Monthly Archives: January 2011

OER Rant 2.0 (Angry teacher and student)

Well, Tim Martin of SCORM.COM made a couple of cool comments on my last post and then made his own post. I think that we very much are in agreement (and both of us agree with Michael Feldstein on this as well) – so don’t read this next rant as any evidence of strong disagreement or hostility between Tim and me. It is more entertainment – like what CNN does with a pro and con expert on some inane topic in the news in a split screen on TV. The two people don’t dislike each other – they probably have beers together after the show. The purpose is mostly entertainment plus a touch of education as the expert commentators make points and counter points while the CNN host interrupts them to show how clever and insightful the host is.

Since Tim and I will never end up debating this on CNN, we have to do this on dueling blog posts – hopefully it is a bit entertaining :) And if you want calm, reasoned logic – see Michael’s post above. SO with no further ado, I present:

RANT 2.0 :)

Tim, this is a great discussion. I look at this issue with a lot of different hats on. First as part of the Sakai project and now participating in the development of systems like Moodle, D2L, ATutor, OLAT, and Blackboard, I am a technology builder, hoping to help the whole market better meet the needs of its customers. As a technology builder – the more standards these tools support – the better – period. Second, I am an IMS staff member helping build up our portfolio of standards with the goal of a more efficient marketplace. When I went into my rant about the demand that OER come out as SCORM, neither of these hats got flustered. Frankly, IMS and SCORM are talking and working and there are lots of win-win situations all around.

The thing that gets me steamed about “must produce SCORM” is when I put on my teacher or student hat.

I have had a situation where I was forced to take some required SCORM training as a student – by the time it as over, I almost hung myself with my mouse cord. The pro-SCORM folks will say “bad designers” – but there are some SCORM elements that instructional designers insist on using use because they work: (a) Lots of next buttons, (b) a left navigation menu with little checkboxes that appear as you progress through the material, (c) lots of questions where the content really does not care nor track your answers – they are just more screens that if you press Submit long enough – the software will let you get past the questions, and (d) the only permanent record of my training is that I found my way to some well-hidden trip-wire page where the lesson was marked “complete”. It was frustrating to be at 98% complete for two days because I could not find that last secret page no matter how hard I tried. After talking to HR training for two days, where they kept telling me what page I was supposed to find and sending me a sequence of screen shots for me to follow – and doing a view source on the page that I could not get past, I realized that there was some Internet Explorer specific code to call the SCORM runtime that was not running when I was clicking on the button in Firefox. I went and got a Windows box, navigated to the page, and viola! I was at 100%. And then once I hit 100% complete, I could never go back into the SCO because it was marked as a completed task in the learning system I had. Ah the joys of expensive useless government-mandated HR training to avoid lawsuits.

I am sure there are some sweet SCOs – but I bet those SCOs pretty much are just ZIP files with a lot of Flash, HTML, and Javascript – basically cool web pages that effectively use almost no SCORM at all.

I am also a teacher and have a Phd. in Computer Science and actually I have built a compliant SCORM run-time in ASP.NET and Javascript in a previous job in 2001. So I know my way around SCORM, SCOs and the run-time API. Once I wanted to tweak a SCO in a way that would alter that left-side navigation and add a bit here and there for my own purposes. The SCO was so brittle that I ultimately wrote a program that went through every HTML file in the unzipped SCO and made specific patches to the common navigation on *every* page so I could do what I want. If you hand a SCO to a teacher without a degree in Computer Science – it is uneditable.

So this is why I get a bit steamed (as a teacher and as a student) when the proposal is to pre-buy 2 Billion dollars of this stuff.

Frankly, the thing that would take a bit of the wind out of my sails on this little rant of mine would be if some real-live teacher (not an instructional designer or standards wonk) came forward on this blog and made a comment like this: “I love SCOs! I got some Art History SCOs from a a teacher in Ireland and had the easiest time editing those SCOs and was easily able to extend and alter the SCOs in Blackboard to add my favorite paintings and then save new SCOs and send them to my colleagues across the state! They then used my altered SCOs to teach their Art History class in Moodle. Another friend put my materials into Jenzabar since they run that at their campus. They both found some typos in my SCOs and sent my some SCOs back to me with all my typos fixed! Which I used this last semester. It was so easy!”.

