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I recently found another social networking server app through Twitter. As we know Ning recently changed its terms of service and is no longer offering free social networks. This sent a wave of panic throughout the educational technology community, accustomed to having “free” apps at their disposal. People immediately sought alternatives to Ning. Of course they wanted free hosted solutions in most cases in spite of having had the rug pulled out from under them. I contend that those who have not learned the lesson about relying on such solutions are doomed to repeat the same outcomes as any subsequent solution  runs in to similar problems keeping their business afloat while offering free services.

That aside, a new option I had not heard of before, wall.fm, came to my attention. I immediately went to the website and after a little digging around found that the site ran on software called Oxwall.

Oxwall seemed like a straight forward php/mySQL sort of a site, so I went through the server requirements and found that I had to add some functionality to my server. After a quick recompile of Apache, I set out to install it by uploading it, creating a database, then run the web installer. Installation seemed standard until I got to the point that it told it gave me a bit of code to paste directly into the config file (Delete the text already there–that’s not clear). No big deal, but it might put off some users. In the finale step you are invited to install some plugins.

These are the core plugins. There are a few more available on their site. Most are free, but a few cost $20. Like any new software, the offerings are lean. More on all this later.

Upon installation, one has a simple Oxwall site. An administrator has a Customize this page button which brings up a drag and drop widget management environment that allows you to move and customize each widget.

Without going into detail about each feature, the site is pretty bare bones. In the most extreme case, groups, the only functionality is a wall. To be fair, the developers say that more is coming. Other than that you have a simple blog with very basic formatting and the ability to insert an image. There is also tagging and rating. There is similar functionality in the video and link sharing areas. As it stands though, none of these plugins interact with each other. In other terms, you can’t, for example, embed a video in a blog post.

The administrative interface is attractive and has an important feature built in that Elgg’s and BuddyPress’s core installations lack: granular role and permissions control. Having started with a discussion forum as my first social server app, I have been puzzled by the lack of an ACL system in software such as Joomla, Elgg, and WordPress/BuddyPress. In Oxwall, an admin can create a role and assign any set of permissions to it. Users can then be assigned specific roles with specific permissions. This is particularly important for education sites.

One troubling omission from the basic package is a forum. A forum plugin can be purchased  for $20. I understand the developers’ need to make money, but omitting such a basic tool from the default set renders Oxwall of very little utility until someone ponies up the money.

Oxwall software is an alphabet soup of licensing. The core software is licensed under a CPAL “badgeware” license. This means that you must leave Oxwall links and labels on the site to use it unless you obtain permission to do otherwise. The paid plugins are release under a commercial Oxwall Store Commercial License (OSCL), while the free plugins are under a BSD license.

Those not wanting to install Oxwall on a server can create a free community on wall.fm sponsored by the developers. Like Ning, the developers are going to have to find a way to pay the bills. The question is–will it remain free?

Oxwall is extremely new and has been release in an immature state. It will be interesting to see if the developers foster an ecosystem that fosters a development of  plugins. Unlike other platforms, Oxwall appears to want to support developers by selling their plugins through the Oxwall Store. Indeed there are a number of features that appear to promote making money through Oxwall in the wall.fm sites by encouraging site creators to charge for site access.

Three out of nine wall.fm plugins are for monetizing wall.fm communities

While, I like what I see in the administrative interface–particularly the User/roles/permission system, I’m not sure that the commercial nature of this software will be well suited for educators on limited or non-existant resources. I certainly believe that a discussion forum is an essential part of any social network platform and should be part of the free basic installation. Charging for such an elementary feature leaves me skeptical about the direction of this project.

Is Oxwall a Ning replacement? Without a forum, the answer is a flat no. With a discussion forum–maybe, but I don’t think Ning ex-pats would be satisfied with it yet.

I’ll keep an eye on Oxwall, in spite of the commercial edge of this “open source” package. If I come to believe that it has a place in education, I may delve further into features on this blog. I’d love to hear your impressions of Oxwall and wall.fm.

