.

It appeared that our mysterious list of words was referenced in the lib\setup.php file, where a path to our  worldlist was stored in what I assumed to be a Moodle configuration variable.  How might this file be used?  It appears it is used within a function called generate_password.

Thankfully the developers have been kind enough to say where they derived some of their inspiration from.   The presence of the wordlist is explained by the need to construct a function to create pronounceable automatically generated passwords (but perhaps only in English?)

This was all one huge digression.  I pulled myself together just enough to begin to uncover what happens when a user clicks on either the block move up, down, or delete buttons when a course is running in edit mode.

Button click action

Returning to the task in hand, I add two blocks (both in the right hand column, and one situated on top of the other) to my local Moodle site with a view to understanding that function code that contributes to the moveBlockUp and deleteBlock functionality.

4815869094_9c27f1aaf4.jpg

I take a look at the links that correspond to the move up and the delete icons.  I notice that the action of clicking sends a bunch of parameters to the main Moodle index.php.  The parameters are sent via get (which means they are sent as a part of the hypertext link).  They are: instanceid (which comes straight out of the block_instance table), sesskey (which reminds me, I really must try to understand how Moodle handles sessions (wikipedia) at some point), and a blockaction parameter (which is either moveup or delete in the case of this scenario).

The question here is: what happens within index.php?  Luckily, I have a debugger that will be able to tell me (or, at least, help me!)

I log in as an administrator through my debugger.  When I have established a session, I then add some breakpoints on my index.php code and launch the index.php code using the parameters for ‘move activity upwards’.

Index.php begins to execute, and a call to page_create_object is made. It looks like a new object is created.  An initialisation function within the page_base class is called (contained within pagelib).  A blocks_setup function is called and block positions from the block_instance database is retrieved.  After some further tracking I end up at a function called blocks_execute_url_action.  The instanceid is retrieved and a call is made to blocks_execute_action where the block action (moveup or delete) is passed in as a parameter with the block instance record that has just been retrieved from the database.

In blocks_execute_action a 'mother of all switch statements' makes a decision about what should be done next.  After some checks, two update commands to the database are issued through the update_record function updated weight values (to change the order of the respective blocks).  With all the database changes complete, a page redirect occurs to index.php.  Now that the database has the correct representation of where each block should be situated index.php can now go ahead and display them.

Is the same mechanism used for course pages?

A very cursory understanding tells me that the course/view.php script has quite a lot to do with the presentation of courses, and at this point gathering an understanding of it is proving to be elusive.  Let’s see what I can find.

4815245535_c6182b86b1.jpg

Initially it does seem that the index.php script controls the display of a Moodle site and course/view.php script does control the course display.  Moving the mouse over the ‘move block up’ icons reveals a hyperlink to the view.php script with get parameters of: id (which corresponds to the course number held within the course data table), instance id (which corresponds to a record within the block_instance table) and sesskey and blockaction parameters (as with index.php).

To get a rough understanding of how things work, I do something similar as before: open up a session through my debugger and launch the view.php with this bunch parameters.  The view.php course is striking.  It doesn’t seem to be very long and nor does it produce any HTML so it looks like there’s something subtle going on.

In view.php, there are some parameter safety checks, followed by some context_instance magic, checking of the session key followed by calls to the familiar page_create_object (mentioned in the earlier section).  Blocks_setup is then called, followed by blocks_get_by_page_pinned and blocks_get_by_page which asks the database which blocks are associated to this particular page (which is a course page).

Like earlier, there is a call to blocks_execute_url_action when updates the database to carry out the action that the administrator clicked on.  At the end of the database update there is a redirect.  Instead of going to index, the redirect is to view.php along with a single parameter which corresponds to the course id.

This raises the question: what happens after the view.php redirect?

Redirect to view.php

When view.php makes a call to the database to get the data that corresponds to the course id number it has been given.  There is then a check to make sure that the user who is requesting the page is logged into Moodle and eventually our old friends page_create_object and blocks_setup are called, but this time since no buttons have been clicked on, we don’t redirect to another page after we have updated the database.

Towards the end of view.php we can begin to see some magic that begins to produce the HTML that will be presented to the user.  There is a call to print_header.  There is then a script include (using the PHP keyword ‘required’) which then creates the bulk of the page that is presented to the user, building the HTML to present the individual blocks.  When running within my debugger, the script course/format/weeks/format.php was included.  The script that is chosen depends on the format of the course that has been chosen.  When complete, view.php adds the footer and the script ends.

Summary

So, what have I learnt from all this messing about?

It seems that (broadly speaking) the code used to move blocks around on the main Moodle site is also used to move blocks around on a course page, but perhaps this isn’t too surprising (but it is reassuring).  I still have no idea what ‘pinned blocks’ means or what the corresponding data table is for but I’m sure I’ll figure it out in time!

Another thing that I have learnt is that the view course and the main index.php pages are built in different ways.  As a result, if I ever need to change the underlying design or format of a course, I now know where to look (not that I ever think this is something that I’ll need to do!)

I have seen a couple of references to AJAX (MoodleDocs) but I have to confess that I am not much wiser about what AJAX style functionality is currently implemented within the version of Moodle I have been playing with.  Perhaps this is one of those other issues that will become clearer with time (and experience).

One thing, however, does strike me: the database and the user interface components are very closely tied together (or closely coupled) which may make, in some cases, change difficult.  One of the things that I have on my perpetual ‘todo’ list is to have a long hard look at the Fluid Project, but other activities must currently take precedence.

This pretty much concludes my adventure into the world of Moodle blocks. There’s a whole load of Moodle related stuff that I hope to look at (and hopefully describe) at some point in the future: groups, roles, contexts, and forums.  Wish me luck!

Acknowlegements: Image from lifeontheedge, licenced under Creative Commons.

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How Moodle block editing works : displaying a block (part 1)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 21 Jul 2010, 17:58

A photograph of a car engine

One of the great things about Moodle (other than the number of databases it can use!) is the way that courses can be easily created and edited.  One of its best features is the edit button that can be found at the top of many pages.  Administrators and course managers can push this button and quickly add and remove functionality to redesign a course or a site within seconds.

This blog post is the first in a series of two (but might even extend to three) that aims to answer the question of: how does the Moodle block editing magic work?  To answer this question I found that it was useful to split this big question into a number of smaller questions.  These are: how are blocks presented to the user?, how are block layouts stored in the Moodle database?, and what happens when the user clicks on the edit button and makes changes to the layout of a site or a course?

