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


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.


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

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.

“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)

I am a big fan of blogging about ode.

I believe in the right to be transparent about the development and not to be too “stealth” about the whole thing. It helps create conversations where there would ordinarily be no conversations at all.

I know for a fact that it has sparked some really interesting debate with those who have stumbled across it. It has also opened doors with a number of industry players who like what we have to say and they are intrigued enough to get involved, which is great.

We’re using our blog as a communication method to show what we are like as a team, our philosophy, our ambition and our commercial progress. I believe it gives more than any bland marketing website could give.

But yesterday I found out that the blog almost put off a potential supplier we really wanted to talk to. She didn’t explicitly not like the blog per say, but she didn’t “get it” (or at least “get what ode was about just from the blog”). I guess this must be a common pitfall of a commercial blog. In essence it’s fairly random and not a very straightforward way of delivering a clear message.

I think perhaps the supplier in question is used to pure marketing websites that say in no uncertain terms “We do A, B and C”. No ambiguity. No mixed messages. No wading through posts full of exposition about teddy bears and Google toilets.

In retrospect I can understand why this running commentary didn’t give her the comfort zone she needed. But not to worry. We will (eventually) build a “proper”marketing website with FAQs, Screenshots, marketing blurb etc. Maybe a platform blog can’t exist without one?

So until then I’m taking this opportunity to present some simple facts:

  1. ode is a website/platform that will allow educators to download or rent individual bits of learning content that other people have made. You buy it, we take our cut, the rest goes back to the content owner.
  2. We are a team of experienced elearning folks who are having the time of their lives creating what we hope will be the next big digital educational platform. We’re based in Oxford, UK and invested in/incubated originally by Harcourt, who are now Pearson of course.
  3. ode is being built now and we will be at BETT to show off progress so far and gather interested beta users and hopefully more content and platform partners.
  4. This is what we look like…


Back row from left: Dik Knights (Senior Content Architect), Stephane Ferenga (Digital Content Manager), Chris Bradford (Head of ode/Co-founder), Anthony Glass (Project Manager), James Christie (User Centered Design Consultant), Steve Jones (Rights Assistant).

Front row from left: Samir Sipraga (Senior Web Developer), Tony Pinchbeck (Software Developer), Ed Wong (Product Manager/Co-founder), Maria Newton (Testing/QA) , John Smith (Lead Developer).

Not forgetting Garrett Coakley who just started as a Web developer and Eylan Ezekiel as our Business Development Manager.

But to finish on a good note…Eylan met with said content supplier who after an in depth conversation is now apparently very excited by ode and the opportunities it presents. So sometimes you simply have to talk to people to cut out the noise!

ODE is continuing to gather interest at a phenomenal rate and we’re increasingly being asked to present the idea to a wide variety of excited potential suppliers and partners. And the first thing that has to happen is we have to describe, simply and succinctly, why ode is the best thing ever, ever, ever.

And 9 times out of 10 that calls for someone, usually me, standing in front of a group of people who would rather be somewhere else and talking at them whilst they doodle or stare blankly out of the window.

Traditionally we’d be called upon to do a Powerpoint presentation. Now if you’ve ever had any sort of office job I’m 99% sure you’ll have sat through presentations so boring you have to keep repeatedly thrusting a biro into your leg under the table to keep you awake. How many of the following do you recognise?:

  • A presenter who monotonously reads each bullet point from the screen.
  • A complex 3D bar chart with a tiny and pointless legend that looks awful more than 12 inches away.
  • A presenter who speakssoquicklyyoucan’tunderstandwhatthey’resaying or someone who speaks….so…..slowly…er…that…er….you…um or someone who speaks so quietly that you soon lose the will to live.
  • Any of the following generic sound effects: an audience weakly clapping for a few seconds, a rocket taking off, a screech of car brakes or bullet being fired. Often accompanied by a literal interpretation using cheap clipart.
  • Animated GIFs, zany and wacky fonts (I’m looking at you Comic Sans), zealous over use of the zoooooom animation.
  • The presenter talking to themselves as they try to navigate their own presentation (“Now where’s that button. It was here a minute ago. Talk amongst yourselves…Oh here it is. Oops, that’s opened the internet, hang on where was I…”)

