Monday, December 20, 2004

IE 86'ed at PSU

You've already seen the story about the I.T. department at Penn State, a massive public university, urging its community to stop using Internet Explorer. You read it at the Chronicle, Slashdot, Information Week, etc.

I'm really pleased about this decision and impressed with the administrators at Penn State for making a public stand. My satisfaction isn't derived from the normal urge to badmouth Microsoft. When they make good software, I'm happy to give them my business. Heck, yeah, I'd like more competition in the marketplace, but I have no problems firing up my copy of Excel.

I'm just sick of enduring the immense resource drain that the Swiss-cheese security of Explorer and Outlook have caused. Billions of dollars have been wasted globally trying to counteract the negative impacts of viruses, worms, spyware, and all other manner of exploits that their software has been vulnerable to. Oh, sure, MS aren't the bad guys. What would we think of a bodyguard whose every client was shot, while defending himself by saying "there are too many people who want to hurt my clients."

The main problem for customers of a ubiquitous monopoly like Microsoft is clout. How do you build up sufficient market power to make them be responsive to your needs?

I've been quietly advocating for a public education campaign on campus for years to urge folks off of Microsoft's internet apps. It'll be interesting to see if any other schools follow suit in public fashion over the coming months. With the stir over Firefox going on, this is probably as good an opportunity as we're going to get.

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Friday, December 10, 2004


We saw a demo of Sonic Foundry's Mediasite yesterday. Mediasite is a conferencing appliance. It allows you to capture a presentation with multiple video sources, most typically a camera trained on the speaker synchronized with screenshots of his Powerpoint slides or document camera. Without any post-processing (a.k.a. "Editing"), you can immediately send that canned presentation to the web for streaming or to a CD.

I'm not going to do a review of product features here. If you're in the market for a conferencing appliance, you'll find reviews at PC Magazine, Network Computing, and ProAV Magazine. My overall impression is that this is a very elegant, easy-to-use system if you have a need to record classes and presentations in this way. It does seem to really ease much of the technical and support complexity of creating webcasted content.

There are some drawbacks and limitations, though.For starters, your output is totally locked into Windows Media. The meta-data scheme that synchronizes video cues to images from the laptop is internal to the Windows Media architecture. (Don't expect to run your stuff through Cleaner to make a QuickTime version, for instance.) Furthermore, you're reliant on use of a specialized player/viewer, so you have that obstacle to clear every time you try to get new users to make use of your webcasts (live or on-demand). Finally, while the output doesn't require post-processing, it also doesn't really allow it either. If you recorded an hour of video but only want to use fifteen minutes of it, you have a problem. On top of all the other possible objections, the device doesn't come cheaply.

Of course, I only really care about the device's utility in higher education. There are a couple scenarios where I can envision that a Mediasite or one of its competitors would be highly useful. One is obviously distance education, but if you're at a distance education shop, your institution already has systems for collecting and delivering course content. There are many other situations where professors have large lecture courses where they wish to deliver the lecture and supporting materials for on-demand use outside of class. Another is to create supplemental presentations on topics that will not be covered in class, such as remedial or preparatory material, lab instructions, etc. If this last scenario is your primary need, I can imagine Mediasite being quite useful. You have to decide whether the use of the appliance will be sufficient to justify its price. We small, residential schools might have a difficult time drumming up enough use to make the case for purchase, but my assumption is based only on our current lack of demand locally. We have a growing demand for streaming video, but it generally hasn't come from the curricular realm.

I haven't even gotten into the whole issue of whether it is educationally appropriate for instructional technologists to endorse the use of a technology tool that largely serves to preserve and deliver Powerpoint content. That's an argument for (actually from) another day.

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Saturday, December 04, 2004

Voting open for first edublog awards

The first edublog award voting has opened with Think Thunk nominated in the category "Best technology meets pedagogy blog." Hey, proof that somebody is reading this thing. I'm flattered and humbled.