There are two reasons for wanting to answer to these questions.  The first is that knowing something about this key part of Moodle might help me to understand more about its architecture which might help me in the future if I have to make any changes as a part of the EU4ALL project.  The second is pure curiosity, particularly regarding the database tables and structures - I would like to know how they work.

There are two broad approaches that I could take to answer these questions: look at things from the top down, or from the bottom up.  I could either look at how the user interfaces are created, or I could have a look at the database to see if I can find data tables that might be used to store data that is used when the Moodle user interface is created.  In the end I used a combination of top down and bottom up approaches to understand a bit of what is going on.

This post will present what I have learnt about how Moodle presents blocks.  The second post will be about what I have found out about the database and how it works (in relation to Moodle blocks) and what happens when you click on the various block editing icons.

There will be load of detail which will remain unsaid and I’ll be skipping over loads of code subtleties that I haven’t yet fully understood!  I’ll also be opinionated, so advance apologies to and Moodle developers who I might inadvertently offend.  I hope my opinions are received with positive spirit, which is the way that they are intended.

Introducing blocks

Blocks are bits of functionality which sit on either side of a Moodle site or course.  They can do loads of stuff: provide information to students about their assignment dates, and provide access to discussion forums.  When first looking at Moodleworld, I had to pause a moment to distinguish between blocks, resources and activities.  Blocks, it might be argued, are pieces of functionality that can support your learning, whilst activities and resources may be a central part of your learning (but don’t quote me on that!)

Screen grab of an administrator editing a Moodle course

Not long after starting looking at the blocks code, I discovered a developer page on the subject.  This was useful.  I soon found out that apparently there are plans to improve the block system for the next version of Moodle.  The developers have created an interestingly phrased bug to help guide the development of the next release.  This said, all the investigations reported here relate to version 1.9+, so things may very well have moved on.

Looking at Index

Blocks can be used in at least two different ways: on the main Moodle site area (which is seen when you enter a URL which corresponds to a Moodle installation) and within individual courses.  I immediately suspect that there is some code that is common between both of them.  To make things easy for myself, I’ve decided (after a number of experiments) to look at how blocks are created for a Moodle site.

To start to figure out how things work the first place that I look at is the index.php file.  (I must confess that I actually started to try to figure out what happened when you click on the editing button, but this proved to be too tough, so I backtracked…)

So, what does the index.php file do?  I soon discover a variable called $PAGE and asked the innocuous question of ‘why are some Moodle variables in UPPERCASE and others in lowercase?’ I discover an answer in the Moodle coding guidelines.  Anything that is in uppercase appears to be global variables.  I try to find a page that describes the purpose of the different global variables, but I fail, instead uncovering a reference to session variables, leaving me wondering what the $PAGE class is all about.

Pressing on I see that there are some functions that seem to calculate the width of the left and the right hand areas where the blocks are displayed.  There is also some code that seems to generate some standard HTML for a header (showing the Moodle instance title and login info).

The index page then changes from PHP to HTML and I’m presented with a table.  This surprises me a little.  Tables shouldn’t really be used for formatting and instead should only be used to present data.  It seems that the table is used to format the different portions of the screen, dividing it unto the left hand bunch of columns, a centre part where stuff is displayed, and a right hand column. 

It appears that the code that co-ordinates the printing of the left and right blocks is very similar, with the only difference being different parameters to indicate whether things appear on the left, and things appear on the right.

The index file itself doesn’t seem to display very much, so obviously the code that creates the HTML for the different blocks is to be found in other parts of the Moodle programming.

Seeding program behaviour

To begin to explore how different blocks are created I decide to create some test data.  I add a single block to the front page of Moodle and position it at the top on the right hand side:

Screen shot showing empty news block

Knowing that I have one block that will be displayed, I can the trace through the code when the ‘create right hand side’ code is executed using my NuSphere debugger to see what is called and when.

One thing that I’m rather surprised about is how much I use the different views that my debugger offers.  It really helps me to begin learn about the structure of the codebase and the interdependencies between the different files and functions.

Trying to understand the classes

It soon becomes apparent that the developers are making use of some object-oriented programming features.  In my opinion I think this is exactly the right thing to do.  I hold the view that if you define the problem in the right way then its solution (in terms of writing the code that connects the different definitions together) can be easy, providing that you write things well (this said, I do come from a culture of Java and C# and brought up, initially, on a diet of Pascal).

After some probing around there seem to be two libraries that seem to be immediately important to know about: weblib and blocklib.  The comments at the top of weblib describes it as ‘library of all general-purpose Moodle PHP functions and constants that produce HTML output’.  Blocklib is described as, ‘all the necessary stuff to use blocks in course pages’.

In index, there is a call to a function called blocks_setup (blocks, I discover, can be pinned true, pinned both, or pinned false – block pinning is associated to lessons, something that I haven’t studied).  This function appears to call another function named   blocks_get_by_page (passing it the $PAGE global).  This function returns a data structure that contains two arrays.  One array is called l and the other is called r.  I’m assuming here that array data has been pulled from the database.

The next function that follows is called blocks_have_content. This function does quite a bit.  It takes the earlier data structure, and translates the block number (which corresponds to which block is to be displayed on the page) and converts it into a block name through a database call.  The code then uses this name to instantiate an object whose class is similar to the block name (it does this by prepending ‘block_’ to the start).

There is something to be cautious about here: there is a dependency between the contents of the database (which are added to when the Moodle database is installed) and the name of the class.  If either one of these were to change the blocks would not display properly.

The class that corresponds to the news block is named ‘block_news_items’.  This class is derived from (or inherits) another class called block_base that is defined within the file moodleblock.class.php.  A similar pattern is followed with other blocks.

Is_empty()

Following the program flow, there is a call to a function called is_empty() within blocklib.php.   This code strikes me as confusing since is_empty should only be doing one thing.  Is_empty appears to have a ‘side effect’ of storing the HTML for a block that comes from a call to get_content to a variable called ‘content’.  Functions should only do what they say they do.  Anything else risks increasing the burden of program comprehension and maintenance.

The Moodle codebase contains several versions of get_content, one for each of the different blocks that can be displayed.  The version that is called depends on which object Moodle is currently working through.  Since there is only one block, the get_content function within block_news_items is called.  It then returns some HTML that describes how the block will be presented. 

