Earlier this week Scott Wilson and I attended an ICOPER widget workshop in Vienna. We were invited to the workshop to give an overview of the CETIS widget workgroup and in particular the work Scott has been doing on the Wookie widget server.
The purpose of the workshop was to clarify the concept of widgets in the ICOPER context, particularly how to link widgets to competencies. One of the main drivers of the project is to build best practice around the use of digital technologies, so it was useful for the project partners to have an opportunity to discuss just what their expectations/understandings of widgets are before deciding on a collective way forward.
The morning was taken up by a number of presentations giving an overview of some developments in this area and some potential areas for development. Scott started the day and emphasized the need for interoperability for widgets so that they can be deployed across multiple platforms and aren’t subject to vendor lock-in. This is one of the reasons the CETIS working group has initially focused on infrastructure issues as previously reported. The work he has been doing for the Ten Competence project has been focussing on utilizing widget technology to add extra capability (for both teachers and learners) quickly without having to modify an institutional VLE.
As the day progressed it become increasingly clear that interoperability is key for the successful development and use of widgets in an educational context. A number of presentations illustrated use of page aggregators such as netvibes. In one way these are great ways to quickly and easily start building personal spaces (or personal learning environments – but I use that term with caution). However the business model of any of these services could change overnight and how would that affect use - particularly in an educational context? Would you pay for your netvibes page? More importantly how/where would you recreate that page - could you export your "widgets" elsewhere? I’ve already been burnt by this kind of changing business model my love affair with the Sprout Builder widget application came to an abrupt end when they monetized their business model. I really liked their widget building wizard, but for my needs, it just isn’t really viable to pay their monthly subscription. Maybe one thing the ICOPER community could look at would be building a free, open-source widget editor.
One of the key things about widgets that seems to have a general agreement, is that they are small applications that generally do one thing, but do that one thing very well. I was slightly concerned when discussions came around to developing an e-portfolio widget. However I think what was actually being proposed was exploring how/if widget technology could provide different views into a portfolio, which actually might be useful. You may only want to show/share a small part of your portfolio any one set of users. I was more taken with the work being done by the OUNL with open content where they are developing widgets to aid reflective learning. They described there work as developing “learning dashboards” where information such as how long you had spent on a course compared with the average user study time is available. This information is easily available in most VLEs but very rarely shared with students – only a tutor should be able to monitor student progress But this is exactly the kind of information that can help to build relationships and ownership between a learner and content. Obviously this kind of relationship can be even more critical to developing successful learning strategies when using open content without any direct supervision.
Overall I found the day very thought provoking. I was glad to see that a consensus did seem to be emerging that widgets are not some kind of new answer to the age old problem of how we can provide more effective learning opportunities/environments but that they can help with teaching and learning if used appropriately; and if we can all work towards greater interoperability of the basic technology. In this way we can start to provide ways for teachers and learners to access a pic’n’mix of additional, discrete functionality to whichever learning environment they are using be that VLE, webpage, mobile phone etc.