Archive for July, 2008

Finding the useful in technology

Monday, July 28th, 2008

In Dave’s recent post he talked about the tentative categorizations we have made of our students as a result of our research for the Isthmus project, however I think it is worth emphasizing how much our students adoption of tools and technologies (or not) is driven by their perception of usefulness. For our students at least we have a group who use the internet to varying degrees based on a strong sense of personal need – they use what they find useful, but not for its own sake.

So they will engage in what might be considered quite sophisticated online behaviours in the cause of something they want to do, but be quite astoundingly incapable with things that they cannot see the point of, and actually you have to admire this pragmatism, they are extremely effective web users in their scope.

But how do our users find the things that they deem useful? What about all the tools that might change their (web) lives if only they knew they existed? From personal experience I knew RSS existed for years before actually getting set up with an aggregator, but when I finally did it changing the way I worked for ever. I have a colleague who still regularly thanks me for telling them about delicious, they knew it was out there, but until I gave them my take on social bookmarking they had never quite realised it fixed exactly the thing that had been bugging them about bookmarking for years. They have since passed it on to several other people.

I have a strong appreciation of how random these moments can be, but also how transformative, and I am sure there are things we can do to bring the things most likely to be of use to them, to the attention of our students. We will be working on this as part of the Isthmus project over the next few months. The plan is to keep it simple, as much as possible to use what is already out there, but to help them find what can help them, and what will really be useful.

Not ‘Natives’ & ‘Immigrants’ but ‘Visitors’ & ‘Residents’

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

As part of the JISC funded Isthmus project we have been taking a close look not at whattechnologies our students use but at how our they use them. We found that our students could not be usefully categorised as Digital Natives or Digital Immigrants. I.e. This distinction does not help guide the implementation of technologies it simply provides the excuse that “some people ‘just don’t get it’ which is why your new approach has failed so badly…”

Anyway, our students appropriation of online services did not seem to follow a simple pattern based on skill level. It seemed to depend on if they saw the web as a ‘place to live’ or as a collection of useful tools. This underlying motivation led us to outline two main categories of distance learning student.

The ‘Resident’

The resident is an individual who lives a percentage of their life online. The web supports the projection of their identity and facilitates relationships. These are people who have an persona online which they regularly maintain. This persona is normally primarily in a social networking sites but it is also likely to be in evidence in blogs or comments, via image sharing services etc  The Resident will of course interact with all the practical services such as banking, information retrieval and shopping etc but they will also use the web to socialise and to express themselves. They are likely to see the web as a worthwhile place to put forward an opinion. They often use the web in all aspects of the of their lives; professionally, for study and for recreation. In fact the resident considers that a certain portion of their social life is lived out online. The web has become a crucial aspect of how they present themselves and how they remain part of networks of friends or colleagues.

The ‘Visitor’

The Visitor is an individual who uses the web as a tool in an organised manner whenever the need arises. They may book a holiday or research a specific subject. They may choose to use a voice chat tool if they have friends or family abroad. Often the Visitor puts aside a specific time to go online rather than sitting down at a screen to maintain their presence at any point during the day. They always have an appropriate and focused need to use the web but don’t ‘reside’ there. They are sceptical of services that offer them the ability to put their identity online as don’t feel the need to express themselves by participating in online culture in the same manner as a Resident.

In effect the Resident has a presence online which they are constantly developing while the Visitor logs on, performs a specific task and then logs off.

This is of course not a polar distinction. There is a spectrum of which the Resident and the Visitor represent two extremes (Watch this space for a couple of possible sub-categories). It is a useful distinction because it is not based on gender or age. While our data would indicate that the portion of the population over 55 is predominantly made up of Visitors there are examples of Residents in this section of the demographic. Similarly it is the case that not everyone younger than 25 is a Resident.

It is not always easy to spot who is in each category as the level of sophistication with which a Visitor might use any single service might well be greater than that of a Resident. Again, this is not a skill based distinction. In fact I know of at least one ed-tech researcher who considers himself to be a Visitor out of choice.

The Resident is likely to have arranged some sort of system to manage the relationship between services and the flow of information through their browser but this does not mean that they will be any more effective at researching a specific topic than a Visitor. This is why data from a survey that simply asks what online services a group of students use is next to useless.

This Visitor, Resident distinction is useful when considering which technologies to provide for online learners. For example if your learners are mainly Visitors they are unlikely to take advantage of any feed based system for aggregated information you may put in place. They are also unlikely to blog or comment as part of a course. The Resident will expect to have the opportunity to offer opinions on topics and to socialise around a programme of study. In fact they are likely to find ways of doing this even if they are not ‘officially’ provided. We offered membership of a facebook group to our students as they left their online courses. The majority signed-up without question as they wanted to stay in touch with fellow students and continue discussions. The remainder saw the group as pointless and a possible invasion of privacy. Both sides of this argument are correct… It’s a question of approach and motivation, hence Visitors and Residents.

Some of you might also be interested in our paper on Visitors and Residents:

Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement
by David S. White and Alison Le Cornu.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 9 – 5 September 2011

Hope for font embedding on the web?..

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

Since the dawn of the web (approximately) people have wanted to use specific fonts in their web page designs. Initially they rendered their text as graphics files (bad for download sizes, and often bad for accessibility), then there were a competing font embedding systems (which never really took off due to browser incompatibilities and limited tools), and then the Flash text-replacement tools (which do the job, but are pretty clunky) and SVG fonts (with limited browser support).

None of these really have the appeal of genuinely embedding your fonts in a website – which should allow better designs and font usage, be more efficient for the user, and easier for the developer than any of the above options.

