Sunday, April 24, 2005

Croquet on Macs

I've recently been asked to join the steering committee for Apple Computer's newly forming Mac Learning Enterprise. Along with other committee members from the New Media Consortium, NYU, Simon Frasier University, Rice University, UCLA, University of Michigan, and MIT (among others), the Mac Learning Enterprise community is intended to be a resource for educators, technologists, IT professionals, developers and change agents who are transforming education through innovation built on open standards.

The community seeks to document and share its experiences, expertise, and knowledge about implementing and deploying open source learning infrastructure solutions that can run on, or be integrated with, Apple technology. In addition to growing the community's knowledge base, members of the Mac Learning Enterprise community will provide feedback to Apple product and engineering managers so that they may improve functionality, performance, and integration across various Apple technologies, tools, and applications in support of open source software. Several working groups are now being convened to explore solution stacks and tools associated with the implementation of collaborative learning environments. At this time, Apple has identified technology implementations and deployments of Croquet, OSPI, OKI, and Sakai to be of primary interest.

It is great to see that Apple is now taking such an interest in Croquet and that the company is supporting the inclusion of Croquet as part of its effort to support the development of innovative open source solutions for learning enterprises.

Friday, April 22, 2005

A Croquet Bricolage?

OK, I'm just going to "throw this out there" and see what other people think - Could this idea from Claude Lévi-Strauss' The Savage Mind (The University of Chicago Press 1966 [1962]) have any bearing on the approach to our project or the approach of those who might most use Croquet? Well, I suspect it might. But I'm interested in hearing what others mights say...

"The 'bricoleur' is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with 'whatever is at hand', that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. The set of the 'bricoleur's' means cannot therefore be defined in terms of a project (which would presuppose besides, that, as in the case of the engineer, there were, at least in theory, as many sets of tools and materials or 'instrumental sets', as there are different kinds of projects). It is to be defined only by its potential use or, putting this another way and in the language of the 'bricoleur' himself, because the elements are collected or retained on the principle that 'they may always come in handy'. Such elements are specialized up to a point, sufficiently for the 'bricoleur' not to need the equipment and knowledge of all trades and professions, but not enough for each of them to have only one definite and determinate use. They each represent a set of actual and possible relations; they are 'operators' but they can be used for any operations of the same type."

As usual, comments to this post would be most welcome!

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Welcome Joshua!

The UW-Madison has added yet another full-time Croquet developer. We are pleased to announce that Joshua Gargus, a highly experienced Squeak developer, will be bringing his deep skills and creativity to the Madison campus beginning May 9th. Joshua comes to us from PlayMotion where he was a lead developer involved in the design and implementation of a framework allowing applications to mix OpenGL and D3D, the developmnt of an OpenAL-based reactive sound engine, a vision re-calibration method for changing lighting conditions, and a unified XML configuration framework for all the company's applications. Prior to joining PlayMotion, Joshua was a research assistant at Georgia Tech where he worked on mo-cap (motion capture) and developed pen-based interfaces for use in animation. Joshua has also served as a contractor for Viewpoints Research where he worked on TrueType rendering of arbitrarily nested equations and developed EToys applications for Alan. We are excited to have a first-rate developer with such creativity and deep squeak experience join the team and contribute to the successful widespread adoption of Croquet. Welcome Joshua!

Friday, April 15, 2005

Standing on the Plateau

Most every day I have the wonderful pleasure of being able to work with Marilyn May Lombardi. Marilyn is Senior Strategist for UW-Madison's Division of Information Technology, and in addition to enduring marriage to me for over 14 years, she is also a key member of the core Croquet team here at UW. Marilyn is presently working with our campus collaborators on several different aspects of the project. She has been working to design requirements for the use of Croquet in higher education settings and has also been working with some of our external partners and writing grant proposals to various agencies.

