Monthly Archives: March 2011

Enabling the Next Generation of Teaching and Learning Technology at Michigan

April 13, 2011 @ noon – Ehrlicher Room, North Quad


What it will take to make it so teachers and learners are empowered by learning technology rather than imprisoned by it?  It has been well over a decade since learning management systems came into the marketplace, yet they have changed little since they were introduced.   Web 2.0 provides an alluring vision of what is possible, but there is little evidence that new Web 2.0 technologies are used in teaching and learning at scale.  This talk examines the barriers to innovation in the teaching and learning technology space, and considers ways that those barriers can be overcome, leading to true teacher and learner empowerment. We will explore some of the groundbreaking work on teaching and learning technology at the University of Michigan. U-M was a leader in building the Sakai open source learning management system. Michigan has founding and continuing role in the IMS Global Learning Consortium’s efforts to develop standards for content and technology interchange between disparate Learning Management Systems, and emerging trends in teacher-centered Open Educational Resources.  The talk will conclude with a sneak peak at the design of the next generation user interface for CTools/Sakai with new features for social learning, and support for producing Open Educational Resources that is being designed and developed as part of an independent study course at the School of Information.

Notes: Charles Severance has been given the Excellent Instructor award from SI and will be giving a lecture. A light lunch will be served.

Dr. Chuck’s SI124 Student Video Projects 2011

This is a set of set of student projects for my SI124 – Network Thinking ( course this semester. We have a project in the course where students can create a video with the goal of maximizing their views. Everyone studied the book Viral Loop by Adam L. Penenberg as part of the project. This is a riff on the iPad Steering Wheel Mount Video that came out of the course I taught last year at this time. They have to write a paper at the end of the semester summarizing what they tried to do and what happened, what went right and what went wrong.

To be fair, you might want to view them all at least for 30 seconds or so and then decide if any of them are interesting enough to forward to folks you know. Viral is not so much about initial views but instead is about the likelihood of forwarding after viewing and that is what we are studying in these projects. If you look at all of them you will see an wide diversity of approaches in the attempt to go viral.

Feel free to comment directly on the videos in YouTube if you want to communicate with the video makers. They would love to hear from you.

Student Videos

Dr. Bi Winning explains the beneficial qualities of tigerblood

Matt tries to scramble some eggs for breakfast. When things start to get out of hand, hilarity ensues. Luckily our cameras were there to cover everything. Hey everyone! My name’s Matt and I am the founder of Northpaw Productions.

A few classes from the University of Michigan got to meet Funny or Die’s IT Guy, “Elbow,” when he decided to sit in on our Skype interview with some FoD executives. Turns out, “Elbow,” is Will Ferrell. Hilarity ensues.

Pie Smash, Nut Tap, Pimp Slap

Our cute Cavalier King puppies in action. Enjoy : )

This is by far the worst flop I have ever seen in any sport.

Girl are you surprised to see Asians in the LIBRARY? How do you think we get our grades hmmm? Original video:

Bob Frost: (1952-2011)

Photo of Bob FrostMy good friend and colleague Bob Frost passed away Saturday. His office was two doors down the hall and I miss him terribly. It was always a bright moment when Bob was on his way to or from his office or in his office. There was always a steady stream of music, students, and conversation that centered around his office.

I include the letter from our dean Jeff Mackie-Mason to the University of Information School of Information family below.

I wanted to share a couple of personal stories about Bob Frost to add to the stories that others have shared.

About four weeks ago, just before waking, I was having a very nice dream. Everything in the dream was bright and the sky was blue and the weather was perfectly warm. I was totally relaxed almost like I was sitting on the porch of one of those beach front houses in the tropics that have no walls with a nice fast broadband connection. Bob burst into my dream, very much in a hurry and slightly out of breath. He was wearing a brightly-colored jacket, scarf, white hat, and his curls were flying around. He came right up to me, looked in my face and told me that everything was great and for me not to worry – that things were going to work out. He rushed out of my dream as quickly as he had rushed in. As he left I was filled with a sense of joy, calm, confidence and optimism about whatever he was talking about. While it was only a dream, it reflected what it was like to be with Bob. When you were with Bob, you felt better, smarter, confident, happier and more alive. He brightened every room he entered and made every conversation interesting even if all he was doing was listening and reflecting.