This HTML will be stored to the structure which originally described which block goes where.  If you look through the pageblocks variable, the HTML can be found by going to either the left or right array, looking in the ‘obj’ field, then going to ‘content’.  In ‘content’ you will find a further field called ‘text’ that contains the HTML that is to be displayed.

When all the HTML has been safely stored away in memory it is almost ready to be printed (or presented to a web client). 

Calls to print_container_start() and print_container_end() delineate a call to blocks_print_group.  In this function there will then be a database call to check to see if the block is visible and then a call to _print_block() is made.  This is a member function of a class, as indicated by the proceeding underscore.  The _print_block() can be found within the moodleblock.class file.  This function (if you are still following either me or the code!) makes a call to print_side_block function (which is one of those general purpose PHP functions) contained within weblib.php.

Summary and towards part 2

I guess my main summary is that to create something that is simple and easy to use can require quite a lot of complicated code.

My original objective was to try to understand the mechanisms underpinning the editing and customising of course (particularly blocks) but I have not really looked at the differences between how blocks presented within the course areas and how blocks are presented on the main site.  Learning about how things work has been an interesting exercise.  One point that I should add is that from an accessibility perspective, the use of tables for layout purposes should ideally be avoided.

What is great is that there is some object-oriented code beginning to appear within the Moodle codebase.  What is confusing (to me, at least) is the way that some data structures can be so readily changed (or added to) by PHP.  I hold the opinion that stronger data types can really help developers to understand the code that they are faced with since they constrain the actions that can be carried out to those types.  I also hold the view that data stronger typing can really help your development since you give your development tools more of an opportunity to help you (through presenting you with autocomplete or intellisense options), but these opinions probably reflect my earlier programming background and experience.

On the subject of data types, the next post in this series will be about how the Moodle database stores information about the blocks that are seen on the screen.  Hopefully this might fill the gaps of this post where the word ‘database’ is mentioned.

Acknowlegement
: Picture by zoologist, from Flickr.  Licenced under creative commons.

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Big wins in accessibility?

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 21 Jul 2010, 13:33

A sign in a field which says: no visitor access beyond this point

In 2004 a report was published by the Disability Rights Commission (now known as the Equality and Human Rights Commission) that explored the state of website accessibility.  The DRC report, which is also summarised bythe on-law website analysed one thousand different web sites and evaluated their accessibility against the WCAG 1.0 guidelines.  It was concluded that 81% of the sites that were surveyed failed to reach the lowest level of accessibility (level A).

This statistic is surprising because it is such an alarmingly high figure.  This causes me to ask a closely related question: what does not being able to access websites mean?  One answer is that it can mean some people being unable to access goods, services and information.  It may also mean not being able to use tools that can be used to communicate with others.

Another question (and perhaps this is not a 'million dollar' question, but a 'multi-million dollar' question) is: what could we do to reduce this figure?  The DRC report presents a set of very sensible recommendations for different stakeholders: support service providers, assistive technology providers, operating system developers, website developers and owners, and developers of checking tools.

An alternative vision?

I think there is another approach that we could use.  The world-wide-web would not be what it is today without open source software (OSS).  You could even consider OSS to be the web’s backbone.  OSS powers the programming languages used to create open source operating systems (Linux).  These operating systems can play host to open source web servers (Apache), which in turn can offer functionality by through open-source software development frameworks build using open-source programming languages.

Some open source developments are more popular than others.  There may be a whole range of reasons that might contribute to success or popularity.  Usually it amounts to a vigorous development community and the fact that a product happens to solve a precise problem very well.

The 81% figure mentioned earlier relates only to web sites.  Many open source software developments are created especially to make it easier for other developers to build and manage different types of end-user facing web-based applications.

If we take the argument that there are open source software packages that are used to power web sites, and acknowledge the fact that some open source applications are likely to be more popular than others, we could argue that by improving the accessibility of certain web frameworks we might be able to reduce that 81% figure.

Of course, there is the difference between making changes to a software framework to make it more accessible to users, and making the materials that are presented using a framework more accessible.  Rather than tacking these two issues together, let's just thing about choosing software frameworks.

Choosing frameworks to explore

I use the web for loads of things.  I use it to both write and consume blogs.  I also use the web to buy stuff (especially around Christmas time!)  Very occasionally I might poke my head into on-line discussion forums, especially those that discuss programming or software development related topics.  I also browse to news portals (such as the BBC), and find myself on various information exchanges. 

In essence, I use the web for a whole range of different stuff.  If I take each of my personal 'web use cases', I can probably find an open source application that supports each of these tasks.  Let’s begin with the most obvious.  Let’s begin with blogs.

Blogging tools

Here, I have two questions: how accessible are blogging tools (to both read and write entries), and what blogging tools are out there?

I don’t know the answer to the first question, but I suspect that their accessibility could be improved.  On some sites you are presented with a whole range of different adverts and links.  Headings and tagging may be mysterious.  The blog editing tools may present users with a range of confusing icons and popups.  This is a topic ripe for investigation.

But what tools are out there?  A quick exploration of Wikipedia takes you to an article called Weblog software.  Immediately we are overwhelmed with a list of free and open source software.  But which are the most popular?  A quick poke around reveals two popular contenders for accessibility evaluation: Moveable Type and WordPress

A related question is: how many blogs do these systems collectively represent?  WordPress, for example, claims to be used with 'hundreds of thousands of sites' (and seen by tens of millions of people everyday), and reported 3.8 million downloads in 2007.  These are impressive figures.

Content management systems

Blogs are often referred to in the same sentence as a broader category of web software known as content management systems (or CMS for short).  As always, a quick probe around in Wikipedia reveals an interesting page entitled List of Content Management Systems. It appears there are loads of them!

CMS systems are used for different things.  You might use a CMS to create a way to more easily manage a static website that represents the 'store front' of a company or organisation (or brochureware sites, as I believe they might be know).  If used in this way a CMS can make the task of making updates a lot easier: you might not need a web designer to modify HTML code or add new files. Some CMS systems contain integrated blog tools.  As well as representing a store front, there might be a 'product' or 'service blog' to provide information to customers about new developments.

You might also use a CMS as an information portal.  A charity might use a CMS to provide fact sheets or articles on a particular subject.  A CMS may also provide additional functionality such as discussion forums, allowing users to share points of view on particular subjects.

