Archive for the 'Web 2.0' Category

Following Online Society Across Time and Tech

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

Below is a pitch for a research project that doesn’t exist yet because I can’t describe it properly. The ‘Open Social’ concept and Social Graph API seem to be a tech kind of response to the phenomenon I am attempting to outline. I can’t seem to find an academic tool/framework to help me though…


The web continues to expand and diversify its capacity to support communication and collaboration. This is evident in the expansion and popularity of social networking sites such as FaceBook and communication tools such as Skype. The increase in groups that now straddle the real and the virtual is now having significant cultural impact. Individuals are increasingly part of a network of friends, acquaintances and colleagues that is distributed across multiple locations on and off-line.

These groups of distributed individuals are relatively new in form and are constantly changing in character as advances in online technologies provide new affordances which interplay with individuals aspirations to extend/refine their group and collaborate in novel and useful ways. Despite this being in a constant state of flux it is highly likely that individuals in the first world will be part of a distributed group for the majority of their lives. A 28 year-old in 2008 may have been part of an online group for over 10 years, a group that has morphed as that individual moved through a number of different life stages. The group is likely to have moved across a number of online technologies or environments and may exist across multiple environments at any one time.

Collaborative groups have been characterised in many ways, for example, Affinity Groups (Gee), Communities of Practice (Wenger) and Knotworks (Englestrom). Each theory describes different motivations, goals and structures of groups of people attempting to work together with some sense of shared participation. In each instance the theory in question is based on a particular area or type of collaboration or interaction for example fandom or institutional work. This is not to say that these theories are not applicable in a wider sense rather that their underpinning rational has a specific types or styles of groups. A similar bounding can often be seen in research undertaken in this area which is often focused on activities that take place within a particular tool or environment for example, Second Life, FaceBook or World of Warcraft.

It is increasingly important that we gain a better understanding of the phenomenon of the persistent distributed group, one which is not too closely tied to a particular style of interaction or type of technology. We are at a point in time where it is possible to trace the history of an individuals relationship with these groups, following that individuals changing relationship with other members of the groups they are part of and the technology involved. This would require investigating individuals motivations for being members of a group, their reasons for types and levels of participation and their changing perception of what constitutes the ‘real’ or what Castronova calls the ‘Semi-Permeable Membrane’ between online and offline worlds. The aim being to discover and map the underlying principles that are forming as online technologies facilitate the changing makeup of societies, becoming paradoxically more distributed and fractured while at the same time affording greater flexibility for communication and collaboration. In thinking about this it is important not to bounded by a single technology but to accept that many groups transcend specific technological advances or shifts and morph across the changing online environment. In this way a clearer perspective will be gained and a better understanding of the longer term implications and opportunities for society will be understood.


So there it is. I’m assuming that if you made it this far you are intrigued by the idea. Let me know what you think.

Reaching into the Web

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

As part of our JISC funded ‘Isthmus’ project we have launched a pilot Facebook group for students on our short online courses. The overall concept is to encourage a ‘community’ of students that exists beyond the run of any single course. It’s been running for 6 days now and so far we have 45 members (about 10% of this term’s students) and around 20 posts.

Deciding to use Facebook and then deciding exactly how to set-up the group was complicated and generated a lot of discussion here at TALL. Our students are generally older than a traditional university student and many of them are retired. The recent OxIS Internet survey reported that 42% of students signed up to a Social Networking site last year but of those in the retired ‘life-stage’ category only 2% signed up. In contrast Saga recently launched a Social Networking site for the over 55s and claimed that ‘Silver Social Networking’ was on the rise. Surveys of our students revealed that not many of them were members of Social Networking sites (around a third) but that only 26% were not interested in communicating with other students after their course had finished.

As well as the difficulty in deciding to run the pilot it was also not clear exactly what form it should take because it cuts across technical, pedagogical, social and legal issues. Each area for consideration pulls the design and principle of the pilot in different directions. The core challenge was how to strike the right balance between supporting and structuring the group without ‘owning’ or managing it. This involved consulting JISC legal, Oxford University’s Legal Services Office and a range of stakeholders (including the students).

So far the group seems to be working, but it is early days. More significantly I feel we have made inroads into how to manage our relationship with third party services such as Facebook. If we can establish some principles in this area then we will be able to take advantage of the wider web much more efficiently in the future.

A project in quotidian democracy

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

As mentioned before, Mako Hill is doing interesting things with voting software. He just posted an update, and the selectricity site is up. I made this quickvote to have a play – take a look!

What is Web 2.0 and how is it impacting on education?