So what makes a great presenter and a great presentation? Can you have one without the other? If you can do at least some of the following you’re half way there I think:

  • Prepare and rehearse your first few sentences – I find the first few minutes terrifying and then relax quickly after that.
  • Open with a statement of intent and/or shock your audience into paying attention. Don’t worry too much about an agenda, who cares?
  • Don’t use a stock template, that’s lazy and they’re often bland and uninteresting. Create your own and be consistent for every slide – do not chop and change backgrounds and fonts on each slide.
  • Ditch the bullet points. Everyone reads them immediately before you even have a chance to go through them and it will encourage you not to read from the screen.
  • Don’t use sentences. Use bold statements and snappy copy. Use the words as a prompt to a subject, not as the subject itself.
  • A good tip if you are speaking in a large auditorium is to have the laptop in front of you and the screen behind. Then you can use the laptop to prompt yourself but are addressing the crowd not the screen.
  • Plain white background with a large black font works. Alternatively jet black background with a large white font works well too. Keep it simple.
  • Instead of trying to open a live website take screenshots beforehand and fill the slide edge to edge – box out in red areas you want your audience to focus on.
  • Stay away from fancy animations unless they’re intrinsic to your “narrative”. ‘Fade’ and ‘Appear’ should suffice. No harm in speeding them up either.
  • Tell a story, it’s more interesting – have a clear narrative curve from your opening slide to the last.
  • Try to avoid taking questions until the end as this will ruin your flow.
  • To respect people’s right not to have to endure rather than enjoy your presentation keep trimming it down until each slide contains just the core message.
  • If you use images or screenshots make them high resolution. Try to picture what they might look like 12 foot away at the end of a boardroom table.
  • Assume the surface you might be projecting on is going to be utterly dreadful and in full sun glare, thus rendering your slides useless. Oh, and the sound won’t play, the screen won’t connect and your internet connection will be slow if not non-existent. Contingency is vital.
  • What you think is a funny slide will likely not be on the day. Trust me.
  • Make the end obvious and clear. Be interesting, be enigmatic, don’t be afraid to leave on a cliffhanger – this may lead to some interesting debate.
  • Drink heavily prior to your presentation.
  • I’m joking! Everything in moderation.

Watch and learn from the masters:

Seth Godin presenting to Google:

Watch Dick Hardt and the 1 second per slide and you’ll see how it could be done with a little imagination and grace:

Guy Kawasakis 10-20-30 rule is worth following too:

To see how to destroy a passionate and exciting talk see “The Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation” by Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google: Read the rest of this entry »

Just to let you know we’re hiring a few people to join the ode team over the next few weeks/months. At the moment the jobs are for coders but a further variety of job types will go up soon – keep checking back!

I’d like to try to explain why ode has decided to follow a Pay As You Go model rather than the Eat As Much As You Like model. Or micropayments vs subscriptions if you’re feeling posh.

An overarching reason is that we don’t want to pre-suppose what and how much content our users will want to buy. If we forced them to pay a lump sum up front we may “win” their money but the service will likely never be used enough by the majority of individual users to justify their up front annual spend. We just don’t think that’s right.

Our users have told us that they are fed up with buying massive content driven solutions which they barely scratch the surface of day to day in the classroom. We will bring the cost down to each individual asset, offering ownership or rental rights at the smallest possible level. YOU choose whether to spend a lot or a little.

A subscription is a walled garden. We want to encourage deep linking and browsing into ode – to assets, playlists, groups, minishops and so on. If you need to log in to see any auxiliary functionality or even the content itself (“You mean I have to pay an annual fee to preview an asset?!” ) is locking out people who can spread the word about your product or content and seems short sighted at best.

Before you take out a subscription to a content delivery service you are taking a calculated risk well in advance of knowing how much value you’ll get in return.

Is the cost low enough? Do I have to pay a whole year up front? What happens if I want to cancel? There’s no way of predicting how good, reliable, exclusive or usable a subscription will turn out to be 6 months down the line. Or even if it will still be around.

“For music consumers there are pros and cons to the pay-per-download and subscription models. It is more difficult for users to get a sense of the value they are receiving with subscription models as compared to pay-as-you-go, according to Max Blumberg, founder of venture capital consultant The Blumberg Partnership.

