Sunday, October 01, 2006

Futzing with Elgg

I start my new job tomorrow. One of the first orders of business (pardon the pun) is to find a replacement for the College’s FirstClass server. Some of the staff have been playing around with MS Sharepoint. That is a possibility. But right now Elgg looks more attractive to me, something that might capture the imagination both of the MBA students and the faculty.

I’ve been playing with it at my site at Elgg.net. The blog seems reasonably compatible with composing posts in Word, which for me is a biggie since I’m apt to write longer posts that way. I liked the general structure with community spaces, friends, a resource area for feeds, and a files area. All of that is good as is the general horizontal structure of the – users are symmetric with respect to their functionality. That is nice.

I did have some minor issues with some things I’ve tried. I was able to get my files area listed on my resources page, but I wasn’t able to get my resources to appear on my blog, though it seems this should be possible. That looks like a glitch. I thought it was a bit odd that I could invite friends to join the Elgg.net site, but I couldn’t invite friends with accounts already to join a community I created. They have to ask in. That’s a bit odd workflow-wise, but not a huge deal. Overall, I liked the functionality a lot.

My bigger immediate concern is with performance, not functionality. Page loads have been slow. Whether that represents Internet congestion rather (I believe the server is in the UK) rather than Elgg performance itself, I can’t say. I wonder what other North American users of Elgg.net feel about their experience with the site in that regard.

On Friday I had a nice chat with Sasan Salari about his Elgg integration with WebCT Vista. It is an intriguing Powerlink that Sasan has created with pass through authentication and the Elgg Window fitting inside the WebCT frame in a way that looks good. I know there are those who thing environments like Elgg will be the death of the LMS, but the grade book, assignments, and quiz functionality are heavily entrenched hear and so I see a need for both, not one or the other. It would be nice, however, if the PowerLink ran both ways, so that a user could start off in Elgg and then launch WebCT if they wanted to. This way they could go back and forth between personal space and class space and in the latter there could be a public area in Elgg as well as the intranet only space in WebCT.

I know there is likewise an integration of Elgg and Moodle. I don’t know, however, if that is one way or two ways.

There is yet another issue with this software from the provision point of view. This has to do with the expertise to support open source applications in the Linux/PHP/MySQL flavor. The College of Business has in the main been a Microsoft shop, probably a sensible approach historically given their audience. The Campus here has in the main adopted Unix oriented commercial applications. At the Campus level, in particular, where I have some understanding of the personnel issues from my involvement with the LMS, one need redundancy of staff, so that any individual can take a planned vacation or be out for an unplanned leave due to illness or a personal issue.

That redundancy requirement encourages concentration in the approach. It becomes expensive to both have the redundancy and support both Windows apps and open source. Outsourcing may offer an alternative on this score and there appears to be a fledgling hosting service for Elgg.

On our campus, however, there may be security issues that make it harder to implement an outsourced solution. While I personally have no issue with how Elgg.net handles logins and passwords, almost certainly our security people would. And then there is the issue that precisely because the software is so horizontal user-wise, definitely a pedagogic feature, it is easier to run afoul of protecting student privacy (having an open community without a closed community alternative for the students readily available) and ditto for issues about Copyright and Fair Use. But these things can be managed by educating our instructors rather than by imposing restrictions on the software. The software can accommodate these issues if the instructors act in a knowledgeable way.

If I’m right that Elgg will capture the imagination of the audience in the College of Business, then I would characterize the above discussion as a situation where the user wants are pitted against the provider needs. It seems to me that a lot of IT, at least on my campus, has elements of this type of tension. A couple of days ago I was emailing a friend from another university and said that I thought there would be a big culture change in moving from my Campus job to the College of Business job.

One significant aspect of that culture change is how risk is managed. Unquestionably an experiment that would shift the provider toward a more user centric solution entails risk. The Campus tends to be extremely conservative about risk, both for scaling reasons and because there aren’t substantial revenue sources for risk mitigation. I believe the College of Business will likely embrace more risk, if a there is a real upside to the situation, such as I believe there is with Elgg.

Let me close with one final point. On my campus, in particular, but I suspect elsewhere at big universities like mine, the risk preferences I’ve described are likely to be similar, and so it really does make sense for some of the experimentation to happen at the college level or even the departmental level rather than at the campus level and indeed that happens now to some extent. But until now, the learning from that experimentation seems to be contained within the unit that undertakes the effort. That seems horribly inefficient to me, and something where I’d hope we can improve on in the future.

1 comment:

arlene Amarant said...

quiz functionality are heavily entrenched hear


do you mean here