Based on her work with the project, Marilyn was recently invited by Dianna Oblinger, NLII's new director, to write both a short New Horizons Feature on Croquet's potential impact to higher education as well as a longer report on the same topic which will have the distinction of being the first of a series of research reports published by a newly redefined NLII. Here is the shorter version that appeared in the print edition of Educause Review:

Standing on the Plateau

By Marilyn May Lombardi

"Recently, I paid a visit to my university’s Web site, where I found a campus slideshow for prospective students. Similar slideshows and virtual tours are posted on many other college and university Web sites. These usually contain image after image of young people lounging, walking, eating, and laughing in sun-drenched settings across campus. At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the students are sprawled on vast lawns in a perpetual summer: “a favorite place to study—and not to study.” They enjoy the lakeshore view from the student union terrace: “famous for its sights and sounds.” They take in the nightlife of downtown Madison: “No matter what time you walk down State Street, you’ll end up seeing someone you know. You’ll always run into someone different, someone new.”

Deeper into the slideshow, students are actually pictured at work, but not in classrooms or lecture halls. They stand outdoors, peering through land-surveying instruments: “the advantage of out-ofclass projects and research opportunities.” Or they gather around a computer terminal in an energetically cluttered laboratory: “Research at UW-Madison is a participatory venture, in which students and professors often work side by side.” And in one astounding shot taken through a fish-eye lens, the viewer peers down on an intrepid rock-climber as he reaches the top of a rather formidable campus wall. The quote that accompanies this photograph pretty much sums up the general outlook: “Most of the lessons we learn here are not from lecture halls, not from books. They are from our experiences in life.”

Through the medium of the campus itself, college and university communications offices are offering prospective students (and their parents) the promise of an experience. Institutions of higher education (particularly those with centralized campuses) promote themselves, first, as places with people. The physical campus sets up the enabling conditions for a complex social ecology to emerge over time. Large numbers of students engage in daily role-playing (also known as “critical thinking”), during which they “perform” a particular point of view—trying it on for size, explaining, critiquing, justifying, deepening, and reinforcing their understanding while strengthening their group identity. Ask anyone who has ever been through a rigorous program of study, and chances are he or she will remember learning more from fellow students than from professors.

The unique value of campus life, then, is a matter of proximity—the ability to position oneself in direct relation to relevant people and resources. The sociologist Erving Goffman called these spatially defined moments of engagement “focused gatherings” in which people are “engrossed in a common flow of activity and relating to one another in terms of that flow.” The gathering takes its form from the situation that evokes it, “the floor on which it is placed,” as Goffman put it.1 Add to this foundation the ready availability of tools to forcefully express, embody, and exchange ideas, and the campus has all the makings of one vast “collaboratory.”

Despite all this, we continue to design online learning environments that do little more than replicate the remoteness of a lecture hall. Clearly, any approach to online education that restricts itself to the delivery of pre-packaged content ignores the depth and social texture of campus life, along with the collaborative nature of learning. Of the three broad aims of higher education as identified by learning researchers—(1) skill acquisition and competence with tools and techniques; (2) socialization and induction into the canons of particular communities, professions, or disciplines; and (3) development of an intentional, or self-directed, approach to lifelong learning—current online learning environments are relatively successful in managing only the first, most transactional of goals.2

Meanwhile, we’ve reached a critical juncture in our institutional commitments to educational technology. Advances in networking and software design finally allow educators to do far more than merely automate the traditional lecture course. Over the last several years, higher education leaders have outfitted their campuses with fat pipelines and high-speed connectivity. Increasingly, their students come to campus equipped with the latest in commercially available PCs and laptops. Hard drives are bigger, graphics accelerators speed up 3D image display, and faster processing chips simulate real-world physics with relative ease.

