Thursday, October 11, 2007

What’s in a name? And what’s with Google?

Here are a few things about Google stuff, some good and some not so. Let’s start with the good and if you have a Gmail account you can try this first one yourself. Log into Google and then follow this link, to add Prof Econ’s Group (Professor.Economist is a particular account in Google that I have for this demo) as a tab to your iGoogle page. Even if you don’t want to try that, you can get much of the idea by going to your own iGoogle page, clicking on the down arrow next to the active tab, and then following the Share this tab link.

When you do that, you get a window to invite people to share with. In that window there is a checkbox for each gadget on the tab and then there is another checkbox, initially unchecked, that says Share pre-configured gadget settings. I checked that box, then sent the invite message to another of my Gmail accounts. Here is a screenshot of the added tab for those who opt not to actually add that tab to their own iGoogle page. You can follow along with the rest by looking at the screen shot.

There are 6 gadgets on this tab. Prof Econ’s Place is my name for what others might call “Announcements.” It is created by a feed from this blog, which is from where it takes its name. If you’ve installed the tab, you can actually click through to the blog from the gadget. Likewise, the content is what others might call “Bookmarks” and obviously comes from a feed. Do note that the feeds sometimes take a while to update. Let me skip the next three gadgets and return to them. The Google Video gadget also comes from feeds. In this case you do a search to identify the video content so the content you want must be uniquely identified by the search. I did two different searches, each associated with its own tag.

The above three gadgets work pretty much as in any other feed aggregator, such as Netvibes (though I’d be curious as to whether the Google Video gadget works in Netvibes). The next three work differently and in my view inconsistently apply the checkbox for pre-configured gadgets. The calendar one works as advertised. It appears to show the particular Calendar from Prof Econ’s group, whether the user is subscribed or not. The other two gadgets show the most recent items from the user’s Gmail and Google docs, not the most recent items for these tools from Prof Econ’s Gmail and Google docs. That’s ok if it is understood how it works.

The Google docs gadget is really the most interesting one. For Prof Econ to get a document he has uploaded to appear in that gadget for a user, Prof Econ must share the document with the user. Sharing is managed via Gmail contacts. In the process of sharing the document, Prof Econ sends an email message to the user to which says that the document is being shared. The user doesn’t have to do anything with that email. It serves as a receipt only. One reason to show the Gmail gadget on the page is that for each document that Prof Econ shares there should be a corresponding email receipt.

In order to get this to function smoothly, Prof Econ needs to amass the Gmail addresses of all the users. At present, that is the single biggest headache to get this approach to work – how to amass those accounts. In a group with a few dozen people, this is a manageable problem and I’d encourage the approach. In a class with several hundred students, that problem may make the approach unwieldy. From my play with this, I suggest that if the group gets much larger than 5 or 10, that the person playing the role of Prof Econ actually set up a separate Gmail account just for this purpose, so that the contact list coincides with membership in the group. Then the distribution is fairly easy. If the contact list in your regular Gmail account has many names already, deciding who is in the group or not will be time consuming. Perhaps soon in the future Google docs will allow subfolders of Contacts and you can set up the group that way. But right now a separate account seems to be the easiest approach.

In some respect this post is a sequel to an early one, iGoogle and the LMS. I should point out that the LMS my campus uses, WebCT Vista, doesn’t have a document folder of this sort where the instructor shares documents with students and I know from comments I’ve received from MBA students that they’d really like to have such a feature. Indeed, the entire approach with iGoogle has appeal over an LMS approach in that everything is right there at the top level. For example, with the use of AJAX the user can read the message announcements by clicking the little plus sign next to the subject heading and do that without ever leaving that page. Likewise, the videos can be viewed right in the page, with a click-through possible if the user wants to see the video in a larger size. However, the issue goes beyond LMS in the sense that working groups of all sorts probably want this type of functionality, and for many of these working groups it would not occur to them to use an LMS. Convenience-wise, what is shown here can serve as a reasonable benchmark for alternative solutions. It may be less secure than some other possible solutions, and the content sits on Google servers rather than on servers run by the Campus, but in many instances those concerns are peripheral to users while convenience is central. I think this does quite well on the convenience front.

Let me also point out that if Google docs is really embraced this way, then the flow can go both ways and, in particular, students can share docs such as assignment submissions with Prof Econ. (As with the contact list for users, Prof Econ might want a separate account just for the “drop box” function, so to separate out those documents he has uploaded from those that have been shared with him by his students. But if Prof Econ manages his folders well, this may not be necessary.) The big virtue of using Google docs in this way compared to the more traditional drop box – no download is necessary. This makes the workflow of reading and commenting on the documents much easier and might really encourage electronic communication where now we still have a lot of paper flow.

If I were currently teaching the Campus Honors course I taught last in spring ’06, I’d try this approach.

* * * * *

Now to a more frivolous matter, but something that Google is doing that does bother me and I wish they’d stop. If you do a Google search on a first name, on some of these searches images will appear at the top. On others no image appears. As there is a Google Image search and a Google Video search, I’m not sure why they are allowing images in regular searches. At a minimum, it would be good for the user to control what comes back, whether it should just be Web pages or if images (and later video) should be allowed to come back too.

I know this from searching on my own first name. I get some substantial traffic to my blog from people doing that type of search. It turns out there is a porn star with the same first name and (not surprisingly) her site is the #1 response to the Google query. I’m ok with that. It’s what happens with an open Web. But why does her picture have to appear at the top of the page when doing this search?

I have not done a statistically valid experiment of searching on various first names and seeing whether they return images of well known people with that first name or not. But I’d bet that most of those pages that do return images show pictures of women scantily clad. I’m sure whoever at Google thought including the images this way was trying to cut down on the number of searches that the user makes to find what they are looking for. In general, I’m all for efforts that reduce the time needed to find stuff. But some sensibility should be brought to the endeavor. Folks who are actually looking for my site shouldn’t have to be exposed to these photos if they don’t want to. And the reality is that people are sufficiently imprecise with their search terms, so they very well might do a first name only search since my first name is somewhat rare and it’s easier to remember just one name rather than two. Google should reconsider its approach given this unintended consequence.


google said...

Hello Lanny,

I am writing to you from Germany.
Though I am not a professional teacher ( at the moment I am a bicycle dealer ), a strong impulse drove me, to set up an educational communty website.
The concept relies on the vanity of people and the spreading trend to broadcast oneself.

At the moment, I am trying to get some opinions, on what professionals think about the idea.

Please take a few minutes to explore, what is available up to now.

My best regards

Jens Buehrmann

Lanny Arvan said...

Jens - I saw that you posted a similar comment to Scott Leslie's blog. My response will be similar to his.

I know some things about Higher Education, particularly in the U.S. I don't know much about K-12 and also much less about Higher Ed outside the U.S. My response will be only for the environment I know about.

People will put video content in YouTube and make podcast content available through iTunes, because that's where the eyeballs and ears are already. Alternatively they will put it on College servers and limit distribution to their own audience of students, either unconcerned or deliberately not wanting to connect to an external audience. Other repositories have a tough time competing for these reasons.

I believe we are on the cusp of seeing high volume of student created content, some of which will be quite good. I note that screen capture, for example with Jing which is currently free, does not upload into YouTube. It requires a site that accepts .swf files. Techsmith provides its own site for that, but it is conceivable that an educational site which made a commitment to make the content freely available would be preferred.

I hope that helps.