I would like to share a slightly longer non-dream story about a meeting we had back in early 2008 about the undergraduate Informatics program. Let me set the stage a bit.

Prior to 2006, the notion of the School of Information being involved in undergraduate education was viewed rather skeptically by more than a few of the faculty. Bob Frost had been teaching SI110 for many years because he was deeply committed to sharing his knowledge with as many students as possible, particularly at the undergraduate level. For many years Bob taught SI110 as a “special case” that was relatively isolated from the rest of the curriculum. He often taught the course on overload to make sure that it was taught every semester because students had come to depend on the course.

In 2006 and 2007 we started work on developing the undergraduate Informatics LSA concentration. There were several schools of thought amongst the faculty as to whether Informatics should be a narrow, focused curriculum like one of our Masters specializations or a more broad liberal arts program that had courses from across all the topics in the School of Information.

Bob preferred a broader, more expansive and inclusive approach, but his position was in the minority at the time. Bob generally stayed away from the planning for the Informatics program during 2006-2007 with Paul Conway and me going to most of the meetings while we developed the program.

As we built the Informatics concentration with Math, Statistics, and EECS, it became increasingly clear that the right approach was the more inclusive and broadly scoped curriculum and that SI110 was the ideal introductory course for the Informatics program. SI110 was chosen as one of the essential pre-requisite courses for Informatics and we would develop a series of additional undergraduate courses that would build on SI110 as their foundation. But we never exactly told Bob. I am not sure we ever sent him a draft copy of the curriculum that reflected his approach and included his course. We were not hiding anything – everyone was busy including Bob and things were moving very quickly.

At some point, we had an SI meeting to approve the final draft of the curriculum. The meeting included Martha Pollack, Michael Cohen, Paul Conway, Bob Frost and me. Bob came rushing into the meeting a bit late with his curls flying as usual. The draft curriculum was in a stack of papers in front of him. I got the sense that he expected to be presented with an undergraduate program that would not make him happy. I also sensed as he sat down that he was waiting for the bad news that we were proposing a narrow exclusive undergraduate program.

As he sat down, he wondered if Paul could give a quick summary of the proposed curriculum. Paul described the broad and inclusive Informatics concentration and told Bob that SI110 was required for all the students and that the the Informatics steering committee representatives from the School of Information, EECS, Math and Statistics all agreed that his SI110 course was core and essential and one of strong points of the Informatics concentration.

As Paul finished describing the program, Bob shot me a quick smile that immediately gave me a sense of joy, calm, confidence and optimism about the Informatics concentration. Things were going to work out just fine.

Since then, the Informatics concentration has been very successful and in three years has grown to over 120 undergraduate students. All Informatics students take SI110, and many of the students decide to select the Informatics concentration after taking Bob’s course. In my mind, if it were not for Bob and his tireless work with SI110, the Informatics program would likely have never gotten off the ground. Students always tell us how much they enjoy the concentration and how they feel that Informatics is where they belong.

March 26, 2011

Dear friends, students, colleagues,

It is with deep personal sadness that I write to tell you that Bob Frost has passed away.  He expired while resting at home, with his wife — our colleague Margaret Hedstrom — and family members by his side.  

As many of you know, because Bob was a delightfully transparent and honest person, he has been fighting cancer for nearly two-and-a-half years.  He had remarkable courage, and fortitude (the initial prognosis was that he had less than a year to live). Bob was passionate about teaching, about his students, and about our School.  He insisted on continuing to teach a full load, and even developed new courses during his illness.  Remarkably, he was still in the classroom teaching SI 500 less than three weeks ago.  Many generations of undergraduate and graduate students have been touched by Bob; many of them say that he had a transformative impact on their choice of major and career.  

