Stack View: a case study in experimentation

Lorrie and I have lately been taking part in a protracted conversation with some colleagues about the virtues of experimentation. I am firmly of the opinion that it is crucial to investigate new things in order to remain productive – despite whatever other responsibilities are placed upon us.

An example is Stack View. This is one of two experimental user interfaces I’ve come across lately that vary the traditional process of browsing digital content (the other is Library Observatory, which I hope to write about soon).

A product of Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab, Stack View visualizes digital collections similar to the way visitors browse books on a shelf. You can see more about the project this introductory video:

Lorrie pointed me toward Stack View a few weeks ago, but at the time none of my projects offered a chance to evaluate it in context.

As has become my custom in these situations, I turned to soccer. Why not? Soccer has been a consistent playground for me for over a decade, in part because it offers me a platform for self-driven investigation. There are no expectations other than those I put on myself, I have amassed a large amount of data about players over the years, and there is a community of fellow fans who share my interests and are usually willing to provide feedback.

So, Lorrie and I brainstormed about “if soccer players were books, what would they look like?”  This may be an odd question, but from a data perspective there are similarities. “The story of a player” is certainly familiar to sports fans, or fans of biographies in general. After tinkering for half an hour or so, I had succeeded in putting something simple together:

StackView used to visualize the all-time player register for the Columbus Crew

StackView used to visualize the all-time player register for the Columbus Crew

In terms of this experiment, the challenge was to find parameters in the soccer world that could correlate into a library-style experience. StackView uses three numeric parameters to determine a record’s visualization: page count, binder size, and shelf rank. Page count and Binder size determine a book’s size, while shelf rank (essentially how often it is checked out) influences the binding color.

These three values occur naturally with books, and their application in StackView is straightforward. With soccer, however, we had to discuss a variety of parameters before being able to translate the experience. Two of the three parameters came easily, but the third is one we still struggle with.

The length of a player’s career – measured in terms of minutes played – determines the thickness of a player’s “book”. This makes sense – a player who appears in only a handful of games would have a much shorter “story” than a player who is a mainstay over several years.

Shelf rank, in contrast to page count, is a qualitative parameter – it can be seen as a rough proxy for quality, or the value of a book to its library community. In this experiment, binding color is derived from the amount of impact a player has: goals and assists, yellow and red cards earned. The notion here being that a player who anonymously plays a number of games should be treated differently than a player who finds a way to score goals, or otherwise influence the game. This is an imperfect proxy, but it serves well enough for an investigation (I’ve written in soccer circles about some potentially better proxies, but that discussion isn’t really relevant here).

The final parameter, binding height, currently lacks an obvious analogue. We’ve used player age for now, with older players having a longer binding. This is imperfect – particularly when players appear over several years – and we continue to evaluate better alternatives.

Stepping back

Beyond any specific details, however, I’m glad to have had the chance to pursue short-term experiments like this (from start to finish, this experiment took less than an hour to implement – starting while I waited for the bus one morning and wrapping up over a lunch) discussion). The projects I undertake at work vary widely, and frequently involve technologies or problems I’ve never encountered before (this is especially true as I adapt to a new job, in a new industry, with new systems). Unless I am willing to say that I have all the skills I will _ever_ need, I must be always looking for new tools, new techniques, and new experiences. Otherwise I run the risk of having an inadequate base of experience for the next project to land on my desk.

This is not to say, by the way, that open-ended experimentation is the most important activity for me to pursue. My job is not to experiment, but to contribute to my organization by identifying and resolving the problems that emerge naturally (and continually). Many times those problems may require responses with which I am well versed.

Such is not always the case however – and I do myself and my organization a disservice if I become complacent, assuming that I have all the tools and experiences I will ever need.

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Creating a Flexible and Open Learning Environment for the Architecture Studio

I’m not sure how we missed this, but the video of Lorrie and I’s presentation at the 2011 Open Education Conference is posted on YouTube:

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Interoperability Within Open Education

Lorrie and I are in Utah this week for the 8th Open Education Conference. The first day of presentations is almost over, and one theme has emerged for me from almost every session I have attended: interoperability.

The topic was breached first in a presentation from Carnegie Mellon that explored the issues in bringing Open Educational Resources into a closed CMS. This tackles the problem of interoperability in the context of re-use for a single instructor.

A second layer of interoperability came from the Open Study presentation, a non-profit effort that attempts to build a social layer to open education in the name of connecting learners together around OER. They have, notably, been adopted by OCW so that learners perusing that resource have an ability to connect with others who may be sharing their struggles.

