Monthly Archives: February 2011

Mashing-up the Learning Enterprise @ UMassOnline March 3

John Falchi and I will be speaking in Boston at UMassOnline next week about the emerging standards like Basic LTI and Common Cartridge that empower teachers in whole new ways. The ability for a teacher to mash-up the best-of-breed tools as they see fit and freely exchange material with their fellow teachers is a vision which many in the industry have been working hard to make real for well over a decade.

The recent release of the no-cost cloud-hosted LMS from Blackboard that support Basic LTI and Common Cartridge is an important moment in this trend toward teacher empowerment. This presentation wll look at the real pain points that teachers face in a Web 2.0 environment and how the standards and vendors are working together to provide a new way of teaching and learning.


UMassOnline invites you to attend a free event featuring guest speakers John Falchi, Chief Program Strategist for IMS Global Learning Consortium, and Chuck Severance, Clinical Associate Professor, School of Information at the University of Michigan, for a discussion and demonstration entitled, Mashing-up the Learning Enterprise to Provide Enhanced Learning Environments for Faculty and Students.

This discussion will focus on how a suite of interoperability standards developed by IMS GLC, Digital Learning Services, are providing educators with the ability to create dynamic and seamless learning environments, fostering greater student engagement in online and hybrid courses and streamlining faculty workflow. Demonstrations will highlight real-world application of these standards to create integrated learning environments and the portability of interoperable content. This discussion will also highlight how the IMS GLC member organization is functioning as a driver in the marketplace to create and advance standards that benefit faculty, students and information and learning technologists – and how you can engage in this movement and be part of the solution by participating in the IMS Campus Program. After the presentation, a light lunch will be provided during a one hour networking session.

This presentation will be held on Thursday, March 3rd, at the UMass Collaborative Service Facility in Shrewsbury, MA. See the complete event details and register at:

Where oh where is CloudSocial? Or CloudCollab? Or the Tsugi Framework?

I got an E-mail recently from Silvester Draaijer of Open Virutal University of Amsterdam ( asking me whatever had happened to CloudSocial ( and I realized that it has been well over a year since I had talked publicly about my grand visions for the future of the Learning Management System.

If back in 2009, you listened to my vision speeches as part of Apple Academix, I liberally sprinkled words like CloudSocial, CloudCollab, and the Tsugi framework throughout my talks. But I have become strangely silent about these lately.

I got CloudSocial to a working prototype stage and then realized that it was a good idea – but something I had come up with too early.   :)

The problem was that CloudSocial was a floating tool bar that needed tools for it to function and these tools needed to be available using IMS Basic Learning Tools Interoperability – and then I needed IMS Basic Learning Tools Interoperability support in the various Learning Management systems so they could launch CloudSocial.

Until these two pre-requisites were complete, there was no way to make CloudSocial real.   So I stepped away from active development of CloudSocial in order to focus on getting IMS Basic LTI into Learning Management Systems and get tools to support IMS Basic LTI.  

It has taken a while.  The Basic LTI spec was completed in May and nearly 100% of the LMS marketplace (Desire2Learn, Blalckboard, Jenzabar, Sakai, OLAT, ATutor, Moodle…) has some support for Basic LTI either in their shipping product or as an add-on.   Tools are slowly coming adding Basic LTI support.  WImba, LearningObjects, LectureTools, Chemvantage are among  the pioneering tools with real Basic LTI support.   I think that the arrival of tools naturally will lag the LMS support and so I think that 2011 will be the year of the Basic LTI tool.

Also, Full LTI will come out in 2011 and it will add auto-provisioning and run-time services to the LTI capabilities and that will take some time to complete.

But… Once all that is well in place, it will be time for CloudSocial to make its re-appearance in my research.   It has been a bit of a detour – but it will come back when the time is right.

The Tsugi Framework

I also built a whole framework ( with the idea of building a portlet / widget framework that allowed you to build a single widget and have it work with Basic LTI, FaceBook, Ajax, etc. Tsugi is written in Python and runs on Google App Engine. I anticipated tons of widgets floating around the cloudsphere all plugged in using IMS Basic LTI. I wrote the O’Reilly book on Google App Engine and then wrote a Chapter 12 that taught folks how to write my Tsugi widgets. I was even aligning the Tsugi approach with the Plone portlet spec.

I even had an independent study student use Tsugi to build a portlet. She built a nice little reading list portlet.

… Then I realized that frameworks generally suck. By writing my own framework, I learned that the reason that existing frameworks like Ruby on Rails, Hibernate, Symfony, (etc etc) sucked because they are frameworks. Previously I thought they sucked because I had not written them – but after writing and using my own “perfect” framework and then explaining it to other people and watching the pained expressions on their faces, I realized that frameworks are simply a bad idea.

So that was a good lesson too.

I recently have started gentle development of “Tsugi2” – it is simpler and more like a Python servlet with a few helper utilities. I have made less of it “magical” and only altered stock servlets where necessary. And I am only doing Basic LTI in this new library. It is not a framework at all and just a cool set of libraries. You can see it emerging in some sample code for Python App Engine for Basic LTI that I built for IMS. It focuses on a light touch – unlike Tsugi1. Here is some Documentation for this new lighter approach to building tools on App Engine. Compare it with the earlier Tsugi1 documentation. They are similar in the problem being solved – but different in the approach taken.

