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You might have noticed that there hasn’t been a new post on this blog for a while.

Why?

Well, it’s because the ode beta is, from today, being shut down.

After a strategic re-think we have been asked to build a bigger and better version that can take full advantage of the Pearson global network. But to do that ode development as a brand/blog/beta platform has to be stopped.

This means goodbye to ode as you know it. So I guess all that’s left is some thank yous.

  • Thanks to all our beta users and 3rd party content and platform partners for your support, energy, feedback and encouragement.
  • Thanks to all the bright and passionate folks we have met over the last year or so: you have opened our minds to any number of exciting challenges and ideas.
  • Thanks to Eylan Ezekiel for being first to find us.
  • Thanks to switched on people like Mark Berthelemy, Ewan Mackintosh, David Hicks, John Davitt , Dr Martyn Farrows and Ian Usher to name but a few for noticing us. People like them are true 21st century educators – it was a thrilling moment to come into the office to find we’d popped up on their radar. We always took it as the highest compliment. Like us they are people who have stepped up above the parapet and said: there are better ways to deliver technology to the modern student. They don’t accept mediocrity and they don’t expect it to be easy. But they do all share one common belief: positivity about the future of technology in education. And for that, we salute them.
  • Thanks to Jon Hicks for his tree.
  • Thanks to those people who took the time to talk to us at BETT, at conferences, at Teachmeet and most importantly in schools and colleges.
  • But most of all thanks to the team who have worked mightily hard on this project and had fun doing it. You can’t ask for more than that.

So what’s next?

ode as a brand, as a singular idea, is over. We have learned an enormous amount about how schools are entering the web 2.0 space.

To that end the team will now concentrate on building the new platform. This blog will re-emerge soon enough, probably with a different name but it’ll be the same old esoteric ramblings as before.

I hope anyone who followed us will step back into the conversation when I re-start it later this year – bigger, bolder and more “elearningy” than before.

Love,

The ode team

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt

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When a team works together long enough they start to develop a set of quirks and idiosyncrasies that help them through their working life.

What odd little habits and processes has your team developed over the years?

Here’s some examples from our weird little world.

Super food Tuesdays

We use agile development techniques to build ode. An integral part is that every other Tuesday we get together and have a retrospective over the previous two weeks. As part of that I buy a load of super foods for everyone to munch on.

This helps keep energy levels up, provides a start of meeting talking point and makes for good conversation on Flickr. Plus it’s better for the brain than cheap coffee and biscuits. Recently, as a one off, we even decided to cook our own food.

Adding “-inator” to any little product we build

SCORM-inator, META-nator, CREDIT-inator. To build ode we need a whole raft of back end tools that we’ve had to build for ourselves. For want of any better naming system we just add “-inator” to their task description. Yeah, it’s not very amusing but it’s become an unstoppable office in joke.

Lateness league

We have a 15 minute stand up meet every morning at 9:45am. As you can imagine there’s really no room to roll in late so we invented a lateness league to punish offenders who come in last post- cigarette/coffee machine/memory lapse three times over a two week period. The punishment has ranged from buying the whole team drinks to singing a song in front of everyone.

Strangely enough it works.

Whiteboard styles

When whiteboard sketching we’ve noticed that everyone has a style. James does tree structures, Dik does tubes and boxes, Ed does timelines, I do numbered lists. I have no idea what this means psychologically.

Theming our Learning Matrix

In each fortnightly retrospective we do a learning matrix.

  1. Top left = Things we’ve done that we want to continue doing (good, yay!)
  2. Top right = Things we’ve done poorly that we need to improve (evil, boo!)
  3. Bottom left = Ideas (lightbulb)
  4. Bottom right = Kudos (those folks who have contributed above and beyond)

Somehow this translated as smiley face, sad face, lightbulb and a bunch of flowers. This then turned into themes. I present the 3 most embarrassing below (from left: Doctor Who, Artistic and Star Wars):

Yes, I know what this looks like.

“He/She knows what time it is”

This is the highest compliment we can pay to any inspirational people we meet in the course of building ode.

Planning poker

When our development team sit down together to estimate how long (in points) each piece of functionality will take to build they use an old set of Flashcards from a Spanish course by RM called “Sonica Spanish” upon which we have scrawled numbers.

Each coder is given an identical set of cards and they “play” a card that represents how many points they think each story will take to do. Then on turning over the cards they can wrangle between them how many points they agree it will take. It’s just more fun than shouting a number. Plus our coders have mean poker faces.

I was recently made aware of the School of Everything (great name!) which looks like a very promising opportunity.

