Zapier Experimentation

Following on from our earlier demonstration, Pearson have now set-up and released the first LearningStudio to Zapier integration for us to experiment with, a new course announcement trigger. I volunteered to run through the set up instructions provided and test. While it works well enough from a technical point of view, set-up is far from straight forward and it needs a lot of work before it could be rolled out to end users.

The Zapier side of things is fine, but to get the LearningStudio integration working you need to provide a course ID and that’s going to be a problem because it is not the University’s course ID, but a long sequential number generated by the platform, like a primary key, which you have to grab from the URL of the course home page. That’s do-able with good, clear instructions, but the second problem is that you need to authenticate with a username and password which, again, is not the University’s Active Directory account, but an internal password held in LearningStudio which is normally overridden by single sign-on. So, that means that anyone who wants to use LearningStudio integrations on Zapier would need to contact the team and have us reset their internal password and give it to them (heavy admin burden), or we need to find a way to get single sign-on working within Zapier’s authentication (technical challenge which may not be possible).

There are other issues. I don’t mean to be negative, what Zapier does is very useful and has a great deal of potential, but I think it is the wrong platform when compared with its principal rival, If This Then That. But that’s a moot point because Pearson have made the choice for us on the grounds that Zapier supports more enterprise integrations. I found this great blog post comparing the two platforms. If we, in higher education rather than a corporate environment, want to get students to engage with this, IFTTT’s greater support for web and social media integrations makes it the better platform in my opinion. The blog post is from 2014 though, and Zapier has improved. Support for WordPress has been added, with Blogger and Android listed as coming soon, but it’s still missing other popular services such as Flickr and Facebook Groups, and there is no indication of iOS support being forthcoming.

Licensing is also going to be an issue with Zapier. The free account limits you to 5 Zaps and 100 events per month. I used two of my Zaps just to test course announcements being pushed to email and OneNote, for just one course site.

Zapier Demonstration

Had a demonstration of Zapier today from a Pearson rep from their developers network. Zapier is a service that allows web services from different platforms to talk to each other, but in a very simple visual manner – no programming skills required. So, for example, you could set a new direct message alert from Twitter (the trigger) to send you an email to your Gmail account (the action). Triggers and actions can be chained together to create complex sets of actions. You could add a second part to my example which adds an entry to a Google Sheets spreadsheet from the Twitter DM as well for example. The possibilities are huge, and every modern web service you can probably think of is available on Zapier.

If this sounds like If This Then That that’s because it is pretty much the same, though Zapier claims to have more integrations available. Why Zapier then? Because Pearson have chosen Zapier to experiment with by linking up the web services which are available from LearningStudio to Zapier. You won’t find that advertised on Zapier though, as they are set to private at the moment, but we will be able to use them and can send them on to others. We could, for example, create a ‘Zap’ that sends an email whenever a new announcement is posted in a course site. We’re still waiting for full details of what the 17 triggers are, and there are no actions, so unfortunately this is going to be a one way thing; no possibility of setting a Facebook post to be pushed into a discussion board thread for example.

WaLTS Highlights 2014/15

walts_highlights

For the University Library’s SMT meeting this morning I was asked to deliver a short 30 minute talk about the work and accomplishments of the team over the past year, and to look forward to what is coming for us next year. Notes and thoughts which I started putting together yesterday morning morphed into the presentation below which was very well received. Indeed, I ended up talking for around an hour thanks to a really good Q&A session. Many people at the meeting have asked to either disseminate this presentation to their colleagues or for me to attend other meetings to deliver this again. That’s a very satisfying feeling, a job well done. Following this reception I have gone on to publish the presentation on our website and on a ‘Show and Tell’ module on SunSpace that we use for this kind of thing.

http://solar.sunderland.ac.uk/solar/file/901ea087-0f89-40b5-95e4-b85d2168430a/1/story.html

WaLTS Web Pages Revamp

The team’s web pages on the University’s website were pretty out of date when I started, though I actually first noticed a few weeks beforehand when doing some research on the department and found some broken links. After I started I soon learned that the pages were actually much worse, with many having gone without revision for over two years. It turns out that it was my predecessor who primarily took responsibility for these, so I was happy to adopt the responsibility myself.

I thought it would be a nice, quick and easy job. I was mistaken. Once I delved into them I found that there were many more pages than I realised, going as deep as four nested levels in some places. I have flattened this structure right out, reducing it to two levels at most and standardising the template, entirely removed around half of the pages – most of which related to the 2012 project to transition the VLE from WebCT to Learning Studio – re-wrote many other pages, tidying things up and making the language more professional and affirmative, and of course fixed all broken links and email addresses.

Finally I created a banner in the style of other departments within SLS and added a sidebar on the right for a Twitter widget and a feedback button, replacing the old link on the left which was out of place as it links to another system.

http://sls.sunderland.ac.uk/walts/

WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool

Not quite sure how I stumbled down this particular rabbit hole, but I have just discovered the WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool made by WebAIM, and what a wonderful tool it is. Like the W3C’s HTML and CSS validators, WAVE evaluates a given web page for conformity with the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, identifies errors, warnings and suggests solutions.

Yes, I ran it on this site, and no it doesn’t score well in the contrast section due to all the shades of grey. I’m going to shuffle responsibility down to the person who designed the theme, but in due course I would like to look at customising the CSS a little. I’ve already had to make one change to fix a glaring bug in the calendar widget (white on off-white). My other sites do very well I’m pleased to say. For fun, run it on the home page of the university or company you work for…

http://wave.webaim.org/
http://webaim.org/
http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20/

Outlook Web App

outlook-web-app

So I had to access my email in a Windows virtual machine today which didn’t have any email clients set up, so I thought I would use the Outlook Web App. Much to my annoyance, this was stuck in the light version which doesn’t have all the features. Some Googling (not Binging…) found a solution, I had to manually add the University’s domain into the Compatibility View Settings (Tools > Compatibility View Settings). Once this was added reloading the OWA log-in page un-greyed out the light version checkbox. I shouldn’t have had to do this. This was a vanilla VM, Windows 7 and Internet Explorer 11, fully patched and up to date, accessing a Microsoft service. Integration should have been seamless. It just goes to show that however far Internet Explorer has come in recent years, it can still be a pretty – shall we say – problematic browser.