July 27, 2006

Personal Computing Guidance for Distance Education Students

The IE7 Blog has just reported that:

To help our customers become more secure and up-to-date, we will distribute IE7 as a high-priority update via Automatic Updates (AU) shortly after the final version is released for Windows XP, planned for the fourth quarter of this year. ... If you decide to install IE7, it will preserve your current toolbars, home page, search settings, and favorites and installing will not change your choice of default browser. You will also be able to roll back to IE6 at any point by using Add/Remove Programs in the Control Panel. Finally, users who have AU turned off will not be notified.

This is something I think we in the OU should be taking into account now for courses starting in February, 2007 (2007B).

With Microsoft no longer supporting Windows 98 amidst stark warning notices ("Microsoft is retiring support for these products because they are outdated and can expose customers to security risks.") I think there is a case for the OU pushing our students to upgrade.

Why? Well, security for one, but with an O/S that supports a large installed base of IE7 (or Firefox, or maybe even something like Flock or Opera) this means that we can at the very least start to:

1) develop pedagogic strategies that exploit tabbed browsing (I haven't met one person who has been able to go back to a no tab browser having experienced tabbed browsing!); I think there are all sorts of ways we can develop user skills to exploit this functionality.

2) exploit in-built feed subscription. Okay, so I'm a feed junky, but whereas I can imagine a web future where all the pages are Atom or RSS and none end in .html, I can't imagine the converse... (note to self - revist The Skeletal Web: separating content, style and navigation someday).

At the moment, OU courses require students' computers to conform to either a basic specification (Windows 98 SE) or a standard specification (XP Home).

But maybe it's time to start rethinking even further..?

One the one hand, and one step on from the current wave of web start pages like these, the rise of the web desktops, or webtops as they seem to be coming called in some quarters, means that maybe we could start to push forward an 'always on' computing specification for students who do have guaranteed, always on web access?

Historical note: it seems we've been here before, as this PC World article ("Ditch That Desktop for a Webtop) from October 2000 demonstrates:

With today's dispersed workforce and the ever-changing computer industry, organizations are consistently in a state of flux trying to keep end users up to date. The cost associated with investing in and maintaining office applications is high.
To ease this burden, there is a new model of computing available today in its infancy: Webtops. These virtual desktops provide access to application suites via a Web browser. In the not-too-distant future, users won't be required to carry laptop computers to access, share, and manipulate information: They'll simply need Web appliances.
Research company Gartner Group predicts Webtops will become mainstream by 2002, and users will be free from relying on laptops to access the applications and information they need.

Okay - so maybe that was an ambitious prediction then and maybe things are different now? For example, many of the components for a web based collaborative office suite are in place (e.g. Web Office Suite: best of breed products).

On the other hand, and virtualisation is only going to get easier (it's laready becoming free).

Take for example this appealing approach that VMWare describe as virtual appliances:

A virtual appliance is a fully pre-installed and pre-configured application and operating system environment that runs on any standard x86 desktop or server in a self-contained, isolated environment known as a virtual machine. Virtual appliances provide an evolutionary step in the software distribution model.

The main idea of virtualisation is that whatever your operating system, you can run other operating systems 'within' it. And the idea of virtual appliances is that that these other operating systems can actually be delivered to provide a guaranteed configuration (which means installing software within it can be managed efficiently, as in an enterprise setup.

Hmm - methinks it could be interesting if we had an OU virtual appliance?

I'm convinced a third part of the mix will portable apps too, as discussed with respect to a mooted USB Study Stick. Quite how this would sit with a virtual appliance (unless perhaps that virtual appliance lived on the memory stick?) I'm not sure yet. Maybe I need to start playing with some live cd distros, like Knoppix (I wonder if anyone has integrated this with an online storage client yet, as suggested for Amazon S3?).

In he same way I think portable apps could be a huge boon for OUr students, I'm also starting to get a similar gut feeling towards browser persistent storage (or natively) - there's nothing I can articulate as yet, but it just feels right (and it's portable).

So interesting times... and for an organisation with 3 year lead in times to courses that have to last 8 years in presentation (unless the model changes...) I think it's time we started imagining 3, 5 and 10 year futures a little more seriously...

Posted by ajh59 at July 27, 2006 12:25 AM