My rant is not abut SCORM as a standard versus IMS CC – SCORM is well-established and very mature and IMS CC is emerging and finding its real place in the marketplace. (sorry Rob) If it is a mistake to insist that all the content be in SCORM, it would be an *even bigger* mistake to insist that all the content be exclusively in the less mature IMS CC.

The mistake is to pick only one format, and not allow alternate formats, and in particular pick a format that has never demonstrated it handles the edit/remix use case. The right way (as Michael Feldstein says in his blog) is to allow some diversity in approach and let the entire market work this out. Some experiments will work and others will fail – but we will have explored alternatives in a way to truly advance OER. I expect that both IMS CC and SCORM will have their significant roles to play. And I would be perfectly happy even if 90% of the OERs were SCORM because I trust the market to be wise and make the right choice if the recipients of the money are allowed to make a choice.

Open Educational Resources (OER) – Rant-Fest

OER has been bugging me for a while. This 2 billion Federal Investment in OER is just the thing to get me up fired up on a SoapBox about OER.

Here is the first Michael Feldstein post

And the second post from Michael Feldstein

Here is a Post from Rob Abel of IMS (disclosure – I do work as a consultant for IMS)

And here is my rant that is a combination of my reaction to Michael’s post plus my reaction to Rob’s post. If you want a more balanced view – see Michael’s posts above. If you are here reading my blog – it must mean you are lookin’ for a rant. I hope not to disappoint.


As a teacher, there is little value in learning content that I cannot alter (Remix). SCORM, Flash and PDF are effectively write-only formats designed for a model where content publishers make and distribute content and we teachers simply consume and/or point to the content.

This obsession with “making and publishing” OER artifacts that are unsuitable for editing is why nearly all of this kind of work ends up dead and obsolete. We end up with piles and piles of highly financed but un-editable artifacts that are usually obsolete the day they are created. The job of teaching is to *contextualize* materials – not just point at them. Most OER activities completely miss this point – they make some slick web site and then try to drive people to their site – virtually none of these efforts can demonstrate any real learning impact – all they can show is that they have a lot of viewing traffic. I would think that most current OER efforts traffic levels are directly correlated with the branding and marketing of the organizations hosting the sites – rather than the educational value or impact of those materials.

There are rare examples of OER materials impacting education – but they key to the ones that work is that the value is when there is a *teacher* teaching the materials rather than a bunch of highly polished PDF files that can be viewed. And the very fact that there is a teacher involved in the useful OER materials means that they quickly become stale and unless that same teacher keeps redoing the materials over and over, the materials lose their relevance and their value and since they are not in a reusable/remixable format (i.e. Flash, PDF or SCORM) – those materials are dead to the world.

On the other hand if the materials are published in a remixable format with a creative commons license – then when the OER from one teacher or publisher loses relevance – some other teacher or publisher can pick them up and move them forward.

As an example, I am writing a book called “Python for Informatics” ( – but this is a book that is over 10 years old and has four major authors and has been updated, refreshed, and published many times in the past 10 years by a different author each time. This is because the book (now) has a Creative Commons Share-Alike License (formerly GFDL) *and* more importantly it is distributed in a re-mixable format. That re-mixable format is LaTeX – which is a painful format to use – but at least it is the source materials and not some PDF that is dead the moment it is produced. This book that has a 10-year lifecycle and will be here 10 years from now in yet some other form *is* the motivating example – not the current OER web sites that are mostly marketing tools.