Switching from the learning to teaching side of things, OERGlue has attacked the problem of interoperability from an instructors’ perspective. This was one of the most interesting presentations I’ve seen so far, covering a toolset that allows instructors to produce open courses by bundling together educational content from around the web via a browser toolbar that uses web services. Institutions have the ability to force the toolbar to respect licensing by only checking for the proper markup identifying content as re-usable (i.e. Creative Commons).

Katherine Fletcher addressed this topic after lunch, advocating for the adoption of the SWORD protocol by the community. As a proof of concept, she has worked with developers at Connexions to implement SWORD there, allowing creators of OER to publish content without ever coming to Connexions.

The Saylor Foundation, in its “Connecting the Dots” presentation, shows that it has begun to pick up the pieces of open content created throughout the ecosystem. Continuing the model of the degree as a flight of open courses, they have contracted with professors to identify gaps within a specific topic (e.g. history), create the necessary content to fill those gaps, and publish both their courses and the underlying dataset of resources. This sort of reuse, which can be somewhat parasitic in nature, is an interesting mixed approach.

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Open Course Library

I”m at Open Ed 2011 in Park City, Utah this week.  One session worth highlighting is Tom Caswell’s presentation about the Open Course Library, an effort to take the 81 highest-enrolled entry-level courses and create open courses around them for the state of Washington.  This creates efficiencies and opportunities (customized resources, less expensive option for students than textbooks, may increase completion rates by making materials more affordable).  Each faculty member works with a librarian and instructional designer  to design their course.  Faculty members curate their materials; they use open content when possible and then fill in the gaps.  They also agree to re-use their course materials.  Open Course Library uses an existing LMS –Angel.  What the group would like to see is that the LMS could open up and expose the course content that students see as the “open version.”  The next LMS will have openness built in.   This will aid faculty members in Washington state to engage in the Open Ed movement.  Phase 1 (42 courses) launches October 31, 2011; phase 2 (39 courses) will launch spring 2013.

For my notes on Digital Media Studies stuff, see Lorrie’s Open Ed notes.

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Open Education Workshop at the Digital Union

Today Matt and I presented “Creating a Flexible and Open Learning Environment for the Architectural Studio” to a group of colleagues at the Digital Union, The Ohio State University.  We spent half of the session reviewing our slides (see below) and getting people onto the KSA Community and KSA Digital Library sites, and the other half running a mini-studio experience to help place these sites in context of a studio environment.

Overall, even given the half-hour time constraint, the studio was a success!  The design prompt was to design a Monument to Open Education for a site in or near Constitution Pond in Washington, D.C.  We were imagining that it was for a design competition, where there would be a design from OSU that would move forward in this national competition.  We had three group proposals in the end, with each team being responsible for presenting their concept, sketches, and a model.  Each team enjoyed the challenge of engaging in creative thinking and collaborating with colleagues and we saw some very innovative thinking.  It was a great experience and we look forward to trying it again at the Open Education conference coming up in October, 2011.
There are great photos posted on the Digital Union’s blog…thanks, DU!
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OSU Drupal Users Group Presentation

Recently, Matt and I presented our work at the June OSU Drupal Users Group. It was nice to see such a big turn-out!  We posted our presentation, “Supporting a Dynamic Learning Environment with Custom Application Development” to Slideshare (see below).  This presentation outlines our work with the Knowlton School of Architecture Digital Library and KSA Community platform and how we are developing these systems to support learners at the School.  The two systems are built on Drupal 6 with little custom module work.  We would like to thank Mitchell Shelton for asking us to present our work and share our experiences with others engaged in Drupal development at Ohio State.

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Announcing the new KSA Digital Library

On April 1st, Lorrie and I launched the new Digital Library for the Knowlton School of Architecture:

Entrance page of the KSA Digital LibraryThe library is built in Drupal 6, running on a WAMP stack. The site’s search functions are handled by a separate Solr server which is running Tomcat. We were able to build the entire project without building a module of our own (although that may be changing as we roll out new features). There are 55 modules in sites/all/modules, including such usual suspects as CCK, Views, Panels, and Workflow. The theme is based on zen_ninesixty.

Part of the library’s collection is the KSA’s repository of open education resources, including videos of the school’s Introduction to Architecture course, and our visiting lecture series for the past few years. Additional content is planned, including “how to” screencasts detailing specific tasks which our students need to accomplish (using AutoCAD, setting up digital fabrication files, etc)

Lorrie and I are working on a more formal announcement which will review the details of our process and the outcomes. For now, though, I’m just incredibly happy that the process has reached this point.

KSA News article: “KSA Digital Library re-released with new features and content

(this post also appears, with a slightly different focus, at Matt’s other blog, “Fabricated Experience“)

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