So where is this all going?

After I learned all these important lessons about how hard it is to do something awesome in a vacuum, I decided to focus most of my energy in the real world of teaching and learning like IMS standards and working with Sakai, Blackboard, Moodle, Angel, OLAT, and ATutor.

What is cool about all this is that the problems are in many ways simpler and I can have more impact quickly. It has been great to work inside the code bases of all of these software programs – each has their own strengths and weaknesses and with my experience across them, I am learning a lot about how to build real, significant software.

And interestingly, none of these successful products depend on a framework – they have best practices, reusable patterns, and depend on their programmers to be responsible. Amazing – who would have thought?

And I hope to come back to CloudSocial one day – a flexible floating tool bar infrastructure embedded into content is a cool idea and I would love to find a way to make it happen.

Running Moodle 1.9.10 on Amazon Web Services

I was trying to get the latest Moodle 1.9 running with a solid PHP with enough extension bits to import an IMS Common Cartridge (IMS-CC) that requires PHP5, DOM, XSL and LIBXML (2.6.30 or newer) extensions to be installed in the server. I had lots of hosted PHP instances from various sources that simply did not have enough of the plugins installed. So I needed to make a new one from scratch and since I have recently become an Amazon EC2 geek, I figured I would try it there.

I figured there would be a nice AMI (image) which had exactly what I wanted. There was a cool image from BitNami but it was for a 2.0.1 Moodle, not a Moodle 1.9.10.

But I figured I would be best off if I started with this image and did some hacking rather than starting from a naked image and adding stuff. I am sure there is a better way and I really wish BitNami would just give me a nice 1.9.10 image as good as their 2.0.1 image. But until then, it is hacker-time.

So here is my list of hack steps:

Start with a Moodle 2.0 Image from BitNami

Pick the EBS version - I choose ami-68c23301

ssh -i funkeys.pem

sudo bash

cd /opt/bitnami/apps/moodle/

mkdir tmp
cd tmp
curl -O
apt-get install unzip

cd /opt/bitnami/apps/moodle/
mv htdocs htsave
mv tmp/moodle htdocs

Choose a language: Next 
Checking your PHP settings: Next 

Please confirm the locations of this Moodle installation:

chmod 777 /opt/bitnami/apps/moodle/moodledata

Press Next

At the Database Setup Screen:

grep "'password'" /opt/bitnami/apps/phpmyadmin/htdocs/ 

Look for a line that looks like:

$cfg['Servers'][$i]['password'] = 'zippy';

Database Name: moodle19
User: root
Password: zippy (replace this with what you see above)

Press Next

Checking your environment: Next
Download language pack: Next

Configuration completed:

Copy PHP code  from the browser.

Edit /opt/bitnami/apps/moodle/htdocs/config.php
Paste in the PHP code from the browser and save the file

Back in the browser Press "Continue"

You should be at the license screen - from there proceed normally

Once things are completely done and if you want to install Basic LTI :)


 curl -O

mv /opt/bitnami/apps/moodle/tmp/basiclti4moodle/IMS*/*1.9*/mod/basiclti /opt/bitnami/apps/moodle/htdocs/mod/

Back in Moodle, Press "Notifications" as the Admin to create the Basic LTI tables.

And you are done.

Open Letter to Instructure / Canvas LMS

Instructure recently announced that their Canvas LMS will be open source for a basic edition.

We see this announcement in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Here is the page where they talk about open source. They made an awesome Viral Video with homage to the Apple 1984 commercial. My SI124 students should take note of this video and what it means for idea diffusion when a market is locked in on a seemingly obvious market solution. I may use this video as a final exam question :).

Here is my open letter to Instructure that I also posted on the Chronicle article.

This is a very cool development. Even though I was one of the founders of Sakai, through IMS I work with virtually everyone in the market place, commercial and otherwise. One more participant in the open source area is purely a great idea. Open Source is not Moodle or Sakai and commercial is not just Desire2Learn and Blackboard. There is a rich ecosystem of choices. Products like LearningObjects, Jenzabar, OLAT, and ATutor are all real players in the space and each brings their own wonderful creativity to bear on the problems of teaching with technology.

For me, this is about teachers and students and giving those teachers and students choices. What I really want to see as the next evolution of the LMS marketplace is a situation where teachers can increasingly choose amongst a wide range of outstanding (and well-integrated) choices. So the market can become more heterogeneous and a campus population will no longer be held hostage by an single enterprise choice made mostly by IT folks thinking about system maintainability. I would encourage you to think about ways to provide your services to faculty members without forcing wholesale LMS replacement.

Think about infiltrating campuses virally and then when they wake up and 5 percent of the faculty members on a particular campus are choosing your solution then start charging the campus. And when 70 percent of the faculty are choosing your product – take over as the enterprise default. This is not as far-fetched as it might seem.

I will be in the Salt Lake City Airport in a few hours in between flights. Too bad we could not have coffee to talk about this and draw some pictures on coffee-stained napkins.

Welcome to the Jungle.