A simple question is: which are the most popular open source content management systems?  This simple question is not easy to answer. It strikes me that you have to be closely involved with the world of content management systems to begin to answer this question effectively.  This said, a couple of systems jump out at me, all of which seem to have funny names.  Three systems that I have directly heard of are: Joomla!, Mambo and Drupal.  Other interesting systems include TangoCMS and PHPNuke

Unfortunately it is difficult to get a clear and unambiguous picture of how many web sites are created by these systems.  You cannot always tell by looking at the code of a website which content management system is has been created by.  This said, some research has been performed to explore other measures of popularity, such as downloads and search engine ranking values.  (Waterandstone Open Source CMS market share report - 5mb PDF)

What is certain, exploring the status of accessibility of one content management system may have a positive impact on wider set of websites.

Shopping

E-commerce isn’t the preserve of on-line megastores like Amazon.  Small specialist shops selling anything from diet pet food through to hi-fi speaker cables have the potential to become global 'clicks-and-mortar' retailers.

Some content management systems can be extended by installing additional 'blocks' to  add e-commerce functionality.  There is also a category of software that could be loosely described as shopping cart software (there is also a Wikipedia shopping software comparison page for the curious).  Further probing uncovers a category entitled Free electronic commerce software.

Following the links to osCommerce website, some interesting claims can be revealed.  It is stated that over fourteen thousand shops using this one platform have been voluntary added to a directory of on-line businesses. 

I also clicked on another shopping site provider: CubeCart. Although not an open source platform, CubeCart claims that it is used by a 'million store owners around the world'.  It is interesting to note that accessibility is not one of its selling points.

Community sites or forums

Content management systems have begun to step on the toes of what might be considered to be an older category of web software: community or on-line discussion forums.  As ever, Wikipedia is useful, offering a comparison page. Whatever your interest, there will be a forum on the web in which you can share opinions and experience with others.  Forums should be accessible too.

Summary

Creating a web site, or a web based application is hard work (in my opinion).  There is so much to think about: information architecture, graphical design, HTML coding, databases, CSS files.  To help you, there are loads of software development frameworks that can help out.  Many of these frameworks are open source, which means you can modify software so it can match your precise needs.

Another great thing about open source software is that if you find a framework that does not generate HTML code that is accessible as it could be, any improvements that you make has the potential to affect a wider user community of both developers and end users.

What is not clear, however, is the precise extent of the accessibility of some of the software frameworks that have been presented here.  Whilst it is true that accessibility is more a matter of changing or correcting programming code, exploring some of these projects in depth may be one way to increase the accessibility and on-line experience for the benefit of all web users.

Acknowlegements

Posting image, licenced under creative commons from chough, from Flickr.

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Reflections on learning object granularity

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 1 Sep 2020, 07:57

4815260870_ea30750a28.jpg

I first discovered the notion of learning object granularity when I was tasked with creating my first learning object.  I was using an authoring tool that allowed you to describe (or tag) absolutely anything.  This was a revelation!  My tool allowed me to assign descriptions to individual photographs and sets of navigable pages that could contain any type of digital media you could imagine.  You could also assign descriptions to an entire learning object.  Not only was I struggling with how to use the fields (title, description, keywords) that I had to complete, it was also difficult to know where I should stop!

Terms of reference

There are a significant number of terms here that beg further explanation.  The idea of a learning object (wikipedia) is one that is slippery: it varies depending upon who you speak to.  I see a learning object as one or more digital resources that have the potential to provide useful information to, or serve a useful function for, a consumer.  Consumers, I argue, are both the end-users (learners), and those who might use learning objects within a course of study.

An alternative definition might be: a set of learning resources that can be used together to help a learner achieve a defined set of learning objectives.  I think I prefer this second definition.  It feels a little more precise, but there are few words that allude to how large a learning object might be.

Benefits of learning objects

One of the often cited benefits of learning objects is that they have the potential to be reused.  A digital resource could be taken from one learning situation could be reused (or repurposed) to another situation.  The benefits could include an increase in the quality of the resulting material and possible savings in terms of time and money.

Learning objects are sometimes held within mysterious instruments called repositories.  If existing materials are taken and modified, they could then be later returned to a repository and placed back into circulation for other people can use and modify, thus creating a virtuous cycle.  One problem with placing material in a repository is that if your repository contains tens of thousands of individual objects, finding what you want (to solve your particular teaching need) can become difficult (as well as tedious).

Metadata (wikipedia) has the ability to 'augment’ textual searching, potentially increasing the quality of search results.  Metadata also has the ability to offer you additional information or guidance about what an object might contain and how it might have been used, allowing you to make judgements regarding its applicability in your own teaching context.

There is a paradox: the more granular (or mutable) a learning object is, the more easily it can be reused, but the less useful it is likely to be.  The larger a learning object is, the more useful it is to an individual user (since it may attempt to satisfy a set of learning objectives), and the less likely it could be transferred or 'repurposed' to different learning and teaching contexts or situations.  Furthermore, the smaller the learning object, the more moral fibre one needs to successfully create correct (and relevant) metadata.

Repurposing

'Repurposing' is a funny word. I understand it to mean that you take something that already exists and modify it so it becomes useful for your own situation. I think repurposing is intrinsically difficult.  I don't think it's hard in the sense that it's difficult to change or manipulate different types of digital resources (providing you already have skills to use the tools to effect a change).  I think it's hard because of the inherent dependencies that exist within an object.  You have to remember to take care of all those little details. 

I consider repurposing akin to writing an essay. To write a really good essay you have to first understand the material, secondly understand the question that you are writing about, and then finally, understand who you are writing it for.  If you write an essay that consists of paragraphs which have been composed in such a way that they could be used in other essays, I sense you will end up with an essay that is somewhat unsatisfactory (and rather frustrating to read).

There is something else that can make learning object repurposing difficult.  Learning objects are often built with authoring tools.  Some tools begin with a source document and then spit out a learning object at the other end.  The resulting object may (or may not) contain the source from which it was created.  This is considered to be 'destructive' (or one way) 'authoring', where the resulting material is difficult to modify.

Even if we accept that reuse is difficult, there are other reasons why it is not readily performed.  One reason is that there is no real sense of prestige in using other people materials (but you might get some credit if you find something that is particularly spectacular!).  Essentially, employers don't pay people to re-purpose learning materials; they pay people to convey useful and often difficult ideas of learners in a way that is understandable.  There is no reward structure or incentive to reuse existing material or build material that can be easily reused.  Repurposing takes ingenuity and determination, but within the end result, much of this may be hidden.