School of Everything screenshot

They are a UK start up company in the education space with a focus on facilitating learning that doesn’t happen in school, which I think is a really simple proposition that works.

As far as I can make out they have created a web platform (hub?) that anyone who considers themselves to have a domain expertise e.g. drumming, aromatherapy, felt making, yoga, can self nominate themselves for free as a “tutor” with the aim of attracting students and earning money.

Private tutoring basically. A bit like www.eduslide.net but with people instead of elearning content. It’s all about facilitating the relationship between pupil and teacher.

For example if you are a demon backgammon player you can create a profile and market yourself, with details about who you are, where you are and what services you offer at what price.

Educators are signing up from all over the world which is encouraging, as I suspect that to truly find someone with an expertise in obscure long tail subjects (left handed pool trick shots, octopus wrangling, rice grain painting) you are going to have to look much further afield than your own backyard. Also those tutors could potentially earn good money – rare skills command premium rates.

What I would like to see:

1) The ability to rate my tutor and comment on their work. I would like all tutors to be open to a public and open discussion on their methods, knowledge, ability to teach and on going support. Being an expert does not necessarily make you a good teacher. And anyone can sign up so there is no pre-validation of expertise. In a school or college as a pupil there is an (unspoken) trust agreement that the tutors have been through education and a recruitment process.

2) Software built into the School of Everything platform that meant I could video conference/screenshare with a tutor from around the world.

3) See their calendar, check out testimonials, view more photos and loads of other important stuff. I personally want to know more about the tutor, perhaps a chat function that allows me to get in touch immediately whilst the idea’s in my mind. Some stuff about their teaching methods would be nice too.

I’m sure School of Everything have considered the above points and more, they come across as a great team with some big ideas. I genuinely hope they succeed.

They are in alpha development right now and, like us, there’s loads they will want to do but it all takes time and money. C’est la vie.

I can’t help but feel School of Everything (aswell as sharing a similar attitude and space) and ode could link up in someway, via APIs if nothing else. If any of them get this trackback and are listening then get in touch!

We’re currently building some of the really fun stuff – the whole social networking side of ode.

The first building block of any network is it’s smallest unit. In our case, and in most others, it’s the user. And every user needs a profile.

Alongside lots of debate around privacy settings, newsfeeds, sharable content and nicknames I started thinking about the psychology of the profile picture, or avatar.

Every social site (that I’ve used anyway) allows you to upload a picture against your profile. This is a common web function.

So we accept we can upload a picture – but why and what do we choose to upload? What does it say about us? What are we trying to say to other people about ourselves in our choice of picture?

I guess at it’s most basic we have a need to connect on a visual level. Your profile picture is one of the most powerful ways of immediately providing a signal of who you are. On Facebook people regularly change their picture to show a new side to themselves, or to include their new baby or even in fancy dress.

Famously there’s no ugly people on Myspace, due to the rise of the Myspace Angle.

Ultimately it’s all about establishing an identity in the intrinsically anonymous internet.

But those examples are social sites, for fun and frivolity.

On a professional business network platform such as Linkedin (and ode) anonymity is not necessarily paramount – in fact you want to people to know the “real” you to a certain extent.

So it’s clear your profile picture will be chosen more carefully. It is a network used by your peers and therefore you will want to come across as mildly professional at the very least.

So that picture of you drunk and in costume as a Klingon might make people laugh, but they won’t take you too seriously.

Of course not everyone wants to show what they look like and perhaps cannot bring themselves to use an avatar (a “virtual” representation of themselves). Or they simply can’t figure out how to do it.

So, if a profile demands a picture and you can’t provide one the website has to put something in it’s place. This is where we meet the mystery men and women. What I like to call “blankies” (in place of anything better to call them, as they provide a little bit of comfort. And they’re blank. Well, you get the idea).

Universally a pale grey seems to be the colour of choice, not black as silhouettes traditionally are. Their purpose is to encourage you to upload a photo, to personalise your profile to decrease your anonymity and increase personal ownership of your profile.

So to celebrate the blankie, one of the most powerful calls to action on the internet, I present a small gallery and critique of some of the most famous…

Youtube blankie

The Youtube blankie: Dynamic, bold and immediately connects you to the purpose of Youtube using the common language of the video camera icon. Of course as it’s audience gets more and more used to filming on mobile devices perhaps that will have to be changed?

Wordpress blankie

WordPress blankie: (the platform this blog is written on and a wonderful service it is too) have gone for a simple, classic, almost nihilist “fat blankie”, or “Cluedo piece”. Interestingly they have recently employed a much greater range of potions for your profile picture, including the wonderful identicons.