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Jim Groom just got me fired up again. Groom, in conjunction with Brian Lamb, wrote an important article in Educause entitled Never Mind the Edupunks; or, The Great Web 2.0 Swindle. The article laments the corporatization of  Web 2.0 in education.  The authors acknowledge the appeal and power of free online services offered by Google and their ilk.

Without much effort, online teachers and learners can quickly assemble dynamic, networked personal learning environments simply by adopting the most popular tools in any particular domain. Having signed up for a Gmail account, a user can publish websites with Blogger, manage groups and mailing lists with Google Groups, videoconference with Google Talk, write collaboratively with Google Docs, track topics with Google Alerts, manage syndicated feeds with Google Reader, share video with YouTube, post images with Picassa, and do whatever it is that Google Wave is supposed to do.

They go further with the proposition:

It seems almost unfair to expect ed techs to compete with the awe-inspiring innovation of corporate Web 2.0. Indeed, in an era of economic austerity and the apparently futile race to meet the ever-changing needs of users, it is arguably inefficient and even irresponsible to spend resources providing inferior analogues.

They continue by making the case for eschewing the appealing free proprietary Web 2.0 tools in education citing a number of concerns.

The first concern is privacy. They cite Facebook’s “bait and switch tactics with users’ data.” They also mention the powerful data mining that Google employs every time we use one of their “free” services. I have always questioned whether we, particularly in the K12 domain, have the right to deliver our students, their content, and their data to these corporations.

Another obvious concern is advertising. They cite Steve Greenberg:

You are not Facebook’s customer. You are the product that they sell to their real customers—advertisers. Forget this at your peril.

Ultimately Facebook and Google are out to serve their real customers, not you. These free services will only continue if they meet the needs of the advertisers. If not, they may cease to exist or, in the case of Ning, cease to be free. Further, the presence of advertisers in student online experience is becoming yet more ubiquitous as we herd our them into free corporate services. We are teaching our students that this is the way it is on the Internet–just like TV.

Finally, they fear that cooperation between providers of free services and “cultural industries” will lead to corporate censorship. They cite several instances where YouTube by default has taken the side of the entertainment industry in taking down published content containing copyrighted materials even though they were within the domain of “fair use.”

They don’t make a blanket condemnation of the use of these services and they admit that use these services themselves. I must add that to decide to use these services for ourselves is not problematic as long as we understand the ramifications (which are almost always obscured). Again, to blithely hoist use of these services upon students is at best questionable. Groom and Lamb challenge Educational IT to “aspire to a vital mission: to being something more than consumers and cheerleaders for commercial products.” I fear that many in the educational technology area have indeed become unwitting shills for these services. How could Google get better advertising than it does in the #edtech and #edchat areas of Twitter?

Searching the footnotes in the article led me to another gem, Miguel Brieva’s poster in support of network neutrality.

This poster is hosted by the website Internet no será otra TV. There are larger copies of the poster that are easier to read, but only in Spanish.

The poster illustrates two humorous visions of the future of the Internet. The top depicts the Internet if corporate interests prevail in the battle over network neutrality. The bottom is a vision of an open Internet. Ultimately it may be something in between. In which direction would the widespread adoption  of free commercial online tools by education take us?

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I recently created another BuddyPress test site and I am pleased with how much the procedure has been simplified. I blogged about the difficulty in the past, so it is only fair that I note vast improvements.

I never fully succeeded installing BP the first time I tried. It involved a long process of manually uploading a variety of files and opening them to edit the code in numerous places, then testing and adjusting. I was able to install BP itself, but I never quite got the forum component bbPress (then in Alpha) to work as it should. Trying again several months later (about a year ago), I succeeded and noted that it had been simplified to to a 13 step process still involving moving files and editing code.

Now BP can be installed entirely from WordPressMu and even plain WordPress entirely through the backend. There is no longer a need to use ftp at all or edit a single line of code. Simply install WP or WPMu then install BP through the plugin installer. One no longer must use ftp to manually move themes to the appropriate folder. Next activate one of the BP themes installed with the package through the Appearance menu. All that is left is activating bbPress by going to BuddyPress–>Forum Set up and basically turn it on.

