Role, play? It depends what IAM

Sorry for the pun inserted. The joke would be better if it did not need to be explained. IAM = Identity-Access Management, the system that determines who you are and what you are allowed to do in an online platform. Those annoying passwords etc.

Despite the title, this piece is not much about role play itself. We just published an article last month, OLab and Virtual Roles, about role play in its less technical sense and how we have been experimenting with virtual roles, role-switching during a scenario and stuff like that. The full formal version of the article can be found here: Topps, David; Cullen, Michelle; Wirun Corey, 2021, “OLab and Virtual Roles”,, Scholars Portal Dataverse.

No, this post is more about the IAM side of things and the technical aspects that we have been working on. Sadly, this reminds me of another terrible joke. An army corporal is pissed off about the new posting he just received and decides to complain to the Sergeant Major. He quickly looks up the number in the fort’s phone directory (yes, the army is not so technical and still believes in paper for such things… those fickle computers would be wiped out by an EM pulse if we had a war, don’t you know!), rapidly dials and brusquely gives the recipient an earful of barrack room language on what he thinks of his latest posting.

“Do you know who you’re talking to?” thunders the irascible Major, spluttering through his gin and tonic.

“No. Do you know who you’re talking to?” replies the corporal. When the Major grunts a negative, he says, “Well, thank gawd fer that. I ain’t telling ya,” and hangs up right quick.

Ok, enough torture. Back to the main point. Over the years and through many projects, we have found how important it is to combine a variety of tools and applications in our learning designs. Even though OLab and OpenLabyrinth are very powerful tools, thinking that one tool can do it all makes every problem appear to be a nail. You should find the best tool for each purpose and link them together.

In OLab3, we tried to make it do too much. In OLab4, we are moving more towards a services-based approach, which will allow us to integrate OLab more smoothly with other tools like Moodle, WordPress and the whole gamut of educational software applications.

We did make some of our previous functions, like video curation, into separately callable services e.g. CURIOS. But some other functions like Turk Talk were tightly built into the core of OLab3, which creates all sorts of problems. In OLab4, this will be simplified as another callable service, which opens up a lot of possibilities.

Even the IAM aspects were rather crudely managed in OLab3. There are lots of better ways out there of managing who can do what in our platform so why try to replicate the functions of Moodle etc? One of the ways we have tried to tackle this in the past was with IMS-LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability).

LTI is an excellent system, secure and not difficult to code into software. However, for program directors and scenario authors, it poses a problem when defining roles: the specification of what a certain level of agent/actor can do within a system. In OLab3, the roles (or security levels) were crudely limited to four: learner, author, reviewer and super-user. LTI has a much wider variety of roles.

But there is a problem when getting two systems to play nice with each other using LTI. Across the many systems out there who do implement LTI, there is very little common agreement in the number and definition of these roles. About the only constant is ‘student’, who is at the bottom of the heap and can’t do much.

You also have the functional problem: what if the learning designer wants to test how her new module works from the perspective of the learner? She certainly does not want to take the clunky old approach taken by OLab3 where she has to logout, login again using a student account and then play the module until it breaks, have to logoff, login again as an author in order to fix things: a very crude, inefficient debugging cycle.

So, just to confuse you a little more, we are working on virtual roles: not the same as the Virtual Roles article mentioned at the top of this post, but virtualized IAM roles, which will allow us to change the IAM role of that user on-the-fly. This could also be done programmatically, which opens up some interesting possibilities.

We are also exploring the use of Conditional Rendering of Scoped Objects. This means that, depending on the context and the IAM role of the user, certain objects like teacher directions in a text panel, will only be shown to teachers, not to students. We had this in a crude form in the Annotation pane in OLab3 Nodes. This new system will be much more flexible.

DYED: Donate Your Educational Data

This is a concept that we came up with a while ago. Instead of donating your body to science, why not donate your data?

We just posted a collaborative discussion document on this topic on Google Docs. You can comment directly, using this link — please join us in this innovative approach.

When creating virtual scenarios, we often struggle to find good case data. The metadata systems are not set up to provide easy searching by case conditions or presentations. In this document, we describe some of the challenges and also some potential solutions.

This was particularly poignant some years ago when we were trying to provide some innovative teaching illustrations about cervical spine injuries. Check out this YouTube video.

We look forward to your comments, using the Google Docs link above.

CURIOS video mashup service fixed

Finally, we managed to fix an annoying we glitch in our setup that was preventing the use of the CURIOS video mashup tool. You can access it via our demo server at – simply go to the Tools menu then Video Mashup.

For more info on how to use the CURIOS service, check out the user guide. You can use CURIOS on most YouTube videos, not just your own.

You will need an authoring account on our demo OLab3 server to create your own mashup snippets. But once the snippets are created, anyone can use them.

We have an app for that

We have put together a neat little app that you can use to find and play OLab3 and OLab4 scenarios. It will work on either iOS or Android.

You can access and install it using this link:

You still need to use a password combo to access the OLab4 server but you can choose to store that in your browser or keychain. And it can be a little slow to load sometimes.

Edit: As often happens with the Freemium model, have now changed their pricing structure. The free version is now somewhat limited. The costs and limitations of even the Private versions are not justifiable for our purposes, at this point.