“It’s a bit like gym memberships. Gyms make money on the fact that many people take out subscriptions, but do not use their facilities regularly — at least after their initial enthusiasm. Pay-as-you-go is more transparent.”

Max Blumberg,

What does “unlimited access” mean? How can you process the idea of unlimited access to content? In all honesty unless you’re in the 1% of very heavy users will you ever dent the huge swathes of content these services provide?

Or, more likely, will you dip in, grab some content you like the first few times and then perhaps pop back again a few months later?

If you couldn’t consume unlimited content before, what makes you think you will want to now? What’s so great about having unlimited access to stuff you’ll likely never want?

When you can pick and choose at will from unlimited stock (assuming no download throttling) will you genuinely make constructive choices? When you have to part with a specific cost for a specific item it’s highly likely you will have thought harder about that purchase and will therefore get more use from it. Collecting for the sake of collecting is pointless and a waste of time.

If you cancel that subscription what happens to all the content you had against it? It’s very likely it’s gone. Forever. Virtual goods are difficult enough to place value against but I want to at least feel I own what I’ve paid for up front (even if I might just be renting it or buying a flavour of DRM).

A subscription service may place a download limit on you. But once again that is providing impediments to you as a consumer. Sometimes I only want a track or two, other times I may want to buy 50 albums worth of songs. Don’t get in my way.

When you are allowed to choose exactly what to buy you are also supporting that content provider/creator by deliberately choosing them over someone else.

Maybe you support a particular company’s ethical or environmental stance or you just think they consistently produce high quality content that supports your needs and you are making a statement: I choose to support YOU. How can you show direct pro-active cash up front support otherwise?

Even back in 1998 Jacob Nielson was predicting a future where on demand content paid for in incrementally small amounts was the best way to facilitate internet growth:

” The main problem with subscription fees is that they provide a single choice: between paying nothing (thus getting nothing) and paying a large fee (thus getting everything). Faced with this decision, most users will chose to pay nothing and will go to other sites. It is rare that you will know in advance that you will use a site enough to justify a large fee and the time to register. ”

Jacob Nielson,

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Google Image Search is now worth 1 trillion, 187 billion, 63 million words. Yes, that’s right, math majors; we’ve updated our image index, and now offer users precisely 1.18763 billion newly updated images….

In my previous blogpost “Who’s Counting” I put forward the case that beyond a certain threshold numbers are pretty useless in describing value. I would like to add a caveat: except when it comes to marketing when bigger = better.

It seems that internet marketing and ROI is all based around seriously massive figures that are so high as to become abstract. That’s a natural consequence of operating on a global scale but our relationship with any website is by definition always 1-to-1, so to me it all seems a bit hard to comprehend. After all, imagining millions of unique visitors is not the same as actually seeing them all from space.

Kumbh Mela gathering

Kumbh Mela gathering (Photo:

So, just for fun, I racked my brain to think of a way to get to a ludicrous number for ode. And then it hit me – everyone mentions time saving as a potentially massive benefit. So how much time could ode save every UK teacher?

Our teacher users, so far, reckon they spend on average 3 hours per week sourcing digital content across the internet from Google, Blogs, Flickr, resource banks, home brew websites, online subscriptions and so on. Sometimes this is at home, but mostly at work. And they all resent it to some degree as, frankly, it’s a drag.

3 hours per week per teacher (some spend up to 10 hours per week!). That’s 12 hours per month spent looking for content. Or 144 hours per year. On average, give or take.

There are roughly 500,000 teachers employed in the UK, across Primary, Secondary and College/FE sectors.

144 x 500,000 = 72,000,000 hours in total spent by teachers every year trawling a variety of sources for digital content to plug into their lessons. And time = money as we all know.

If the average teacher salary for a classroom teacher who’s been in post for 3 years is £25,000 per annum (very rough estimate) then this works out at about £14.29 per hour.

So therefore…72,000,000 hrs x £14.29 = £1,028,880,000 of teacher’s time on this common task.

If ode, as a one stop shop for all your educational digital content needs halves that time (and we think we can do even better than that) and then we reduce that figure even more to say that 50% of that time is unpaid working from home time and shouldn’t be included so we halve it again we’re left with £257,220,000. Deduct that from the original total annual cost and ode could save the government £771,660,000 per year.