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

Not my title but the title of a recent JISC podcast in which myself and JISC strand manager, Lawrie Phipps, discuss the nature of Web 2.0 and its possible relevance for education. We both take a cautious liberal view that recognises the potential in this new style of communicating and sharing whilst being clear that institutions can’t simply dive-in and appropriate the emerging online culture which seems to be in a permanent state of flux. If you are not sure what Web 2.0 is all about then this may be the non-technical introductory podcast for you.

Social Capital and Community Development in the Pursuit of Dragon Slaying

Monday, July 30th, 2007

What can the massively multiplayer game ‘World of Warcraft’ teach us about how to facilitate learning communities? Below is a video of the talk I gave at the Games Learning and Society conference in Madison Wisconsin. (Running time 26 minutes)

If you want more details before watching here is the abstract…

This presentation is an evaluation of ethnographic field work conducted in and around the World of Warcraft MMO. The study focuses on the motivation of guild members to construct communities of practice both to learn and to socialize. This suggests that the guilds can act as useful models for understanding how online social networks function and how they could influence the ideology of next generation e-learning services.

Successful collaborative learning can only be sustained if the individuals involved feel part of a group or community in which they can trust. The most robust communities tend to be those that form via a collective aim or interest; their formation has a social underpinning and is not totally utilitarian.

If an aspiration of e-learning is to move away from simply providing online programs of study, demarcated by subject, to increasingly fluid spaces in which students can build social networks, then we need to understand how contemporary collaborative and participatory environments encourage the formation of these types of groupings.

Some of the most sophisticated examples of online community creation and management take place in and around MMO environments. The current apex of this field is the ‘guild’ system which suffuses the World of Warcraft MMO. Guilds are effectively goal-oriented clubs or societies, many of which utilize the latest Web 2.0 technologies out-of-game and multi-channel text chat and VOIP systems in-game both to organize and to socialize.

This paper is based on data collected over a period of six months from an ongoing ethnographic study comprising self-reflexive observation and semi-structured interviews conducted in World of Warcraft and face-to-face with guild members. This extends into a study of the social software used out-of-game by community members that acts as a communication base for the guilds.

The data is evaluated using Wenger’s notion of communities of practice, which highlights the interweaving of goal-orientated learning and the immersion of those participating in trusted social networks. This has the effect of generating and communicating what Bourdieu calls cultural capital, the lack of which often makes online learning a poor second to traditional face-to-face learning.

The challenge here is how to abstract underpinning principles and practice that will be of value to e-learning away from the immediate goals or ideology of a particular MMO. This is not to suggest that killing dragons in collaborative groups is the future of e-learning. Instead it proposes that much can be gained from reflecting on the success of MMOs in motivating the formation of vibrant online communities and the ways in which these communities interweave socializing and learning.

Web 2.0 Analysis and Statistics

Thursday, July 19th, 2007

You may be interested in my report on Web2.0 take-up and usage which I submitted to JISC a few weeks ago. It’s analysis of some data that blogged back in March. I included the responses to the data in the report. It was all very ‘participatory’. The report can be downloaded from here:

Structure vs Community?

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

This post assumes that you agree that collaborative/group work is a good method of online learning and that effective learning takes place when the individuals involved are part of a community. The ideas in this post are as a result of some in depth discussions with members of emerge. This post is not very well put together in it’s use of terms like ‘community’, ‘group’ and ‘collaboration’ but I hope you can see the basic principles I’m trying to work with.

The basic dichotomy?

  • Too much structure = restriction on community formation, groups stay in pre-defined ‘networks’ and do not thrive?
  • Too little structure = lack of direction, lack of coherence, community less likely to form?

We agree that it’s not possible to mandate a community but we understand that a community forms only when certain structures are in place. We are not sure exactly what those structures should be or who should be responsible for putting them in place(?) We are also not sure how much structure should be put in place by the educational institution or tutors and how much space/flexibility should be provided for the students to experiment with.

Some basic questions?
Where should the structure come from to encourage a successful community?

  • How much should come from the facilitators within the community?
  • How much should come from the members of that community?
  • How much should come from the nature of the tools used by that community?

What is the difference between a facilitator and a member? Can one become the other? In a community are we always both?

The rise of web2.0 and immersive environments brings the above questions to the fore. I think that it has only recently become practical for elearning to be relatively unstructured online as social networking etc has become more main-stream. We can see the emergence of online communities and the significance this has for learning but we don’t know precisely how to encourage the formation of communities (It may in fact be more of a craft skill than a science). We can see how engaged, motivated individuals are keen to communicate collaborate and participate, thereby forming communities (emerge is a good example) but we aren’t sure how to encourage/lead a bunch of slightly alienated first years to act in a communal manner.