Times Change

As Bob Dylan reminds us, the times they are a changin’. For us here, that is tonight in the early hours of Sunday morning. And, as usual, it is causing problems. The specific challenge that is relevant to those of us who need to collaborate electronically with multiple groups around the world is coordinating time zones.

Right up front for the TL;DR crowd, I offer this tip (which is just as relevant as when we first cited it in 2005): use this web site – it is so helpful.

There are other similar sites out there. This one has remained useful to us for 15 years.

Now, you might think that, with our clever computers being aware of time zones, and with apps like Outlook etc catering to time zones, this would no longer be a problem. Not so, I’m afraid, as this week has demonstrated. Several conference calls now scheduled for times that almost work but not really.

There are several problems behind this:

  1. Not all regions switch time zones but those that do tend to assume that everyone does.
  2. Not everyone switches at the same date/time
  3. Opposite hemispheres switch in opposite directions which makes sense logically when you think about it… but most people don’t think about it.
  4. When booking ahead at this time of year, some people use today’s time difference, forgetting that it will be different next week or when the meeting comes.
  5. Different apps and operating systems handle time zones differently
  6. There are 3 different time zone tables in operation around the computing world but they don’t agree.

For multinational groups, this is remains a common cause of confusion and disruption. As we noted in our 2005 article, sometimes it gets so bad that we take a trick from the military and quote all times as Zulu. The advantage of this is that Zulu never changes; Universal Time Coordinated (UTC), for our purposes, is pretty much the same thing.

Note that we avoid using Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). While this is similar to UTC and Zulu, it causes confusion amongst UK participants, so many of whom interpret GMT = “current time in the UK”, which is only correct for half the year.

As noted above, you cannot rely on your smart devices to get it right either, or even major information systems. I will relay an odd example of this from our travels. My daughter and I were traveling through Santiago, Chile, on our way to Buenos Aires, a few years ago. Our transit time in Santiago was a shade tight at just under two hours but should have been enough and was approved by the airline booking systems.

Our flight arrival into Santiago was a delayed by about 30 minutes (not bad for a 10 hour flight). When we touched down, I took my phone and watch out of airplane mode so that they could resync with local time etc, and was puzzled to see that my phone and my watch disagreed by an hour.

Because of the delay, we stopped by the transit desk just to let them know that we were here, still heading onwards etc, and they told us we had better run because the flight was closing. We made it with seconds to spare and had no checked bags so things turned out ok. But we were really puzzled by the shift.

It turns out that even Air Canada is “puzzled” by this. The arrival time, given by the Air Canada system and ticketing was wrong by an hour. So our transit time was only about an hour and no wonder we only just made it.

On poking into this a little further, it also explained why my watch and my phone were in disagreement about the current time. Normally the smart watch grabs its time etc from the phone so it was weird that they were synced but exactly an hour apart.

It turns out that there are 3 different time zone lookup tables in common use in the IT world. And they don’t always agree. So my watch was using one table and my phone was using another. I’m not sure which system Air Canada was using but it was also wrong.

It is a particular problem in Santiago at certain times of year. In one time zone table, Santiago does not flip times with daylight savings; in another it does. This problem first cropped up for IT time zone tables 30 years ago but remains a problem.

There are other time zone oddities out there (yes, we are looking at you, Newfoundland), but it pays to be careful around this time of year.

Dubya also changed the dates of when time zones change in USA (and hence Canada since we always have to do what our southern neighbours tell us) a few years ago. This made sense to some, while other cynics generally blame the golfers. It did introduce a wrinkle in coordinating time with Europe because we were more closely aligned prior to that, and many still think we all switch on the same date.

Historically, one justification that has generally been used was that it was for the benefit of the farmers… which then makes it ironic that Saskatchewan, our most agrarian province, does not flip for daylight savings.

Many would point to all the costs, increased road traffic events, etc and state with much logical support that it does not make sense to change times. Ahh, logic… meet politics… you will get along so well together.

Anyway, looking forward to an extra hour of sleep tonight… except I won’t get it because one of cats does not believe in time zone shifts and will still be biting my ear at 05:30 (and at that ungodly hour, it does not matter whether that is MST or MDT) demanding to be fed. Great!

Server security improved

Our various servers, supporting OpenLabyrinth and the OLab education research platform, had some hiccups for a while, which resulted in our support of https and SSL being rather patchy.

Most people will find these days that many web browsers have conniptions about visiting unsecured sites, so many of you were getting dire warnings about the site being insecure or having an invalid security certificate.

I think we have all that fixed now and there should be no more warnings.

Just to reassure you, there was no actual compromise of our sites and the data remains secure.

OLab4 demo at AMEE

Our first launch and demonstration of what the new OLab4 Designer, the authoring interface for scenario development, is taking place today at the AMEE Conference in Vienna.

The main concept mapping tool will be familiar to OpenLabyrinth v3 authors. We have retained its basic useful functions, made it simpler and more accessible.

To take a look at some of the demonstration scenarios that we have created, go to — login as ‘ltopps‘ (that’s with a small L at the front for Learner) and with a password of ‘learner‘ when asked to sign in.

There are just a few simple demo cases to start with. We will build more to demonstrate OLab4’s new capabilities.