Ning blankie

Ning blankie: “Make your own social network” site Ning have tried to humanise their blankie by giving it a realistic outline. Unless you’ve got Marge Simpson’s haircut it’s clear what needs to go here.

Myspace blankie

Myspace blankie: This feels more authoritarian, more demanding, even a little scary. You have “NO PHOTO”. Interesting fact: that person graphic is often also employed on Gents lavatory doors.

Linkedin blankie

Linkedin blankie: Like the Myspace blankie but with a softer, more natural look, on a white background. It’s even wearing a smart/casual jumper.

LastFM blankie

LastFM blankie: LastFM is a social music platform. It has a built in coolness and it’s where all the hip and groovy cats hang out. Hence the mysterious, Third Man type blankie. One of my favourites.

Flickr blankie

Flickr blankie: Flickr, one of the most popular image sites on the net, has perhaps the most strict and simplistic blankie of all. If you stare at it long enough the straight line mouth appears to morph into a cheeky smile. Apparently you can pick from 3: this is the “ambivalent” one.

Facebook blankie

Facebook blankie: In a break from tradition Facebook has cast aside all human elements and simply gone for the classic question mark. Lazy.

Digg blankie

Digg blankie: Is anyone else picturing Spiderman? Look at those broad shoulders. This is a man’s site, be in no doubt.

Upcoming blankie

Upcoming blankie: Happy, happy, joy, joy. A smiley emoticon for this community for discovering and sharing events. Although does it look a little overweight to you?

So what will ode choose for it’s blankie? Perhaps we’ll design a few and let ya’ll vote. Has anyone spotted any other cool blankies on their travels through cyberspace?

++update 8.5.2008 (hat tip to Peter for most of these, first post below)++

Bebo blankie

Bebo blankie: Social networking, popular with teenagers. In fact if I had to guess the age of this blankie character I would probably say a moody 17. Looks a bit like Morrissey circa 1982. So, good work.

Basecamp blankie

Basecamp blankie: Basecamp is a project management tool that we use, religiously. Now we have 100’s of users across multiple projects so the blankie has to be very small as it’s attached to messages etc. Interestingly, even though this is a professional office tool, of those people who have uploaded a profile picture hardly anyone has used an actual photo of themselves.

Mydeco blankie

Mydeco blankie: Mydeco (“It’s a furniture fix for the decorati!”) has plumped for a large detailed male outline. Rebelliously they have gone for white figure on a grey background and included a question mark. Word. I’ve also been inspired for a new tagline for ode: “It’s a content fix for the teacherati!”. No? OK.

Entertainment Live UK blankie

Entertainment Live UK blankie: I am not wholly confident what this site is, but it appears to be something to do with promotion of live music in the UK. Their blankie is as alarming in it’s complexity as their website, which has to be browsed to be believed. Hardly any of their members have added a photo, perhaps because the default blankie is more interesting than any real person could possibly be.

Indeptharts blankie

In Depth Arts blankie: A digital art forum that again uses the “question mark in face” motif. It’s becoming clear that if you actually have a question mark instead of a face you’ve saved yourself a click, eh?

Reggae Party blankie

Reggae Party blankie: Only a Dutch site called “Reggae Party” could employ a blankie like this. Personally I love it. Irie.

Sailing networks

Sailing networks blankie: Wow. This is almost our first “non-blankie”. So minimalist it’s almost not there at all.

A recent change to a car park I use regularly has really bothered my user-centric radar (bear with me on this one!).

Our nearest local amenities from work are in Summertown, just outside North Oxford. It’s a busy main street where you can run quick errands like pop to the bank, grab a sandwich or a birthday card and so on.

Parking is a nightmare, especially at lunchtime, as you’d expect. There’s only one public car park and it’s continuously near capacity.

Until recently something used to spontaneously happen in that car park that was really interesting and I guess happens all over the country.

The entrance is right next to the exit so a car coming in would pass within a foot or so of a car going out.

You would often find people, when leaving and passing someone coming in, reaching out through their open window and offering their ticket, which usually had a good bit of time left on it, to the incoming car.

This is unexpected generosity, a little bit of sunshine, a free ticket!

It wasn’t an agreed behavior. There is likely an element of kitchen sink rebellion, but it felt good giving someone else your ticket and that recipient felt good that someone was kind enough to do so.

So what’s happened?

The local authority has introduced complex and stunningly awful new ticketing booths that force you to input your car registration number before it will issue you with a ticket, so that traffic wardens can link your car to the ticket.