Bob was born in 1952, and received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin in 1983.  He came to Michigan as a visiting associate professor of history in 1995, and joined the SI faculty in 2000. For more information about his many publications, his teaching and his other interests, see

Bob was passionate about many things, including a passion for sharing information for the good of all.  Bob and Margaret established the Frost Open Access Fund by donating the royalties that Bob receives from the works of his great-grandfather, poet Robert Frost.  The fund was also named to honor Bob’s friend and colleague Olivia Frost, SI’s former interim dean and professor emerita.  The Frost Fund supports innovative projects that utilize open source software, or that study or promote the open access movement.

I have known Bob since shortly after he arrived in Ann Arbor, and over the years was proud to become his friend.  His death is a great loss to me, and I know it is to many of you as well; I share my sympathy with all of you.

A number of activities are planned to help us address our grief, and to remember Bob.  One is a fundraiser for cancer research that his students started a week ago in honor of Bob’s battle: if you wish, you may contribute through the American Cancer Society at  We will announce details of other activities soon.  

For now, please join me in a moment of silent reflection in Bob’s honor.  And please join me in extending support and sympathy to Bob’s loving wife, and our friend and colleague, Margaret Hedstrom.


Report from JA-Sakai

I was very honored to be invited to speak at this year’s Ja-Sakai meeting in Osaka, Japan at Kansai University along with Ian Dolphin of the Sakai Foundation and Janice Smith of Three Canoes. My topic was IMS Learning Tools Interoperability, but I broadened it to think about how open standards and open source combine to lead toward flexibility and freedom for teachers and learners to use the best possible technologies and combine and compose those technologies as the teachers and students see fit rather than waiting for vendors or IT staff to make new approaches possible.

My talk was titled IMS Learning Tools Interoperability: Free as in Freedom.

The trip started in Nagoya where we had a day-long on-campus workshop about Sakai hosted by Shoji Kajita. Shoji is very active in both the Sakai and uPortal communities.

There were a lot of good IMS Basic LTI questions. One key observation is that Basic LTI really reduces the barrier to entry for building a tool to plug into Sakai.

After two days in Nagoya, we took the Shinkansen to Osaka for the JA-Sakai meeting on Thursday. At the meeting, I was also able to catch up with Kazou Yana from Hosei University. We interrupted the program to hold a moment of silence at 2:46 PM local time to commemorate the exact moment of the terrible earthquake seven days earlier.

In my travels I there was no evidence of any problems in the parts Nagoya or Osaka. They are abut 450 miles away from Sendai so it is quite a distance. When I came through Tokyo Airport en-route to Nagoya three days after the quake, everything was cleaned up and operating properly. In Nagoya and Osaka everything was completely normal and there was absolutely no evidence of any problems, damage, or shortages. The trains, stores, streets and parks were full of people going about their normal everyday activities.

I am sure that in the Northeast where the quake was most intense and the tsunami happened and the nuclear problems occurred, there will continue to be cause for concern, but outside the immediate area of the problems, as best we could see Japan was unaffected. So that is some good news.

In the evening we had Karaoke planned – but most folks were somewhat tired so we ended up with three people each night: Shoji Kajita of Nagoya University, Janice Smith of Three Canoes and me. Janice never done Karaoke before – but she was a total natural and could sing lots of songs. Once she got started she never passed on her turn.

We did 2.5 hours in Nagoya one night and three hours in Osaka another night.

Everyone sang a lot of cool songs – with just the three of us, we even tried things outside out comfort zone. We all had a broad range of tastes – Janice sang a lot of classic rock and Shoji seemed to specialize in singing 80’s pop like Cyndi Lauper as well as Japanese standards – which he was very good at.

With a total of five hours beteen two nights, I got to try a bunch of things. This was my partial song list from the second night to give you a feel:

We Are The Champions of the World - Queen
Night Fever - Bee Gees
My Way - Frank Sinatra
Nights in White Satin 
Bridge Over Troubled Waters
Iron Man - Black Sabbath
Like a Rhinestone Cowboy - Neal Diamond
Oops I Did it Again - Britney Spears (Failed)
Ruby - Kaiser Chiefs
Boot Scooting Bookie - Brooks and Dunn
Breaking Up is Hard to Do - Paul Simon
Bobby McGee - Janis Joplin
You're So Vain - Carly Simon

I did everything petty well but gave up on the Brittany Spears song half way through. I was just trying to do a female pop artist since Shoji was having so much fun with Cyndi Lauper. But alas, I only knew the chorus and so I completely flopped the song and had to get out early.