How’s that for a stupid meaningless figure?

We’re always nattering away to our lovely users and we specifically tell them not to hold back their opinions (curiously not too hard with teachers). One theme that has come up a few times is free vs paid for.

The educator community currently sees the internet as a big ol’ free resource bank. One user (anonymously) said:

“…ultimately (ode content) costs money and there are so many free resources/resource xchanges/online collaboration etc why pay?”

Why pay? That’s a very good point and one worth discussing. How does a commercial service compete with multiple dedicated free services?

The internet is full of educational digital resources for schools, almost always constructed by enthusiastic amatuers and proams, sometimes professionally hosted, sometimes simply through the good grace of a particularly altruistic community, school or teacher. Occasionally you have to pay , the majority of the time it’s free.

So what can ode bring to the party? Well, the highlights would be:

  • Commercial disaggregated content unavailable anywhere else.
  • The barrier to entry for our customers will be very low – the content will be sold bit by bit meaning you can pick up professionally produced, authored and quality controlled digital content for very low cost.
  • The ability to use a single web application for all your resource needs, with added functionality such as a content library, a playlist constructor, personalisation and VLE ready content.
  • Comprehensive tagging linked against various curricular standards.

It’s worth mentioning that every single educator we’ve spoken to agrees on one thing: free is all very well and good but time saving is more important in the long run and ode will be a one stop shop with all your content purchasing, display and control functions built right in.

Some things in life are worth paying for, and free will always have it’s place. Hmm…but free (whisper it) doesn’t really mean free does it?:

  • How much is your time worth? Do you want to spend it surfing a multitude of different sites, most of which are amateur, all of which work differently?
  • Can you be sure of your rights to use and own that content?
  • What’s the quality like? How often does “free” translate as “just about good enough, I suppose, if you squint”.
  • Does it bother you that “free” often limits you to simple assets such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint files? Getting hold of high quality video or interactive games (which can add so much to an educational experience) is much harder when you want them for nothing.

The music industry had the same problem. Why would anyone buy music online if you can get it for free from a peer to peer service? Well, emusic recently sold it’s 100 millionth song and itunes flew past it’s 2 billionth download a few months ago. That’s still only a small percentage of what’s being traded for free but significant even so.

The lure of the free is a powerful pull. But I think we’re moving forward into an interesting area that doesn’t focus on a cost vs no cost argument but on a true value argument – I think everyone recognises now that most of the time free is great and occasionally the experience free is just not good enough and you reach for your card – your value decision might be moral, time saving or qualitative. But you’ll make it each time you say “I wish I had X content to fulfil Y need”.

This situation can only really exist when the end user has access to both options.

ode is not a VLE.
This is an important point to make. ode will contain no pupil tracking, no integrated assessment, no complex student topographies, no multiple log ins. This is quite deliberate – we have no ambitions to be a VLE type application – we will simply sell the bits of content to use in the VLE you probably already have. And if you don’t? You’ll be able to display your content in the ode player anyway.

ode is not supposed to replace large schemes or embedded whole class solutions.
will satisfy the immediate requirement of a student or perhaps a rapid reaction to a world or local event. That need could be:

  •  A set of interactive science simulations to keep the class busy at the end of a lesson.
  • 10 minutes worth of tough algebraic drill and practice activities for your high achievers.
  • Time lapse videos of butterflies hatching to compliment a one off nature ramble because the sun came out (then went in again).
  • A set of practice exam papers
  • WWI archive footage
  • Interactive maps of your local area
  • Digital posters about global warming for your whiteboard

Whole schemes and curricula naturally think rigidly in days, weeks, terms. ode thinks in minutes and seconds.

ode is not YouTube, Flickr or the TES resource bank.
A) we wish. B) The content on those sites is free (not copyright free, but cost free). ode will provide access to commercial content and user generated content across many different media types – video, audio, powerpoint, flash activities…you just buy the only bits you need and put them back together in any order you like.

ode does not want people to stop loving books.
We love books. We’ll just be selling digital versions. The advantage with a digital version is that you could sell the whole thing, or by chapter or unit, or make it interactive, or plain text for mobile delivery.

Sometimes it feels good not to try to be everything to everyone. Find out what you’re good at and focus on doing that job as best you can.

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.