As I have said elsewhere, “This reminds me of the late 1990’s where the sexy foundation grant of the day was to give $250,000 to some graphic artists to make a really cool CD-ROM about bugs as if that would transform teaching somehow. By the time the CD-ROMs were ready, they were obsolete – both technologically and content-wise – and they were so narrow and limited as to be a completely pointless exercise. But the foundations that paid for them felt like they had made the world a better place. At the same time while the dinosaurs of the marketplace in the late 1990?s were in a feeding frenzy on well-intentioned grant money, smart clever folks were building a whole new industry – that was sadly under-financed and took years to develop and only found its stride when the technologies were commercialized and we had to buy them back from those innovators.”


While I am completely ranting here – the problem is difficult to solve. There has been almost no investment in the building of a re-mixable format for OER materials. IMS Common Cartridge is the best we have but it needs a lot more investment in both the specification and tools to support the specification fully.

The Learning Management Systems (Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Moodle, Sakai, Jenzabar, etc) are doing real investment and that is great and it will lead to real progress in time – but I wish that we could see some grant/foundation investment into building a real remixable learning content ecosystem that empowers teachers instead of just pre-buying a lot of useless material for them using government money.

But it is hard. And if there is a desire to spend 2 billion dollars in a hurry, then the only easy strategy is to give it to well-established organizations with large staffs and accept what you get back from them. I just wish that a tiny bit of the money would go to actually solving the problem that needs solving instead of just blowing the money on ighly-publicized projects to show that “our hearts are in the right place”.

I might wonder out loud whether 2 billion dollars of investment in the wrong thing is “better than no investment at all”. If the goal is to make more jobs – then poorly directed spending is better than no spending at all. But a sad downside of giving the money to the wrong folks is that it “blesses” the wrong approach and it makes it even harder for the folks who know what to do and how to do it to get their work done. Because of so much money flowing in the “conventional but wrong-headed” direction, it sends a message that anyone who might think counter to that direction is “wrong”. So innovation is squashed by conformity.

Oops – I am ranting again. I will stop now – and please don’t mention the “alles uber analytics” craze that is sweeping the misguided funding agencies right now. I have some work to get done this morning…

Thanks Windows Vista Registry Repair Saved Me

I have one Windows system left in an otherwise all-Macintosh home. I have BootCamp running on my mid-2007 iMac so we can go into Windows if needed. It is a simple installation with very little software, no games, people don’t read E-Mail, or do FaceBook and most of the time we spend with the computer booted to Mac OS/X so it does not get a lot of spyware or adware.

I installed it back in 2007, and pretty much left it alone.

Recently, it developed a really annoying problem of hanging on any kind of application startup – even pressing the “Start” button would hang the system. Windows Explorer and the sidebar application were even getting the spinning wheel of death as soon as you clicked on them. Interestingly they behaved better after you clicked on them and restarted them. But this was kind of disquieting to the Windows users in the home. Their solution was to go buy a special computer just for Windows because “Macs Suck”.

Needless to say, buying a new PC just for Windows was not one of the options I considered seriously. I think that Macs run Windows better than purpose build hardware like HP, Dell, etc – because Mac’s leave their hardware alone and quick tweaking the dang drivers. Mac is some of the only hardware that can run Vista, XP, and Windows-7. But enough of that – back to my main train of thought.

So I decided I would find the daemons that inhabited my Windows partition! My suspects were:

Not enough memory so I went and bought 2GB so it went from 1GB to 3GB. Did not solve the problem.

Not enough free disk space it only had 3GB free and that sounded like not enough so I went in and started uninstalling software and blasting large temporary files and got it up to 12GB free. That should be enough. Nope – that was not it.

Did not install Service Pack 1 – I figured since this would hardly ever be used – I had never installed Vista SP1. So I installed Service Pack 1. One hour and three reboots later, the upgrade was stuck at the third (of three) step at 70% complete and seemed to be hung. First I left it sit for 30 minutes to see if it would unhang itself. Then I had some errands to do and then I was gone for 2.5 more hours and when I came back it was still at 70% – so I power-cycled it and somehow on the next boot, the service pack finished. And then when I log in and try to launch Windows Explorer – Fail (again).