This means people can’t pass tickets with a bit of time left on them to one another any more. No more sunshine.

So now you see people walking to the ticket machines, realising they have to input their registration number, sigh and go back to their car to remind themselves what it is, then walk back to the machine and wrangle with the appaling user interface (I mean, look at all the arrows, buttons and instructions) and then go back to their car to display it.

Courtesy of (the equally annoyed) louisiana

All this effort so the council can claw back the few pence it “felt” it was losing (quantifying the amount of tickets passed altruistically must be almost impossible).

And of course a ticket always guaranteed a space for 1hour – it would just be filled by a different car. The ticket still runs out as normal.

What’s more important: gaining a few quid or keeping the world .001% happier?

(An addendum tale: the council also changed the machines in a car park in the center of Oxford to number plate recognition ticket machines in direct response to complaints about a few homeless folk who used to ask (politely in my experience) for your old ticket so they could sell it on to the next person and make a few quid.

You can’t buy a ticket that hasn’t got your number plate on, right?

But what soon developed, and this always makes me smile at the ingenuity of it, is the homeless guys didn’t go away, they now help car park visitors to understand how to use the awful new machines and people tip them. Brilliant!)

So what does this tell us?

  1. Humans will always find a way to break or workaround a system to help each other if such a way can be found.
  2. How you think a system should work is not always the same as how users work your system.
  3. Changing a system to block natural, spontaneous behavior will only alienate and drive people to work around your block.
  4. Sometimes it shouldn’t just be about the money.

The last time we professed love for a website was a big old gush about moo. We even went mini card crazy at BETT 08 so we are still devoted fans.

ode moo cards at BETT 08

(True story…my hand holding our Moo “golden ticket” card for some reason comes out 2nd and 3rd in a Google image search for “moo card”. Sorry, Moo!)

Today we love… Commoncraft.

For those of you not familiar with Commoncraft they make short instructional videos on a range of (mostly) technology subjects and tools that otherwise confuse, infuriate or alienate most “non-techies”, such as Wikis, Twitter, Blogs and RSS feeds.

If any of those words sound like jargon a) you are missing out on some really useful and interesting technology and b) keep reading to find out why.

In their words: “Our product is explanation. We use video and paper to make complex ideas easy to understand. We present subjects “in plain English” using short, unique and understandable videos in a format we call Paperworks.

You may not recognise the terms in the videos below, or you may have heard them mentioned and been too intimidated to admit you don’t really get them. Nothing wrong with that. Everyone has to start learning somewhere.

Why do we like Commoncraft so much to give it our coveted “Who do we love today” link?

  1. Each video looks (deliberately) amateur and therefore removes that psychological barrier that often exists between trainer and trainee.
  2. Each video doesn’t last long so you can give it your full attention.
  3. They allow you to embed the videos under their creative commons licence.
  4. Recently, in an ode way, they’ve started to sell each “little bit of explanation” as a business tool for those that want higher resolution versions.
  5. They make learning enjoyable without being patronising. Not as easy as it sounds.

I wish I could have shown people these videos when pitching ode. Perhaps then there would have been slightly less blank stares when I mentioned things like “I am going to do a blog”.

Yep, ode would be proud to sell Commoncraft video to schools and colleges.

Wikis in plain english

Blogs in plain english

RSS in plain english

Google Docs in plain english

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”

Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC)

The ode library

We’ve found a new device which we think will transform the way information is delivered.

  1. It never crashes.
  2. It has the simplest cross cultural interface that works.
  3. It doesn’t need a help manual or instructions.
  4. It requires no power supply.
  5. It’s cheap to make.
  6. It’s highly portable.
  7. You can use it pretty much anywhere without any sort of connection.
  8. If treated well it will last for generations; no matter what other technology arises it will always be usable.

We love virtual content as you know but we also love books. We encourage people in the team to contribute to our office library – if you want to borrow a book, then you have to add a book. Share and share alike.

Blogs, wikis and websites are all very well but a book gives a subject time and space to breathe. I will rapaciously tear through a 400 page book but would balk at the idea of having to read the same 400 pages online or on a mobile device. For now.

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

Groucho Marx (1890 – 1977)

Rockstar, the creators of the Grand Theft Auto series, have made a rather significant jump up the evolutionary digital distribution ladder by partnering with Amazon to add music downloads to their game world.

Their new title, GTA IV, will likely be the best selling game of all time. Amazon are the most successful online retailer in the world. Obviously some bright spark noticed their might be an opportunity…

A major slice of awesomeness found throughout all the GTA titles has been the music. When you drive any vehicle in the game you have a selection of radio stations you can “tune” into.