There is a final reason why people may like to create and use their own learning resources rather than reuse the work of others.  The very act of creating a resource allows one to acquire an intimate understanding of the very subject that you are intending on teaching.  Creating digital resources is a creative act.  Learning object construction can be constructivism used to prepare for teaching.

Considering metadata granularity

The terms 'aggregate' (or 'composite') and 'atomic' objects are sometimes used when talking about learning objects.  An atomic object, quite simply, are objects  that cannot be decomposed.  An atomic object might well be an image or a sound file, whereas an aggregate object might be a content package or a SCORM object.

In my opinion, many aggregate objects should be considered and treated as atomic objects since it could be far too difficult, complex and expensive to treat them in any other way.  I hold this view since learning objects are ultimately difficult to reuse and repurpose for the reasons presented earlier, but this should not detract from the creation and use of repositories.  Repositories are useful, especially if their use is supported by organisational structures and champions.

I hold the view that metadata should match the size of a resource that it describes.  There should be metadata that describes an object in terms of overall learning objectives.  Lower-level metadata can be used to add additional information to a composite object (such as an image file) that cannot be directly gained from examining its properties or structure (such as using an algorithm to determine its type).

In essence, tagging operations for aggregate and atomic object types must be simple, economic and pragmatic.  If you need to do some tagging to add additional information to a resource (a pragmatic decision), the tagging operation should be simple, and in turn, should be cost effective.

High and low-level metadata tagging

The purpose of high level tagging, the description of high level aggregate object, should be obvious.  Consider a book.  A book has metadata that describes it so it can be found within a library with relative ease (of course, things get more complicated when we consider more complex artefacts, such as journals!).

Low-level (or lower level) metadata may correspond to descriptions of individual pages or images (I should stress at this point, my experience in this area comes from the use of software tools, rather than any substantial period of formal education!).  Why would one want to 'tag' these smaller items (especially if it costs time and money)?  One reason is to provide additional functionality

Metadata helps you to do stuff, just in the same way that storing a book title and list of authors help you to find a book within a library.  Within the EU4ALL project, metadata has the potential to allow you to say that one page (which may contain an audio file) is conceptually equivalent to another page (which contains a textual equivalent).

By describing the equivalence relationships between different resources, the users experience can be optimised to their preferences.  There is also the notion of adaptability, for example, whether a resource can be dynamically changed so it can be efficiently consumed using the device from where it was accessed (this might be a mobile device, a PC, or a PC that is using assistive technology).

Moving forwards

One of the biggest challenges within EU4ALL is to ensure that the users interface to an adaptable learning technology system is coherent, consistent and understandable.  By way of addressing accessibility concerns, all users could potentially benefit.  Learners could potentially be presented with an interface or a sign that indicates that different alternatives are available at certain points during a learning activity, should they be found to exist.  Presenting alternatives in a way that does not cause disruption to learning, yet remains flexible by permitting users to change their preferences, is a difficult task.

Creating metadata is something that is difficult and tiresome (not to mention expensive).  As a result, mistakes can be easily introduced.  Some researchers (slideshare) have been attempting to explore whether it is possible to automatically generate metadata using information about the context in which they are deployed.  In fact, it appears to be a subject of a recent research tender.  But ultimately, humans will be the final consumer of metadata, although metadata languages are intended to be used by machines.

Summary

The notion of a learning object is something that is difficult to define.  Speak to ten different people and you are likely to get ten different answers.  I hold the view that the most useful learning object is an aggregate (or composite) learning object. 

Just as the idea of a learning object can be defined in different ways, the notion of granularity can also have different definitions.  The IEEE LOM standard offers four different levels of 'aggregation', ranging from 1, which refer to 'raw media data' (or media objects), through to individual lessons (level 2), a set of lessons (i.e. a course, level 3), to finally a set of courses which could lead to a formal qualification or certificate (level 4).  I hold the opinion that metadata should match the size of a 'learning object'.  Otherwise, you might end up in a situation where you have to tag everything 'in case it might be used'.  This is likely to be expensive.

High level metadata (in my opinion) is great for storing larger objects within repositories, whereas low-level metadata can be used to describe the adaptability and similarity properties of smaller resources which opens up the possibility of delivering learning resources that match individual user needs and preferences.

Acknowledgements

Posting image: from cocoi_m, from Flick.  Thanks go to an anonymous reviewer whose comments have been very instructive, and all those on the EU4ALL project.  The opinions that are presented here are my own rather than those of the project (or the Open University).

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User generated mobile learning designs

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 21 Jul 2010, 13:17

Photograph of different iPod devices

Would I be considered to be weird if I said that I quite like exams? I admit, I do quite like the challenge, but more specifically, I also like the feeling of opening a paper and knowing (roughly) how to answer the questions I find, and making a choice about which questions I'm going to answer, and which ones I'm going to ignore (if I have a choice, of course). I also like receiving the result and relaxing when a course finishes!

A big question to ask in relation to taking exams is, 'how do you successfully transfer all the knowledge and understanding from your course into your head in such a form that you can answer potentially challenging (and interesting!) questions?' We all have our own unique set of strategies. I'll share some of mine.

Repurposing material

When I'm taking a course, one of the things that I do is make voluminous notes. I am a sucker for writing things down. I buy a couple of dividers and split a A4 (or a lever arch) file into sections corresponding to the blocks. I usually have a couple of extra dividers free for 'other stuff'.

I admit that I sometimes go a bit far, especially when I insist on choosing a single brand of pen for the whole set of notes that I make during a course. I make headings in a consistent style and sometimes experiment with underlining colours!

Although this might seem to be a bit unusual (in terms of my studying rituals), the activity of taking notes is central to my studying strategy. Once I have my notes and the exam date is looming, I sometimes re-write my notes. I take my sides of A4 and 'summarise them down' to a single side of A4, trusting that the stuff that is not on the page is faithfully held within my head.

In the e-learning world, the term 'repurposing' crops up from time to time. It means to take existing materials that have been designed for one purpose and to change them in some way so they can be used for something else. One of the difficulties of e-learning content repositories is that it is difficult to repurpose or reuse existing learning materials, perhaps because of the granularity of the material, or perhaps because that some material is too closely connected to a particular learning situation (or context). But I digress…

When working towards an exam, I actively 'repurpose' the contents of the course that I am studying. I take the course and transfer themes and ideas from the text books or the course materials and transfer them into my A4 file.