BuddyPress is now installable to even those with few tech skills. Most shared hosting services with control panels have point and click WordPress installers. Now that WP and WPMu have merged, one could convert a standard installation to WPMu, but that still requires some mucking with code. If one needed the multi-blog functionality, it is probably easier to manually install WPMu than make the conversion. I’m sure that will change with time.

BuddyPress has joined Elgg as a viable replacement for proprietary solutions such as NING. I look forward to revisiting both and reporting my experiences.

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Copyright issues are not the only obstacles to sharing content with others. Some of the obstacles are my choice of software and platform.

Although I am an advocate of open source software, my focus in this area has been server based applications. When it comes to desktop computing, I run a Mac. I like the Macintosh for its ease of use, stability, and reliability. Ubuntu has come along. I run it on my Mac. We have several Ubuntu laptops and an Ubuntu netbook running Jim Klein’s excellent Ubuntu Remix distro. I am still confronted with upset children with malfunctioning computers more often than I want. It is often time consuming fix these bugs. I do not have the time for that on my production computer. This, however, is not about platforms.

The problem is access. It’s no problem for those running a Mac with iWork. I spend a lot of time making presentations and, I find Keynote has a better look and workflow than the alternatives. Unfortunately, exporting to PowerPoint, usable by MS Office and OpenOffice, is not reliable. PDF exports can be difficult to edit. QuickTime exports play fine in Windows, but not Linux.

Ideally, I could share slideshow with which people could do more than use my presentation, or grab and remix slides from it. They would be able to edit each slide itself–down to the character level.

Now I have hundreds of instructional presentations that cannot be easily shared because of my software choice. Not only do I need to screen my presentations for copyright issues, but I also have to go over exports slide by slide to make sure they are reasonably true to the original.

Keynote has arguably saved time in creating content. I honestly believe that hadn’t I used Keynote I never would have produced such a large body of work in so little time. Further, I never could have so quickly produced attractive content using the alternatives. This has come at a cost now that I want to share.

If I continue to use Keynote, I will probably need to avoid many of the great features that do not translate well into other formats. If I leave Keynote, I will need to relearn software and workflow and give up many features I love. Further, it will be more difficult to make the attractive presentations that I am accustomed to and that my students have come to expect.

Interestingly, my previous blog post on sharing presentations yielded a response from Professor Nathan Garrett of Woodbury University in San Diego who is working on a presentation sharing platform. This poses a new option engineered from the beginning for sharing. Further it is being designed to allow users to alter or annotate the slides easily. I am excited to explore this new possibility and look forward to its development. You may see posts about this in the future.

At the moment. I am not sure how I will create future presentations. One thing is clear though: whatever I create will be done with sharing in mind from the beginning. I have realized that decisions made in the creation of presentations has a significant impact on how they can be shared.

In honor of the release of BuddyPress 1.0, I trashed my previous installation and created a new one from scratch. The new version of BuddyPress requires WordPressMu 2.7.1 and bbPress 1.0 alpha. The process, while simplified, is still out of the reach of many who are accustomed to the standard, upload, create database, and browser based installation.

It process begins with a standard installation of WPMu. Once that is done, you can install the BuddyPress plugins through the backend: Plugins–>Install New. then activate the plugin. That’s not it though as the web based installer cannot place the BuddyPress themes in the correct directory. To do that, one needs to manually move the themes from the plugin directory to theme directory using ftp or a file manager, then activate the themes.

Integrating bbPress remains the hardest part although it too has been simplified to a 13 step process. You can ignore the warnings about salt this and that failing. Just follow the steps. Unlike my previous experiences trying to integrate bbPress, this all worked the first time through. It involves pasting a line of code into the config and moving a file from BuddyPress into bbpress.

Overall, this is a big step in the right direction. Now that the WPMu framework has been updated, I hope to see more progress with the project. There are a lot a capabilities under the hood that are not yet wired up, much as we saw with the initial release of Elgg. A real concern remains in that bbPress is still alpha. BuddyPress needs a solid stable forum.

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