All in all, a great time. The JA-Sakai sessions were recorded and I look forward to seeing the sessions again online.

Again, I owe many thanks to my wonderful hosts for taking such good care of use while we were in Japan.

(Book) The Battle for Sakai: A Retrospective Diary (0.0.2)

I finished version 0.0.2 of my book titled, “The Battle for Sakai: A Retrospective Diary”. The book is now 230 pages long and covers the time period through December 31, 2006. I am now going to print the book and send copies to a few reviewers for comment and see where I go from there. The book feels much more complete then the 0.0.1 version of the book, even though the last words in the book are “To be continued…”. :)


Writing software that supports teaching, learning and collaboration is far more than just a job. Since teaching and learning are some of the most fundamental human activities, we all have a vested interest in teaching and learning software. Discussions about the design of teaching and learning software can evoke passions from virtually everyone involved in the process. Passions run high and the stakes are high. On most college campuses, the software to support teaching and learning (Blackboard, Moodle, Sakai, etc.) is used more often than any other campus software. Student and teacher lives revolve around the software. A significant outage of a course management system in the last few weeks of class is likely to produce howls of anger from students, teachers, and administrators alike.

Building an open source product and community around the Sakai Learning Management System was far from a mere technical activity. In retrospect, the technical problems were relatively mild challenges compared to the challenges of so many people being brought together as a community where we generally made the rules as we went along. This book is about that journey of making open source software and deriving and changing the rules as to how we would make that software as we went along. It is about software developers, managers, designers, and end users all dropped into a crucible and put under pressure to make something great and do so in record time.

This book is about that battle for Sakai.

Charles Severance
Ann Arbor, MI, USA
March 6, 2010

Table of Contents

1   Before Sakai                            1 
2   Forming the Sakai Coalition            11 
3   The Sakai Project Begins               19 
4   The First Summer of Sakai              31 
5   The Big Meeting                        39
6   The Little Project That Could          45 
7   Framework II - The Sequel              49 
8   The Devil is in the Details            59 
9   Sakai 2.0: A Star is Born              81 
10  Lost in Transition                     91 
11  The Great Beyond                      107 
12  Finishing on a High Note              123 
13  Beyond the Mellon Grant               133 
14  Sakai Foundation Executive Director?  147 
15  Onwards, Upwards, and Down Under      155
16  V-Day                                 173 
17  Family “Vacation” Time                179 
18  Educational Community License         187 
19  U.S. Patent No. 6,988,138             203 
20  The Fall                              209 
21  The Winter                            227

If you want more updates on the book, follow me (@drchuck) on Twitter or come back to my blog again. I hope to have the book for sale in both electronic and hard-copy by May of this year.

Book Excerpt: Flying with Beth Kirschner

If you follow my twitter, you can see I am writing a book (currently at 172 pages). I am sitting at Boston Logan airport and finished a fun section about Beth Kirschner so I figured I would put it up as a blog post.


When I got back from the IMS Meeting at Stanford and JSR-286 Expert Group Meeting at Oracle, we had a meeting with Bill Spencer whom I had worked so closely with on the NEESGrid project. Bill had a new project called the Mid-America Earthquake Center (MAE) that he had gotten funded and he wanted to explore the option of bringing some of the NEES team back together. He invited Beth and me down to Urbana-Champaign Illinois along with Greg Peters. Beth is a private pilot and is a 25% owner of a single-engine plane. So we decided that we would fly ourselves from Ann Arbor, MI to Urbana-Champaign, IL. I also had a pilot’s license but had not flown in a small plane in many years so this sounded like a great idea. Beth even said she would let me take the controls for a while to let me see if “I still had it”.