I would argue that innovative work/research in elearning needs to find answers to the questions posed above. ‘Next generation’ elearning will increasing be about managing and facilitating collaboration and communities, about encouraging cohorts of students to move from being an institutional defined network of individuals to members of learning communities that reach beyond traditional institutional boundaries.

So, what would an attempt to answer these questions look like as a ‘project’? Well here is my first, very sketchy attempt to outline one possible route.

The focus would be on Second Life in this particular case but with the understanding that any educational activity in SL will probably actually be overseen by associated 2D systems (Moodle, FaceBook etc) As I mentioned in an earlier post I think that most healthy communities exist in more than one tool or environment. i.e Emerge uses Elgg, Elluminate Skype Email etc. The community has the same relationship to a single tool as a virus has to a single host. If the tool creates the right environment then the community will grow stronger. It will have stronger bonds and will potentially expand in numbers. As the community evolves it will move hosts/tools or at least shift its emphasis within a group of tools. For example moving from a Blog focus to a Skype focus and back again as ideas circulate.

Clearly it would be a good idea to look at other successful online communities to try and discover what kind of structures they have put in place. It would also be useful to gather together examples of current good/successful practice of teaching/group work in Second Life.

Next we would plan a series of group/collaborative activities that range from the highly structured (eg step-by-step with a tutor) through to the open (eg form your own group and build a demonstration of a scientific principle of your choice). We would then put a range of students through these activities to discover which combination of students and activities fostered community like activity.

The main outcome would be guidance on how to encourage online community and how best to run collaborative activities in an immersive environment. An ideal result would be a series of activity models that gradually move from the structured to the unstructured and draw a cohort of students through to a point where they are a relatively self-supporting community. We could learn from the gaming community in this respect. Below is a chart that shows the amount of time it takes to reach each ‘level’ in World of Warcraft.

Leveling_TimeFrom ‘Alone Together?’ Ducheneaut et al. 2006

As you can see the time/effort needed rises fairly steadily from level to level. This is good game design, could it be good course design? The game has the advantage over a traditional course in that there are explicit rewards every other level (spells, amour etc) is there an educational equivalent?

The higher the level the more likely you will need to be in a group to successful tackle and quest (activity). The groups need to be larger as you reach the ‘end’ of the game with groups of 20 or more some of the quests above level 50. The forming of these groups is organised by the players themselves and is the main reason that guilds (communities) form. So you start the game doing structured activates alone and could end the game collaborating as part of a community inventing methods and tactics. Sounds like a good educational model to me…

Free software + MTV = better elections?

Tuesday, May 15th, 2007

There’s a whole raft of issues involved with having fair elections, but Mako Hill is doing impressive things with his RubyVote Election Methods Library (and it’s web-based interface Selectricity) – like hooking up with MTV.

This could be great for two big reasons:

  1. Trustworthy election software (Diebold is a good counter example). Mako doesn’t seem too bothered about governments using RubyVote for “important” elections, but the tendency for good quality open source to be picked up and used may be a factor.
  2. Increasing buy-in to elections:

    “One of the big arguments against preferential voting, or new voting technologies, is the fear that they would disenfranchise the average person who doesn’t yet understand how they work. Certainly, making all voting technologies open source is critical, but the issue of familiarity is worth considering. We’re hoping that MTV — and eventually American Idol — will move their voting over to Selectricity, allowing it to work as both a technical tool but also pedagogically, training future voters.”

    – Chris Csikszentmihályi

The dangers of popularity in online communities

Tuesday, May 15th, 2007

An interesting article about MySpace spam on The Register.

“In the beginning, MySpace was a place to meet new friends and get to know old ones even better by browsing their journals, photos and network of chums.

But soon, Viagra marketers, pedophiles and hackers latched onto MySpace and rendered it as ineffective as most other net-based public forums.”

Some MySpace groups have practically been killed off by spammers – and as we increasingly use websites and third-party web services in education, we have to consider how vulnerable online websites and communities can be.

In mitigation of the danger, MySpace is a big target, and I’m sure that it could do a lot more to improve the situation*, so it’s not the end of the online learning world – but do we need contingency plans to cope with one’s VLE being attacked? Do you have them already?

* MySpace rant unrelated to the security issues in the article: I really hate MySpace – the navigation makes no sense; I’ve told it I don’t want music to play automatically, yet it still does; you get the idea. As I’ve said elsewhere, the only good thing about it is that lots of people know about it, so it can serve as a crude search tool.

How do you personalise?

Monday, May 14th, 2007

I have just read a very interesting post by Josie Fraser (always a good read) who has a great diagram which points up some of the implicit assumptions people make about PLEs without realising they are talking about completely different things. I think we need to clarify where Isthmus fits in this grid …as we may find some of our assumptions are not the same.

Of course not that Isthmus is necessarily trying to build a PLE…