Learning pathways

The A4 file represents my own unique adventure or path through a set of learning resources, replete with questions to self, underlining, quotations and green underlining. My repurposing activity, as an active learner, is a construction activity. In essence, I have designed my own learning resources, or have designed my own learning.

When I was a student on The Challenge of the Social Sciences, I have to confess I was not looking forward to the exam. What helped me, was not only the excellent resources that the course team provided, but also the mind maps, sets of notes and other forms of crib sheets that my fellow students had posted selflessly to our on-line discussion forum. They were a great help, not only in seeing that others were revising as hard as I was, but they were also pointing out and bringing different parts of the course together in ways that I had previously missed. Guys, I owe you one!

Dead time

I often travel on a train. When studying, I try to read when I am travelling, which I find difficult. One of the reasons, other than that I cannot easily take notes because the train is bumping around (!), is that I'm often sitting next to someone who is insisting on talking loudly on their mobile phone the moment I wish to try to settle down to learn something about the history of empiricism. Not to mention the lack of 'elbow room' needed to work through ones course notes.

I much prefer listening to podcasts. Listening is another one of my learning preferences. If only I could easily convert my notes into audio form, I might be able to make better use of the 'dead time' I spend on a train.

One thing I could try to do (but I shall never dare!) is to make a podcast of my own notes. This does sound a bit extreme since I am lead to believe that making a podcast takes up lots of time, not to mention equipment.

You need to learn how to use your sound recording software, you might even start with a script, then there is a period of editing (podediting?) to edit out the false starts, door bell ringing, the dog or telephone…

This makes me wonder: is there a way to repurpose textual notes, interesting quotations, chapter headings and thematic points in such a way that you can create an interactive audio file that contains pathways that you could navigate through whilst your travel?

iLearningNotes

Not so long ago I learnt about the Daisy talking book project and was struck by the quality of the speech synthesisers that could be used (some of the same synthesisers are also used by the current generation of screen readers).

Imagine a tool, not unlike Compendium, where you could build audio mind maps. Underneath headings you could add notes and quotations. You could establish conceptual links between different titles, chapters and ideas. The graphical structures that you create could then be converted into speech using a high quality speech synthesiser.

Another possibility could be that you might be able to use excerpts from other podcastsVideo player: Media:Titanium.ogg

(Wikipedia example). Of course, there may be nothing stopping you making your own recordings, perhaps combining your material with words from other sources (providing you adhere to licence conditions, of course).

When you have finished editing you could transfer your edited interactive 'audio map' (which may even have corresponding iconic pictures!) to a magic mobile device not unlike an iPod. You could use the magic wheel control to move through the chapters, sections and notes that you have 'built'. You may also be able to control the rate of playback, allowing you to skip over sections of which you become more familiar.

When you have created your audio notes, in true Web 2.0 fashion you could share your own personal course specific pathways with others. You might be even able to repurpose or modify pathways created by other people so they closely match your own individual learning needs. Furthermore, these resulting navigable audio equivalents may have the potential to be useful for people with disabilities.

Back to learning design

There are some resonances between these ideas and the area of learning design tools and systems.

I first came across the concept of learning design when looking through the IMS specifications. I soon learnt that IMS LD was an XML language that could be used to construct descriptions of learning activities that could be executed using a player. I later came across a system called LAMS, and most recently was told about something called the e-lesson mark-up language, ELML.

Learning design, as an idea, can take many forms. The different systems vary in terms of dynamic adaptability, ease of authoring and who the language or system is intended for. Another is presented by CloudWorks, from what I understand.

My designs

When I study, I design my own learning with help from the materials that I am provided. This may occur when I travel on a train, carry out internet searches on the internet, or read some notes whilst drinking a cup of tea at home.

My own personal pathway through a set of resources may be very different to the pathway that other learners may choose. Learning about the differences, potentially through mobile devices, may help me (and fellow learners) to see new sets of connections that were not immediately understandable.

In doing so, we have the potential to create devices and tools that make better use of our 'dead time'.

Image modified from wikipedia

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Understanding Moodle accessibility

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 2 Dec 2008, 17:13

moodle-logo-small.gif

To really understand why things are the way they are today necessitates understanding what has happened in the past. This blog post is an attempt to build up an understanding of the current state of Moodle accessibility by looking into what has happened during parts of its development. My methodology is simple: begin with internet (and Moodle forum) searches, ask a few people to see what they know, and see where it takes me!

Initial results

A quick search using Cuil took me to some Moodle developer pages and the Moodle Accessibility Specification which has the headline, 'the document specifies improvements to the accessibility of the Moodle course management system for version 1.7’' This is useful. Both the page itself and the release number can point me towards some dates. Version 1.7 of Moodle dates from November 2006 onwards (until March 2007, when version 1.8 is released).

Digging a little further in the Moodle documentation, I discover the release notes for version 1.7. This provides a huge amount of information. Release notes are very often overwhealming for the casual reader. So, to help my search, I search this page for the term 'accessibility'.

Under Moodle 1.8 release notes, the words 'the Moodle interface is now compliant with XHTML Strict 1.0 and major accessibility standards' catch my eye. This is interesting, but what does this mean? Thankfully, there is a link. I’ll try to uncover what the significance of XHTML Strict later. Let's continue with the search for discussions relating to 'major accessibility standards'.

Moodle Accessibility Page

The link found on the 1.8 release notes takes me to the Moodle Accessibility page. The page provides several groups of other links: starting points, standards, legislation, tools and resources. A couple of things jump out at me: a link to the development tracker that relates to Accessibility Compliance in Moodle 1.8, a link to Italian Accessibility Legislation Compliance, and a link to an accessibility forum (guest login required).

It looks like I might be finding some very useful stuff! So much stuff, I need to focus down on what is often very important to me: source code. Code cannot lie, but on its own, it cannot always tell you its history... Thankfully, there are other ways to understand how (and why) things have changed.

Looking at the detail

To enhance the accessibility of Moodle, the developers have created tasks within a combined bug tracker and change management system. This is something that is common to loads of other software developments. Change management systems help developers to keep track of what has changed, when and by whom. If bugs are accidentally introduced as a result of changes, keeping records can help us to understand why. A side effect of a good tracker is that it can also tell you what changes are incorporated into individual releases.

Let’s have a look at a tracker entry to see what one of them says: Indicate type of resource in the name of the resource. This is an interesting one. For screen reader users, having advance warning about the file type is useful, particularly if a link is to a resource that is handled by an application outside of the browser, such as a PDF file, for example.