One the way down, I sat in the back seat. I had my laptop, cell phone, and my battery-powered GPS and did some coding on the flight down. I figuredBeth did not need me looking over her shoulder and right-seat-driving. I would get to fly in the right seat on the way back. Greg was a little queasy about flying a small plane so I figured he could sit up front on the first leg of the trip.

As I watched Beth fly the plane it was obvious that she and I had completely different approaches to flying. I always approached flying as if I were a commercial pilot (in a tiny plane) and worked to be completely precise at all times in terms of navigation and attention to detail. Beth on the other hand flew with emotion. She should have been a barnstormer in a bi-plane or at least have an open cockpit with a white scarf, leather jacket, and goggles. She flew with so much joy whereas I flew with my brown leather jacket and Ray Ban sunglasses and clipboard, trying to look oh-so-commercial-pilot in my tiny single-engine plane.

Ironically, in terms of approach to programming, our personalities were the opposite. As a programmer, I was the creative fearless barnstormer with the white scarf and goggles and Beth was the precise, logical professional programmer with her Ray Ban sunglasses and clipboard.

It was fun to watch Beth fly – it was as if she was playing with the clouds. She did not spend much time looking at the map, nor was she obsessed with the nagivation radios. Most of the time she was looking outside the plane at the absolutely beautiful day with blue skies and widely scattered clouds over a pretty patchwork of farmland. While I was watching Beth fly out of the corner of my eye and, coding with my laptop on my lap, I was also quietly watching my GPS. Back when I had been flying small planes, GPS units were not so common so I wanted to see how they worked on a plane. Beth was not a fan of GPS units – I think they got in the way of her creativity and enjoyment as a pilot.

But as we were approaching where Beth thought we should be seeing Urbana-Champaign, my GPS indicated we were lost. We were 35 miles East of where Beth thought she was. We had plenty of fuel and it was an absolutely gorgeous day and I was just enjoying being in the air so I figured I would wait and see how long it would take Beth to figure out she was lost. She was confused because where she had ended up, there was a city and she knew that at Urbana-Champaign the airport was a few miles South West of the city, so she wandered South West of the wrong city for a while looking for the airport that she would not find. With my GPS and peering at the map over her shoulder, I knew that we were flying over Danville, IL and not Urbana-Champaign.

At some point it dawned on Beth that the airport was not where she expected it to be and the city was more of a town and way too small to be Urbana-Champaign. As she was discussing her thoughts about being a little confused with Greg, I just quietly mentioned that I wondered if we might be over Danville instead of Urbana-Champaign. Beth quickly took a look at the map and everything she was seeing quickly confirmed that we were indeed over Danville so she headed west following I-74 and quickly found Urbana-Champaign and the airport. I waited until we landed to tell her that I had cheated and used my GPS.

The meeting with Bill went well. Unfortunately, I was so deeply involved in Sakai that I really could not help him in his new project. Beth was also pretty busy at the time as well so we really decided that Greg would would be the primary MAE contact on the work and Beth and I would act as consultants to the effort.

On the way back it was my turn to sit up front with Beth in the right seat. True to her word, Beth let me fly for a half hour or so after we got to altitude. I was surprised at how rusty I had become after fifteen years of not flying. But after a while the ability to hold a heading and altitude started to come back. It felt great to be flying again. After a half-hour, I gave the controls back to Beth and just enjoyed the rest of the flight home with Beth at the controls.

Adrian Hands, Ian Page Hands, Gnome, and Open Source

I saw this go by on Twitter but it is too profound a story to let scroll off my screen so I am going to make sure I remember it in this blog post.

Adrian Hands was a contributor to the Gnome open source Linux Desktop project. Adrian died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) on February 2, 2011 while in India getting treatment.

His last patch to the Gnome was to add a copy image to clipboard and copy path to clipboard functionality to Gnome. He wrote the patch by typing it in using a morse code device he operated with his legs as he could no longer use a keyboard because of his disease.

Adrian finished the patch and submitted it on January 30, 2011, three days before he died.

His last communication with his son Ian Page Hands was on January 30, 2011 where they exchanged E-mail about how proud they were about the patch.

My words in this blog post are so insufficient to describe this. Please go and read Ian’s note to the Gnome community.