Music in games is nothing new but the GTA coup was that their music was proper chart music, music you recognise, music you could have an emotional connection to. And not just pop and rock hits but also opera, classical, jazz and much more. It really did add an edge of realism to the whole thing.

One of my favourite gaming memories of all time is from GTA: San Andreas. I was running from a car park roof top ambush and firefight. I stole a motorbike and gunned for the exit. Just as I thought I had got away the camera swung round to show an articulated lorry driven by one of my adversaries smashing (in slow motion!) it’s way off a flyover I had just passed under and barreling towards you.

But what made it really sweet was that all this happened as “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns and and Roses was blasting out. I seriously cannot tell you how cool this was.

So now Rockstar have teamed up with Amazon to sell you extra music via the medium of your characters mobile phone. From within the gaming experience you will be able to browse a music store and download digital music to compliment your game. Also the tracks will be portable, meaning you can then transfer them to your MP3 player.

This type of approach will help revolutionise the distribution of digital content. Rockstar provide the traffic (customers) and Amazon provide the content. This is a “mash up” to all intents and purposes, on an unheard of scale.

What this does is further widen the gap between those who want to exercise a “command and control” approach to content delivery and those who want their content to touch as many points as the consumer requires.

Everything is pointing towards content liberation and greater user choice.

  • Virgin and Sky allowing you to choose your own TV.
  • iTunes abandoning restrictive DRM so you aren’t forced to own an ipod.
  • BBC iplayer giving free and easy access to the last 7 days of all BBC programming.
  • Youtube encouraging you to embed their video streams into your website.
  • Ringtones being available to buy directly from your mobile phone.
  • RSS feeds bringing website content updates to you rather than you having to go and find the content.
  • Guitar Hero 3 releasing extra tracks through the next generation of consoles shop fronts.

All these methods are commerically viable or bring added value.

If a community is available any switched on company should be able to provide them with a channel to their content in a form (or forms!) that enhance or complement that experience.

John Davitt has included a short paragraph and link to ode in his BETT 2008 review in the Guardian Educational Link supplement.

I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting what he says about us as we’re all glowing with pride here, even if it is only a small mention, as it is alongside some august company.

Little bits of learning

Another company that may have caught the spirit of the times is Ode with its strapline “little bits of learning”. While most other suppliers are working on systems encompassing everything, Ode simply hopes to tag and share small and varied learning resources by working with content holders (blog.odeworld.co.uk).

http://education.guardian.co.uk/link/story/0,,2266345,00.html

In the article itself John has actually posted a fairly damning revue of the BETT trade show this year. The major issue as he sees it is the link between government “interference”…

“The heavy-handed compulsion for all schools to have a learning platform by the end of the year has removed the chance for schools to try some different approaches to find what suits them best.”

…and how the industry reacts e.g. the overwhelming dominance of giant VLE/LMS systems that attempt to provide all singing all dancing solutions.

By fixating on these tools he argues that the smaller more interesting elearning products are squeezed out. Potentially to the detriment of the teachers themselves.

It’s always been a bit of an in joke at each BETT I’ve attended (and I’ve been going for years now) that most of the people you might speak to if you are manning a stand are likely to be industry people who have faked their badges. John is saying we should face up to it.

“Perhaps it’s time to stop talking up Bett as something with mass-classroom appeal and accept it’s become more of a business-to-business event.”

Well, we had a blast running our stand and you might have read about it on our blog, but I guess that’s because we weren’t actually there to speak to teachers as such. We were looking for potential content partners to sell their content through the ode platform. We were quite open about that. We did speak to many teachers though as they too seemed to be intrigued by what we’re trying to do.

(And because they now have these big empty VLEs and nothing to go in them).

BETT was good to us this year but will have our own stand next year? Nope and, currently, neither will the BBC. We do hope to attend Teachmeet 09 if we can, rightly highlighted by John as one of the true stars of BETT 08.

If we do our job right and build a worthy kick ass platform for education that our users love and evangelise we simply won’t need to. Especially if BETT keeps leaning further and further towards B2B.

Also when I see EMAPs bland corporate response at the end of John’s article where they seemed to claim Teachmeet was their idea “…building on the success of the TeachMeet, our plans for 2009 are already underway to develop this feature further.” – it wasn’t, Ewan Macintosh takes all the credit for his unconference here) I don’t really warm to them.

What is ODE?

ODE will be a webstore where educators can buy little bits of digital educational content and put them back together any way they like. Simple.