It’s also interesting to see that the tracker can also contain information about debates about the development of the software and, sometimes, its requirements. Clicking on the 'change history' may sometimes present you with a file that summarises the modifications that a Moodle developer has made to several files to make the accessibility enhancement.

Higher level advice

As well as the Accessibility Specification, one of the developers has created a useful page entitled Accessibility Notes (found within the developer area). This includes an executive summary of some of the guidelines, a roadmap for further accessibility developments, pointers towards future areas of development and a link to some accessibility 'patterns' which have been derived from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Relationship to WCAG?

You often hear WCAG mentioned in relation to different levels of conformance, specifically A, AA and AAA. Whilst searching the terms Moodle and WCAG, I found myself back at the forum that I mentioned earlier which had the title, a forum to discuss 'planned conformance to standards/laws such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA), Section 508 (USA)'

It should be said that there is no formal way to 'conform' to the WCAG guidelines. Whilst some of guidelines can be assessed by machine (by the use of a computer program), some sections of the guidelines require real people to determine whether or not a web page is accessible (according to the guidelines). It should be noted that even if something is accessible under one measurement, to some users, this might not be the case.

The issue of compliance is also complicated by the fact that Moodle (along with many other learning management systems) can make use of different blocks, modules or components in a range of different ways. The way that an application is use and configured can significantly influence its accessibility.

Although there is no definitive statement how Moodle adheres to the different WCAG 1.0 levels, but I have discovered a forum posting that relates to a question about the American Section 508 procurement legislation. But will there ever be a statement about WCAG? I decided to dig further by speaking to one of the contributors to the Moodle Accessibility Specification.

Whilst WCAG is great for content, it doesn’t work so well with interactive systems. The Moodle accessibility specification has been created by distilling accessibility principles and ideas from a number of different sources, WCAG as well as an organisation called IMS (see also the IMS Guidelines for Developing Accessible Learning Applications).

Future work?

It was recently announced that the latest version of the WCAG guidelines (version 2.0) will be soon released. One interesting piece of work would be to carry out an assessment of a 'vanilla' (or out of the virtual box) installation of Moodle against these new guidelines.

Strict!

Earlier on I mentioned that I might explore what is meant by the mysterious words XHTML Strict. Whilst browsing the Moodle accessibility pages, I discovered the Moodle tracker task that asked the developers to move to web pages that are 'marked up' in this way.

One part of this tracker jumps out at me, specifically: 'avoid using, within the markup language in which the page is coded, elements and attributes to define the page's presentation characteristics'. In essence, use semantic tagging on web pages as opposed to tagging that relates to the change of the visual characteristics of a display. Rather than using bold tags to indicate a heading, a developer should instead use heading tags. This way, the tags that 'add meaning' to a document can help users who have assistive technology navigate through a page more easily.

A further comment on the subject of semantic tagging is that if a developer needs to add visual formatting to a page, cascading style sheets should be used (CSS). CSS can be used to separate the structure of the content from how it appears on the users screen. A great illustration of what CSS is and what it is capable of can be found within the CSSZengarden.

There is another line within the tracker problem that was interesting: 'for all new sites, use at least version 4.01 of HTML, or preferably version 1.0 of XHTML'. What does this mean, and is there a difference between the two, and why is a difference preferred? Let’s have a look what they are in Wikipedia which contains a paragraph that explains how XHTML relates to HTML.

It seems there are little differences between the two, except that the HTML pages become well-formed XML documents. Not only can then the resulting pages be manipulated by programs that can manipulate XML (and more easily check for different types of conformance – page checking is mentioned in the tracker comments page), but by insisting that they are 'well formed' may prevent the possibility of 'ill-formed' pages confusing assistive technologies, such as screen readers.

The tracker provides more information about how XHTML relates to accessibility. WCAG states that content authors (and you could argue that a page generated by Moodle is content) should 'create documents that validate to published grammars' (checkpoint 3.2). Other useful WCAG checkpoints include guidance not to use deprecated (now obsolete or old) features, and select W3C technologies when they are available, and use the latest versions. In essence, take advantage of new technologies when they are available for use.

Summary

It seems that accessibility, as a subject, has been discussed on the Moodle forums since November 2005. Since this date, a lot of work has been carried out to improve the accessibility of Moodle, some by the Open University. Evidence of this work can be found documented within the Moodle project without too much difficulty. I hope this post has helped to show where (and how) to find information about Moodle accessibility.

Although it can be argued that no platform is totally accessible, strides have been made to make Moodle more suitable for users of assistive technology. Anyone who uses Moodle has to be aware that the accessibility of such a system does not only depend upon the programming code alone, but also how it is used, and what materials it presents to learners.

Acknowledgements are extended to those who I spoke to during preparation of this post. You know who you are!

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Discovering Moodle profile fields

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 21 Jul 2010, 12:58

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One way to improve e-learning user experience is to attempt to present material that match a learners precise needs and preferences. In terms of accessibility, it would be non-sensical to provide a screen reader user with a digital video resource, if that resource contained images or illustrations which did not have accompanying auditory explanations.

The previous post explored how it might be possible to add a new category of resource to Moodle, an 'adaptable resource'. This post will try to explore a related piece of the puzzle by examining how it might be possible to tell Moodle about your own e-learning content preferences.

Some background

A learner might use a range of different e-learning systems at different schools or universities during a learning career. One problem might be the need to continually tell different systems what your content preferences might be. Let's face it: this is trouble! Not only would this take time, but it would also no doubt introduce errors. One solution to this might be to allow a user to store their preferences on a server somewhere. This server could then share user preferences to different systems, subject to some form of magic authentication.

A learning management system could be used allow a learner (or someone acting on behalf of a learner) to edit and change their centrally managed preferences. The question is: how could we demonstrate this idea using Moodle?

Let's begin from where I left off in the previous post: user profile developer pages.

Returning to code

What this page says is that it's possible for a user of Moodle to store extra 'stuff' about a group of users to a database. This sounds great! But how does it work? In true developer fashion, ignoring all the user documentation, I delved into the source code and then browsed over the database structures. I found quite a few tables that relate to the user. There were tables relating to fields, data and categories, and a hint of previous accessibility development work as evidenced by the presence of a 'screenreader' field (but more of this later).

It soon became clear that there was quite a lot of existing functionality that might be able to be 'leveraged' (horrid word!) to facilitate (another one) the entering of user preferences. I liked what I saw: code where the functions were not too (not bigger than a screenful) and had the odd set of comments (you can read that in two different ways). Looking at the code, whilst useful, is never enough. It was time to have a look to see what the user sees.