Too many programs in the system tray – So I went into Task Manager and Resource viewer (very nice by the way) and methodically de-installed stuff that was no longer used and then prohibited a few more things from being starting. I wanted it to come up quickly, cleanly, and I wanted the dang disk to stop being hit after 30 seconds or so. I got down to the absolutely minimum of auto started stuff ( I even shut off my network printer monitors in the system tray) and that did not do it.

Now I am 8 hours into the mission and $80.00 into the problem – and the system looks really clean (I *am* liking that) and comes up quickly but it still cannot launch Windows explorer from the start button. Sheesh.

So in desperation, I go to Google and type “registry repair” and one of the top-three links is and their registry repair tool. At this point, my next step is to format it all and install Windows-7 (the disk was at my office an hour away) so there seemed little harm in risking a registry patcher.

So I downloaded their free Registry Cleaner / Registry Repair tool and installed it. It is free but it wants to install the toolbar. I knew I could later remove the toolbar so that was OK with me.

When I ran the registry cleaner, it took a long time and hung at several points in the process but then recovered and made its way through. It found 1287 errors in my registry. I skimmed them but at that point, I figured what the heck and told Glarysoft to “fix them all”.

I rebooted and immediately Windows Explorer was happy again. I ran Glarysoft’s registry cleaner three more times with a reboot in between to get it squeaky clean – until the registry cleaner reported no errors.

The system now works flawlessly – everything comes up quickly and launches without error. Wow! Of course all of the other cleanup I did and the extra 2GB of RAM is a plus and with a nice disk defragment treatment – everything is very snappy again. Thanks to Glarysoft.

Now, I did remove the toolbar and set my default search back to Google and then I even de-installed Glarysoft (I wanted things to be squeaky clean).

But I did want to write a blog post publicly thanking for saving me from a full reformat of my Windows instance.

Note: This is simply a review of the products in this blog post. There has been no compensation for this review or my links to Glarysoft.

Rose Bowl Trip Report: Russ’ Christmas Present

Since the University of Wisconsin was in the Rose Bowl and my father Russ Severance is a Wisconsin alumni, I decided to take my dad to the Rose Bowl. This is a report of that trip.

My Blog Post About the Christmas Present

We got up at 5AM on December 30, to go to the Detroit Airport to Fly to Los Angeles. We flew first class thanks to Delta frequent flier miles and had a nice breakfast. I was writing my book about the history of Sakai and so I spent much of the flight writing furiously (it is up to 139 pages now) while he read an early review copy. Since he is my dad, he found it fascinating – that is not an indication that any else would like the book – but at least he did.

When we got off the plane, we went to Venice Beach and then on to Santa Monica to attend the Wisconsin Pep Rally at the pier. The pep rally was a lot of fun and lasted a long time. The Wisconsin marching band leader is a complete riot – very funny.

On December 31, we first went to Hollywood to get the standard picture with the sign in the background. Apparently all the people on the Wisconsin guided tours came a the exact same time so it was completely packed and everyone was wearing red clothing. We saw the walk of fame and the hand prints in front of the Grumman Chinese Theater. But it was so crowded that we decided to move on.

Our next stop was the La Brea tar pits where we walked the grounds and spent a lot of time in the museum. I really like the La Brea museum because the history is more recent and it feels more connected to the present than most natural history museums that are 60 million years old. The tar pits are really simple, clear and obvious and leave very little room for misinterpretation.

After the La Brea tar pits, we went to the Warner Brothers Studio VIP tour and got a tour of their back lot. This was the first time I had ever been on a studio tour other than Universal. It was great – we were on a cart driving around and our tour guide was funny and informative. We saw the movie sets for Chuck, Ellen, and Two-and-Half Men. We also went through the prop department and saw the Cheers set including the famous orange couch.

January 1, 2011 was game day. I wanted to go very very early and we did not run into much traffic at all so we ended up with four spare hours. We walked around and bought Russ a nice red hooded Wisconsin sweatshirt and I bought a T-SHirt so we would be red-colored like everyone else. Russ really liked the hooded sweatshirt. It was surprisingly cold while we were there. This night before the Rose Bowl it got down to 39 degrees. We decided to walk from the Rose Bowl up into Pasadena to visit Whole Foods. It was about a 2.5 mile trip but we had plenty of time.