At the same time, college and university open source software development projects are signaling dissatisfaction with commercial approaches to meeting pedagogical needs. A growing number of institutions with the capacity to build their own learning software are working to design applications suited to their individual requirements. Proprietary course management systems may have helped institutions leverage new media, but many in higher education feel these systems are making little headway when it comes to providing innovative technologies for real-time interactions among people, information, and systems. As one analyst concluded recently, “proprietary systems . . . seem to have hit an early plateau,” whereas “open source applications are standing on that plateau looking forward.”3

Standing on that plateau, looking forward, open source application developers are taking the time to consider what they would do differently if they were to design a new online learning environment today, knowing what they now know about the power of computing and networking technologies. For example, the members of the Croquet Project, a new open source initiative, are exploring what it would take to make online learning as personally involving, meaningful, and rewarding as campus-based learning. The project’s participants, who are coming together from around the world, believe that a transformative platform for online learning and teaching is finally within reach.

So, what is the Croquet Project? Imagine you are a graduate student in astronomy and have been asked to demonstrate your knowledge of Kepler’s Laws. You launch a software application on your computer and enter a three-dimensional online world. Inside this persistent environment, you use the drop-down menu to quickly design and deploy a dynamic simulation of the solar system. As your simulation runs, your professor enters the 3D online lab space and takes a closer look. Your professor downloads a file from his own hard drive into the virtual laboratory, and it appears inside a display window he just created with a click of the mouse. Remarkably, you and your professor are now able to see one another make additions and changes to the same document, all while keeping up a steady banter with the help of network-enabled telephony built into the software system. Impressed with your work, the professor invites his entire introductory astronomy class to a viewing and discussion of your simulation. From across campus, hundreds of students gather inside the virtual lab. The instructor’s video image (captured by the web camera on his laptop) is visible to the students he guides through the demonstration. Classmates wander among the planets, talking together in small groups, adjusting the timing and motion of the celestial machinery, annotating elements of the scene with comments or references, and gaining an unprecedented appreciation for Kepler’s Laws in action.

This vision of the future in computer-mediated education is driving the efforts of the open source Croquet Project. The project is designed specifically to make the most of advanced campus networks and the untapped computational resources of individual machines by enabling safe and secure cooperation— among machines, among user interfaces, among content developers, among users, and among institutions.

Croquet is the combined vision of its six core architects: David A. Smith, David P. Reed, Andreas Raab, Julian Lombardi, Mark P. McCahill, and the computer visionary Alan Kay. The winner of both the 2003 ACM Turing Award and the 2004 NAE Charles Stark Draper Prize, Kay is famous for his design of the now-familiar desktop metaphor for personal computing, as well as his object-oriented approach to computer programming. In some respects, the project is a way of fulfilling Kay’s abiding vision of the computer as a “meta-medium” and harnessing its full expressive power. Recognizing that little had changed since Kay introduced the overlapping windows interface thirty years ago, the Croquet team intends to provide a comparable computing standard for a new age of collaborative work and learning.

As of this writing, researchers and technologists from twenty universities have joined the higher education development effort, jointly spearheaded by the University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota. This open source development community is working to ensure that the Croquet platform is able to address the special needs and concerns of higher education. Programmers and educational application developers interested in familiarizing themselves with the Croquet programming environment are welcome to download a developer’s preview of the technology from the Croquet Project Web site (http://croquetproject. org/). A more complete release of the Croquet technologies is planned to appear on the Croquet Web site later this year.

Higher education is moving closer to an online learning environment that captures the social vitality and collaborative spirit of the real-world campus. A growing open source community of learning researchers, software architects, visualization and simulation specialists, and user interface designers has taken up the challenge, lending their expertise to the Croquet Project. Such next-generation systems promise to extend the primary advantages of campus-based learning into the online realm, deepening and transforming the way we teach and learn.


1. Erving Goffman, Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1961), 9–10.

2. Kenneth A. Bruffee, Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence, and the Authority of Knowledge (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

3. Christopher D. Coppola, “Will Open Source Software Unlock the Potential of eLearning?” elearning Dialogue, December 1, 2004.

Marilyn's longer twenty page report can be downloaded here.