The Microsoft IEBlog has recently posted about a new effort to get font embedding working. There’s an education effort, and – more importantly at this point – it appears that they are opening up their EOT embedding solution in a W3C submission. This is the same system as from 10 years ago, but opening it up will hopefully allow other browser makers take it up, and other developers make (decent) tools to create EOT.

Håkon Wium Lie advocates a different approach to the problem in August 2007, advocating plain TrueType web fonts, and this has been included to Safari 3.1. It doesn’t have the file size advantages of EOT, but looks like a workable approach for free fonts. Unfortunately it isn’t so good for commercial font creators, as they their licensing restrictions on font distribution could be trampled over with this system.

Of course, there is a downside should this actually work out – it’ll be desktop publishing with dozens of fonts per page, all over again. Still, if EOT becomes a freely implementable standard, with decent tools (preferably free software), this will be a win for the web…

By researcher, for researchers

Monday, July 21st, 2008

Zotero looks like an interesting looking tool for managing online research sources: lots of functions similar to EndNote integrated as a Firefox plugin, plus a bunch of online research community/collaboration stuff if you want it.

Philosophers Philosophise in Second Life

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

What happens when you take 6 online philosophy students with and average age of about 50* and attempt to run a discussion session on ‘identity’ in Second Life after only two short orientation sessions that not everyone could attend?

Well against my expectations they actually spend the majority of the time ‘really doing philosophy’ (to quote the tutor) and then 4 of them arrange to continue the discussions on a regular basis after the official ‘Open Habitat’ project pilot has finished. General enthusiasm all round and many constructive comments on how future sessions could be organised and formatted.

So the initial question I ask myself is not “why did this work?” but “why did I think it wasn’t going to work?” The answer can probably contains an number of things that I didn’t consider until it was clear that the sessions were going ok.

  1. The majority of the participants were experienced philosophers. They did not have to grapple with the environment AND the subject. Once they had learnt how to text chat, move and sit down (an activity they all seemed to enjoy) the rest was home territory.
  2. The tutor involved was enthusiastic, had experience of teaching online distant students via a VLE and had a clear understanding that Second Life was going to be different and required a new approach.
  3. I was on hand through the sessions to IM anyone in difficulties and more importantly I was in the same RL room as the tutor who was also new to Second Life.
  4. We were flexible with the teaching format and adjusted activities to fit the flow of the discussion and the speed of response from the students.
  5. The participants who signed up for the pilot self selected as those willing to investigate a possible new format. This was not a mandatory part of a course. In other words they were open to a new experience.

Philosophising as the sun sets

The debate begins

One of the most successful aspects of the sessions was breaking into small groups. We had placed simple breakout areas within view of each other but just out of the 20 meter range of local chat to avoid cross talk. The tutor could wander between groups much in the same way she would in RL. It was a format that the participants could relate to and it utilised the socio-spatial nature of the environment.

Small groups

The ‘red’ group with the ‘blue’ group in the background.

Another interesting technique was circulating a transcript of the chat after the session with annotations from the tutor. I could see this working very well for a rolling discussion over a number of sessions.

It wasn’t all plain sailing, some of the participants found the flow of the text chat too fast and too ‘bitty’. By the time they had formulated their thoughts things had moved on and a paragraph of text in the flow of a text chat can appear self indulgent. Of course this is a problem inherent in text chats as a format rather than an SL specific issue. The other major challenge seems to be facing in the right direction when sitting down or, at one point, sitting in a seat that has not already been taken.

Have we met?

Have we met?

We now have a lot of data to sift through and many more questions to answer but my initial reaction is that this could become a very effective part of a distance programme blended between VLE and SL. The SL part providing a social underpinning to students who never get the chance to meet face-to-face.

Sunset discussion

The setting lends a noble atmosphere to the discussion

As to ‘technological barriers’ and ‘SL pain barriers’ it’s true to say that one of the perspective participants simply could not get into SL at all (a victim of SL graphics card brutality). However, with a little hand-holding the participants who could get in didn’t have too much trouble using the environment to philosophise and did not seem to get tied down by the platform as a technology.


*This is not meant as an ageist comment as I think the Prensky-esque notions of the digital native generation are a misnomer (by that I mean “completely wrong”). My point is that these participants are not ‘high tech’ nor are they ‘tech geeks’. They will only use a technology if it aids them in moving their learning forwards.

European LAMS conference

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

Like Martin Weller, Grainne Conole and Sheila MacNeill I was at the European LAMS conference in Cadiz last week. This proved a great chance to talk to people who are doing interesting things in pedagogical planners specifically and Learning Design more generally.

For me the most gratifying thing was that we all seem to be moving in the same direction, despite not having necessarily having talked to each other as much as we probably should have done over the last year. I think the key will be in maintaining this dialogue and ensuring we all move forward in a way which allows us to get the most benefit from each others work. Between the commitment at the OU to their learning design work, the LDSE and the projects JISC are funding in the curriculum design and delivery calls I think a lot will happen in the next couple of years, the trick will definitely be in trying to make this all join up.

It is also worth commenting that all of that is only what is happening in the UK, the LAMS group now have funding for their Activity Planner project and Ten Competance continue to do really interesting things.

I think there is a lot of willingness to keep talking, now all we have to do is to find the time….

Google to Microsoft

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

Interesting blog post where Sergey Solyanik talks about why he moved from Google to Microsoft. I don’t know anything about the culture inside Google, but the peer-based performance review model sounds like a good idea.