As we walked up the hill to Pasadena, we encountered a wave of people leaving the Rose Parade that had just finished. Russ had been curious about the Rose Parade – but we did not have tickets. But through the luck of timing, we walked onto the parade route about 45 minutes after the parade so he could see all the bleachers. He did not believe me when I had told him they sold 90 dollar tickets to the parade. But he believed as we walked down the parade route. We got to Whole Foods, had lunch, and then walked back down the Rose bowl.

We dropped our stuff off at the car and went back into the stadium right on time. But the lines to get into the tunnel are pretty insane and the ushers for the Rose Bowl are pretty poor at crowd control. We stood for 25 minutes barely moving but finally made it in with about 15 minutes to spare. Many people I am sure did not see the kickoff because of the poor crowd management. Note to self – arrive very early to avoid the stadium tunnel rush.

But we did see the kickoff. The game was great. The teams were well matched. My summary is that there were two great offenses, one great defense, and one very good defense. The most important difference was that Wisconsin could only put single coverage on the wide receivers and never got any pressure on the TCU quarterback – that is a recipe for failure. And TCU defense was quick enough to play a tight zone that kept the Wisconsin passing game sputtering.

By the end of the game, the Wisconsin fans were groaning on every pass play. Kind of reminded me when Michigan played USC in 2007 and the fans were groaning on every Michigan running play.

The game was fun until the end and TCU won – but a good time was had by all. We did not stay for the ‘Fifth Quarter’ – I don’t know what it was and Russ and I were both cold and tired and wanted to get back to the hotel. We left northward and the traffic was very light and we got out quickly. Perhaps because all the Wisconsin fans were still at the Fifth Quarter.

The next day was out last day and we went to the Queen Mary. We toured the Russian Submarine and went on an excellent guided tour of the Queen Mary that focused on her World War II role. The tour guide was amazing – he brought everything very much to life. On the tour, Russ got to go into a lot of rooms that we could not go into on the self guided tour. We also went on the spooky tour of the bowels of the ship. That seemed pretty lame – I would have rather just had the exact same tour with the lights on. It was a very cool tour – but with the lights off you could not see the amazing engineering of the guts of the ship.

As a last stop on the way to the airport, we stopped at Fryes so dad could see a store that has oscilliscopes in stock and on the shelf. That was cool and afterwards we went to the airport to check in and have dinner.

We had dinner at the Encounter restaurant overlooking the LAX airport and then we took off for home.

It was a great four days :).

Sakai Portal 2.9 RoadMap and Sakai Course at University of Michigan

Hello all and happy new year – I just put up some slides that describe some of my rough plans for some improvements to the Sakai portal for Sakai 2.9. We have 9 months before code freeze so I want to take advantage of that time and make some real UI improvements. Here are some PowerPoint Slides that describe my effort around the portal for 2.9

At a high level, my plan is to take design elements from Sakai OAE and back-port them to Sakai CLE as well as integrate some more social features from Profile into the surrounding navigation and provide better integration for tools like Lesson builder into the portal. he above slides give some ideas as to where this is going.

Also, I am teaching a course at University of Michigan on Open Source Software Development that will focus on Sakai (CLE and OAE) and help me firm up and then execute this portal plan. My class will be a combination of technical people and designers. We will do all the design work in the open and on Sakai lists and in JIRA/Confluence so the community will be as involved as it wants to be.

I am working closely with Steve Swinsberg, Chuck Hedrick, Aaron Zeckowski, Adrian Fish, Gonzalo Silverio, and others so the overall intent of my course is to add resources to the community rather than start an isolated effort. Your participation is welcome.

The above course URL tells you how to join the course at Michigan in CTools. The course will also use Edmodo ( as its LMS in addition to Sakai in order to expand our horizons a bit. You can also become a member of our Edmodo site with instructions within Sakai.

Please let me know if you have any questions.