Although Scott Leslie thinks this sort of thing is not helpful, I think this criticism takes the exercise way too seriously.

I consider the edublog awards more of a community building exercise than anything else. Looking over the nominations has made me aware of a much broader blogging community, and I've discovered some great new writers as a result. I can also tell from the limited statistical tracking I do on this site that I've received many hits here that were referred as a direct result of the nomination. This can't be anything but a good thing, as far as I'm concerned.

Taking some time to give a little recognition to our favorite writers is not a waste of time. Building a sense of community in our mildly obscure neck of the woods isn't going to hurt anybody.

Vote for Think Thunk if you like. That's great, and I'm certainly grateful for your support. More importantly, use the opportunity to explore the many other fine blogs that were nominated. You won't be sorry.

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Garage Band: making music without paying your dues

I was curious to find out what I could do with Garage Band. It had been years since I'd spent hundreds of hours fooling around with my 4-track cassette recorder that my high school band buddies (and later college friends) and I were using to lay down tracks. It has been longer than I care to admit since I'd taken music theory courses, been able to score up a basic arrangement of a pop tune, or taken lessons in voice, percussion, or keyboard.

I am a lapsed musician. (To be brutally honest, a severely lapsed artist in many forms.) I still have a good ear, but I've lost whatever chops I may have once had. While I'd fiddled around with many digital audio editing/sequencing applications over the years, I'd never really managed to do much with them besides cleaning up spoken word recordings.

If Garage Band was supposed to be so easy, though, I wondered what I could do with it in a very limited time. So I gave myself two hours to create the best song I could make. I came up with this little ditty, "Wednesday Funk Kebob." (It was a Wednesday, and I was making music-on-a-stick. Get it? I'm so clever.) I recorded no original material. Working only with canned loops, I collaged together a fairly rich multi-track piece within my time limit.

Trust me, I'm fully aware that I didn't just set the musical world on its edge. But you'll have to admit, it's fairly listenable. Go on now, check it out. It won't bite.

It's a little scary to me just HOW easy it was to pull this off. Garage Band drool-proofs so much of the business of sampling and mixing tracks. For instance, the loops provided will automatically adjust to the tempo and key signature that you've set for the piece. You really don't need to know a lick of music theory. Drag-n-drop. I just had a flashback to the heyday of Kai's Power Tools for Photoshop, when we were all treated to a couple years of excessively cheesy digital art.

While I'm really impressed with how much the tool empowers somebody like me to do, I'm struggling with the notion of how useful it is to empower somebody like me. While there's a small, intense market (a.k.a. my son's grandparents) for the images in my iPhoto and the home movies I can churn out in iMovie, I'm not so sure that there's anybody who wants to listen to my cut-and-paste compositions.

Still, it's an elegant program. It's definitely a winner for a singer/songwriter type who is looking to easily sketch out a new idea when other musicians aren't available. (From what I've heard and read, it's quite a breeze for live recording.) It's also a cheaper and easier alternative for actual garage bands to work up a simple demo. Certainly, for whatever simple (amateur) audio for multimedia I might have to create, it would be simple, cheap, and natural to edit and sequence it in Garage Band.

Interestingly, Garage Band seems poised to become a suite of products for Apple and third parties of many types. A cottage industry has cropped up around producing Garage band loop files. (Anybody can make them with a simple developers kit.) In January, Apple is expected to release a highly-integrated breakout box (a device with multiple inputs for audio sources) at a competitive price.

As usual with all the iLife apps, the point is not so much to create the best tool, it's to create the tool that the basic consumer is excited to use. I'm sure that there's quite a nice, steady revenue stream for Apple to tap for add-ons like the breakout box, the loop packages, etc. A dedicated niche market of rock star and DJ wannabes may be all it takes to make the application live on for a long time, and in the meantime, it's a very fun toy for lapsed musicians like me to fool around with.

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