Tom's Two Cents

Reflexions on the 2nd Connexions Conference

Reflexions on the 2nd Connexions Conference

View of the Connexions 2010 Conference

2010 Connexions Conference in Houston, Texas

I’ve just attended another interesting Connexions conference, and now it’s time to dump a few ideas out here so I can get to sleep.

Conference summary

After a nice welcome and introduction, the first panel shared major content projects, demonstrating the supreme importance the Connexions team places on the content. Mark Horner shared the four projects he is leading with the support of the Shuttleworth Foundation. Jan-Bart de Vreede presented the Wikiwijs project. Kien Pham (Vietnam Foundation), Gary Martin (National Council of Professors of Educational Administration),
Judy Baker (Community College Consortium for Open Education Resources), and Fred Moody (Rice University Press) all shared very interesting projects.

During the breakout sessions, Connexions Project Manager Kathi Fletcher and Alan Runyan of Enfold Systems shared details about the newly-released Enterprise Rhaptos, an open source, stand-alone version of Connexions’ software. This is big news, and I’ll go into more detail later.

During the afternoon authors’ panel, Chuck Severance shared a great story of reuse, and how he ended up authoring 3 books in one year. Jan Odegard, Ken Busbee, and Andrew Barron also contributed to an interesting panel. I also enjoyed hearing from a long list of for profit partners: enTourage (makers of eDGe), SoftChalk, UniqU (providing services and training around Connexions), inetoo, ereadia, Soomo Publishing & WebAssign. Connexions is clearly living up to their name and gaining momentum.

Technical stuff

I’m pleased to see Enterprise Rhaptos rolling out as an open source project. This could meet the needs of many organizations who want their own Connexions site. It will be interesting to see how Enterprise Rhaptos competes with eduCommons in the institutional OCW space, and I would love to see content flow easily between the two systems so users can experience the “frictionless remix” mentioned during several sessions.

Here are some new features Kathi Fletcher announced for Enterprise Rhaptos and for the main Connexions repository:

  1. Quick install instructions (for Enterprise Rhaptos) You can be up and running in 20 min. — I’m intrigued with Amazon EPS virtualization, but I don’t see any docs on setting that up. Anyone have a link?
  2. Web-based MathML editor that can be used outside of CNX as well
  3. CollXML (CNX aggregation format) will soon support output to IMS CC
  4. Support for Google Analytics allowing individual members to track their own stats.
  5. Kathi announced several more features that the Shuttleworth foundation agreed to sponsor the day before. Since the slides aren’t up yet, here is a photo of Kathi’s feature slide. A bounty system of community development was also announced at the same time, allowing outside developers to be paid for working on features the community is willing to fund.

Future directions and friendly feedback

The new Connexions features and the introduction of Enterprise Rhaptos brings with it new questions. Here are some things to think about:

  1. How will Enterprise Rhaptos instances connect to the Connexions Mother Ship (CMS)? It seems reasonable to expect a search from cnx.org to list results from Enterprise Rhaptos sites. Wouldn’t it also make sense to allow Enterprise Rhaptos to upload content to the main cnx.org site as well? Perhaps via RSync?
  2. With multiple Enterprise Rhaptos, how will we standardize UIDs for duplicate copies of content? Could we establish a domain-level ID as well as a UID for content. I am in favor of the LOCKSS model (Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe), but I don’t necessarily want Google to have the last word on which copy I find. It makes sense to decide on a consistent URL structure in place up front so Enterprise Rhaptos instances can play nice with the Connexions Mother Ship.
  3. Why not have a basic, through-the-web, WYSIWYG editor option for Connexions? Perhaps this should have been my first question. Let me explain this further in the next paragraph.

As someone who is still relatively new to Connexions, I offer the perspective of a new user. I can see how the strangeness of the Connexions Extensible Markup Language (CNXML) could be intimidating to an instructor with average computer skills who wants to add their content to Connexions. Even the Microsoft Word plugin doesn’t entirely get around this issue, and users still end up staring at XML code. Frankly, no one should be surprise that Computer Science instructors are among the main advocates for Connexions. They are not intimidated by a raw markup language. What about everyone else? Could a “beginner mode” be added as an more simple option for authoring?

What elements would be included in a simplified authoring mode? It would be interesting to analyze all the content on the Connexions site to determine which specific tags are being used most. Could a basic, WYSIWYG web editor be created to satisfy the needs of most content creators? While I understand the wonderful advantages of using XML, it could be made all but invisible in “beginner mode,” and I think this would attract even more content creators than ever before.

To conclude, the Connexions 2010 conference was exciting, encouraging, and though-provoking. I’m thrilled to see such a vibrant community forming to meet the needs of so many different users using Connexions. And, as always, it’s always nice to see old friends and make some new ones.

One thought on “Reflexions on the 2nd Connexions Conference

  1. kathifletcher

    We on the Connexions staff always learn so much from the conference. It is fantastic to see the breadth of projects using Connexions and hear the feedback on what we are doing and contemplating. This year, with the release of Enterprise Rhaptos, we are really encouraged that the community using and developing for Connexions and Rhaptos will grow even faster than it has been.

    See my full comments on Tom's post on the OCW blog — http://ocwblog.org/2010/02/04/good-things-brewi

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