Tuesday, February 22, 2011

IE 9 RC still not ready for prime time but Google Chrome is a blast!

Well, I installed the new Internet Explorer 9 release client and, although I loved the "pinning to the taskbar" capability, the ability to designate an entire list of pages to open as default pages and the clean interface that lets you see so much more of each web page you are browsing, I ran into some significant problems using it on my new 64-bit Windows 7 workstation.

ZemantaImage via WikipediaFirst, I tried to install Zemanta, a blogging assistant extension, for use with my Blogger accounts under this new browser and, even though Zemanta said it was installed, when I opened one of my Blogs to begin editing, the Z
emanta extension interface would not open.  I tried reinstalling, made sure I had "allowed" Zemanta to make changes on my computer, etc. but no joy.

Then I was up on Amazon looking at the new educational game "Roman Town".  I added it to my cart, went through logging in to my account and setting the shipping address but when it came to loading the screen where I would select my payment options, I got nothing but a white screen with a location bar at the top.  I retried the purchase several times but finally had to give up and use a different browser to complete the transaction.

Next I was reading my Google news alerts and went to "share" an article I had read on one of the web pages I pulled up to read and when IE 9 tried to open the Twitter interface I again got a plain white screen with just a URL and my Twitter icon.  Obviously, it recognized that I was already logged in to Twitter but could not draw up my status page.  Again, multiple attempts to successfully tweet from the web page failed.  I ended up shortening the URL myself with bit.ly and posting it manually to Twitter.

Then I went to read an article on Stacy Johnson's Money Talks News (http://www.moneytalksnews.com) that included a video and saw that the video had a question mark on it.  When I clicked the video I got an error message that the video contained a third party component that I would need to install but it didn't tell me which one.  I had never had a problem with any of Stacy's videos before.  So, I sent an email to Stacy's tech support people and they suggested I contact the tech support for Blip.TV which is the video host they use.  So I emailed Blip.TV and they suggested I install the latest version of Quicktime and try again.  I checked my Quicktime version and compared it with the latest one available and I saw that I already had the latest version.  I told Blip. TV that videos on YouTube seemed to play properly.  They were baffled.

So today I reluctantly gave up using IE and set my browser default to the new version of Google Chrome that I had recently installed.  Like IE 9, I was able to define a list of pages to open by default.  I found that I could still drag a page to my taskbar and "pin" it - apparently a default action allowed by Windows 7, and the interface was as clean as IE 9.

Then I went to Blogger and installed Zemanta and it came up without a hitch.  I went back to Money Talks News and the video I could not view under IE 9 played perfectly in Google Chrome.  Then, I held my breath and logged into my online bank.  I had used an earlier version of Google Chrome at one point but it turned out to be incompatible with my secure banking logins at two different banks.  This time, however, it worked wonderfully.

Then, I remembered a friend of mine had sent me a news article about Google Chrome's new web store so I went up there and found extensions for my Evernote account, bit.ly, Google Translate, Webpage screenshot, Web of Trust search advisor (WOT - a handy tool to avoid websites known for malware, scams, etc), an Internet Movie Database access tool to quickly access the movie database by clicking on a movie title mentioned on a webpage or in a blogpost, my good old "blog this" helper, a Share tool for those websites that  don't have it already built in (like many foreign news websites), and even Chrome for a Cause that records my search clicks and donates to a charity of my choice (from a small but adequate list).  Since I do a lot of research I like the idea that my productivity also serves another worthy purpose.  All of these very useful extensions were found on just the first twenty pages of the Extensions listed on the Chrome Web Store site and there are a total of over 10,000 available.  So, I have been able to regain all the features I liked in IE 9 without all of the technical problems and added some great functionality from the Chrome Web Store too!

Now if I could just get Samsung to add more useful apps to my TV's app store!!
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Sunday, February 06, 2011

Virtual Professors using Conversational Agent Software the Answer for the 3rd Dimension in Online Learning

"Developing that best-in-the-world online course — in which students would learn as much, or more, than in an ordinary classroom or a hybrid online class — requires significant investment. The Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, which has developed about 15 sophisticated online courses, mostly in the sciences, spent $500,000 to $1 million to write software for each. But neither Carnegie Mellon nor other institutions, which are invited to use its online courses, dares to use them without having a human instructor, too..."

"...But even when lectures are accompanied with syllabuses, handouts, sample problem sets and other aids that Academic Earth has for some of its courses, is the experience really complete? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology also shares the raw materials of courses in its OpenCourseWare program. For the benefit of autodidacts who aren’t M.I.T. students, it strives to publish materials online for every M.I.T. course. But students cannot interact and do not receive vital feedback about their own progress that an instructor or software provides."- Online Courses, Still Lacking That Third Dimension, Randall Stross, The New York Times

Way back in 1995, I became intrigued with developing conversational agents using software that was the descendant of "Eliza", software written at MIT by Joseph Weizenbaum between 1964 to 1966 to simulate a a Rogerian psychotherapist.  I wrote a script and adapted images of a bust of Julius Caesar to create an online "virtual" Julius Caesar that a web visitor could converse with and ask whatever they wanted to know about Caesar's life and times.

Bust of Gaius Julius Caesar in the National Ar...Image via Wikipedia
Bust of Gaius Julius Caesar in the National
Archaeological Museum of Naples.
I received e-mail from history teachers across the United States who actually started using my "virtual" Caesar in their classes and found it to be a dynamic learning tool that kept kids intrigued.

Then I tried to convince professors I worked with to consider letting me develop a "virtual" professor for each one to provide online office hours 24/7 for each of their courses. After all, professors, especially those that have taught the same class for years, obviously had a wealth of answers to course FAQs.  To make the agent more interesting, I explained to the professor that we needed to try to impart each professor's unique personality into the agent so conversing online with the agent would feel like talking with the real professor for the project to be a success.  For example, one professor enjoyed sea kayaking.  I told him that I would like him to talk about sea kayaking with me.  I also liked to include answers to questions about favorite books, movies, food, etc.

But, although I got a couple of professors intrigued, they were always too busy to spend the quality time that is needed to produce a truly convincing agent.  Maybe if institutions would consider paying instructors royalties for the use of their knowledge in the development of "virtual professors", more progress could be made in the production of such online learning environments.

Embodied Conversational Agents
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