Return to the user interface

Within a couple of minutes, I found it was possible to construct a way to enable both the user and the administrator to enter extra data against a particular user profile. Using the Moodle tools I created a really quick pull down menu to represent a learner specifying their preferences.

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I should note, that a single menu represents a tip of the iceberg regarding the issue of entering user preferences! My titles are undoubtedly badly chosen. Also, there are existing metadata standards, such as AccMD (powerpoint), which can be used to describe user preferences, but I certainly won't go this thorny area here...

Along the way I stumbled across some documentation pages that describes the Moodle user profile.

Joining the dots (or nodes)

Okay, so this part of Moodle might be able to be used as a simple user interface to allow a user to specify their content preferences, but how (and where?) might I store other information like 'special-magic-numbers' or identifiers that can allow the VLE to understand that other systems are referring to the same user? (I hope this sentence makes sense!)

It seems that there are ways to store additional stuff in a Moodle profile too, fields that can be accessed and used by an administrator, but cannot be seen or edited by learners.

But... why?

As ever, one simple question has created a whole raft of others:

  1. Where did this feature come from?
  2. How is the data represented in the db? (looking at things from a developers eyes again!)
  3. What part of the code should I modify so I can connect the Moodle user interface to some kind of magic 'preferences server'?
  4. What does this mysterious 'screenreader' option do?

I'll leave some of them for another day, but I shall 'touch upon' answers to the first and the fourth.

Answers... of a sort

Apparently the capability to add profile fields (and categorize them) was added in version 1.8 of Moodle (which also incorporated a number of accessibility enhancements). I've tried to find the discussions on the forum that culminated in the addition of this feature, but I've had no joy - but what I have learnt is that there is talk about making an even more customisable version of the user interface, but I digress.

Wishing to know more, I turned my attention to the code to see what it could tell me. References to the screen reader profile tag is found scattered throughout the codebase. It appears to change how certain parts of the HTML is presented to browsers. It is found in the chat module, within the file type resource code, the question engine code (where additional feedback is presented to screen reader users), and in some of the currently mysterious theme code. I sense this question is a bit harder to answer than I had initially anticipated!

Onwards and upwards (or should it be downwards?)

Now that I know roughly how to make a custom user profile interface, my next task is to identify where in the code I should add some magic to make Moodle speak to different servers. Wish me luck!

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Working with new Moodle resource types

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 2 Dec 2008, 17:14

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As a part of the EU4ALL project, I have been trying to figure out how to add a new resource type. The idea is to add a resource known as an 'adaptable resource', whereby different media types are presented to the user depending on their accessibility preferences. The issue of how and where to assign or change these preferences is currently a question that has to be resolved. This post is intended as a bunch of 'notes to self' about what I have found during the last couple of days exploring and poking around the Moodle code base.

To explore the code, I've been using a couple of tools: SQLYog, which was recommended to me by an illustrious IET developer (to allow me to explore an instance of a Moodle MySQL database I have running on my home machine), and NuSphere, a PHP IDE. I did try the Zend IDE a year or so back, but abandoned it since I became rather confused!

So, how is it possible to add a new resource to Moodle? Initially, I decided to look at an existing resource, beginning with the simplest one that I could find: a simple text resource. By browsing the code base I seemed to find the rough area where the 'resource code' lives. I also browsed around the developer documentation page an unearthed a resource class template. Great!

In development, one question instantiates a tree of others. The most fundamental question is: how does this code work? I need to answer this big one to make a change. This is too big, so I split it into two other questions: (1) how can you modity a form that allows you to enter the parameters that describe an adaptable resource (currently it is to be a simple numerical value, from what I understand), and (2) how can I take the values held within a form and update them to the MySQL database? This requires an understanding of further magic code. As a note to myself, let's have a look at each of these in turn.

Entering stuff

Looking at the text resource code, there seemed to be a bit of object-oriented polymorphism going on. The name of the directory where the resource code is important too! There is a magic function called display which appears to make some further magic calls to create some data entry fields - but these calls are quite a long way away from the pure HTML that is presented in the browser window.

This is another question: how does the magic functions in display() get turned into HTML? The answer apparently lies with the application of a forms library called PERL. If I figure out how to add functions in a way that would work for this library, I can ask the user for whatever I want.

The form uses some object-oriented principles. Individual controls are added to 'the form', and then a function is executed that 'prints out' or renders each of the controls, without you having to go near to producing your own HTML.

Another interesting observation, is that the display function I have uncovered only relates to a small part of a bigger form. This is due to subclassing and polymorphism that is being used, but this is a distraction... now I have a little understanding of what is happening (thanks to the NuSphere debugger!), I'll park this question for the time being. There are other mysterious areas to explore!

Storing stuff

When a Moodle user edits a course resource, there are a couple of buttons that appear at the bottom of the screen. These are 'save and return', 'save and display' and 'cancel'. Looking at these buttons from a HCI perspective I think, 'buttons doing two different things?? surely this is a bad idea!'. But I digress.

My question is, 'what happens when the tutor (or administrator) clicks on either of the save buttons - where does the data go? Or more precisely, how does the data get saved?

Moodle seems to have a thin database layer: a set of functions that allows you to send SQL statements and receive data in response. Since the contents of the resource form is held in what can only be described as a 'big variable' (PHP has a funny approach to object-oriented programming if you've used other languages), the Moodle developers have figured out a way to transfer the contents of a form to the database, by matching on-screen fields to database fields.

This seems to work well: but on the downside is the database update code that Moodle code generates appear to be rather big, and an implicit dependency is created between the form and the database structure. Other systems that I've looked at make use of stored procedures, which has the potential to boost performance and security on one hand, but on the other restrict the database platforms that an application can be used with.

Moving forwards

Now I know (roughly) how to add extra bits to a new resource type, the next thing I have to do is figure out how to write the functions that I need. After I've done that I'll have to hook up my edits to the database, and figure out how to best display the data that I've produced. I already have some idea about how to do this since I have created a paper prototype.

But before going down that road, I think I'll continue my survey of the Moodle codebase by exploring what sections can potentially relate to adding and manipulation of user parameters and settings. I think I'll start by looking at the user profile developer pages.

Looking towards the longer term, I will also have to connect Moodle to a number of different web services. Wish me luck!

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