Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bookworms on the net

Do you tend to read great books but can't find anyone to discuss them with? I've found an interesting social network service that solves even that problem. It's called Booksprouts and allows you to form book clubs on the net to discuss whatever you are reading. You can either search for existing clubs that are reading books that you're interested in and apply to join them or you can start your own club. Some clubs are open to new members and others are private but it means that you should easily find at least a few kindred spirits somewhere in the world. In an academic situation it should be simple to link up students with readers from all over the world to participate in literary discussion.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Do-it-yourself university

I can warmly recommend a blog by an Australian researcher called Mark Pesce called The Human Network (What happens after we're all connected?) in which he discusses the possibility of students of the future being able to put together their own course by using learning resources available on the net, by choosing from resources on, for example, iTunes University, Wikiversity or MIT Open Courseware. If lectures and course material can be rated along the lines of, he argues, then you will be able to select the best (or at least most popular) resources available. You would then sign up with a teacher whose role it is to provide a framework for your studies. Could we, in that case, create a truly open university where all aspects of the course are negotiable? Sounds a bit like the Peer 2 peer university I mentioned a few weeks ago.

Controversial stuff indeed but it's good to see people questioning even the fundamentals. Read the blog to get the full story.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Generation X, Y and Z

At the conference last week there was a session about how we should meet the demands of generation Y in terms of using the latest net-based tools. There's a tendency, I think, for people to overestimate the capabilities of the so-called digital natives and play down the abilities of the older generations. We get the impression that everyone under 30 is completely in touch with the latest advances on the net and have developed an almost instinctive understanding of the tools they use.

As the debate developed we could see that we simply can't package generations so conveniently as different letters of the alphabet. There are young people who are not very net-aware and are not even interested in learning about it just as there are many over 60 who are highly talented in using the full range of net-based tools.

I have just learned about an interesting blog that tries to counterbalance all the generation XYZ hype. It's called Net Gen Nonsense and features just now a new survey on students' attitudes to IT from Strathclyde University and Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. This shows many students to be rather conservative in their use of IT, often restricted to Google, cellphone texting and using social networks in their spare time at most. They seem to favour traditional teaching methods and see little use for social software in their studies. Not quite the image we're often fed.

This is not the whole truth either but it is nice to see someone trying to balance the popular stereotype. There are of course an awful lot of highly skilled young people using the net in extremely creative ways but there is also a digital divide in that generation just as there is in older generations. Let's forget stereotypes and see people instead.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Online Information part 2

Libraries around the world are doing their own 2.0 upgrade, using blogs to tell about new publications and services, allowing customers to review books or contribute to wikis and providing instant messaging for contact with library staff. The library building with its collection of books is merely the tip of the iceberg where the main arena for the library is on the net. Social software gives libraries the chance of bringing people together to discuss and collaborate and helping people to use the tools involved.

One particular library project caught my imagination. In Denmark there is a popular library service for children called Ask Olivia (Spørg Olivia - only in Danish of course) which has been produced by Danish TV (DR) together with today around 50 local libraries. Olivia is an animated teenager on the web site who answers all sorts of questions from children between 8 and 14. Instead of having a service like ”ask the librarian” they decided to create a character that the kids could identify with, Olivia. She has her own identity and personality and has succeeded in creating a genuine dialogue with the children who use the service. It is vital that she behaves and responds in keeping with her identity; a 14 year old girl who is smart and fun to be with.

Behind the character are a select group of librarians who take turns at ”being” Olivia and answer the questions that come in and take part in the discussion forum on the site. They found that the children soon began contributing to the service and wanting to add content where they knew more than Olivia or could add details. As a result Olivia has to deal with questions that would never be asked in a physical library. The service has expanded and today has a large following of children who enjoy sharing knowledge without ever really realizing that they are participating in a library service. That for me was the best part of the story; that a traditional library service has been turned into something much bigger simply by communicating on the children’s terms and by letting them contribute and communicate.

Online Information 2008

I’ve spent an interesting 3 days in London at this annual conference on information management - see more on conference website. My own contribution was to present some results from the Kamimo project, higher education in Second Life, that is now nearing completion (see more on the Kamimo Island blog). But the main theme for the conference was showing how social software is being used in education, libraries, business and government to facilitate greater levels of interaction than ever before. There was an impressive range of imaginative projects on show.

The keynote speaker, Clay Shirky, gave an excellent presentation called Every piece of information is a latent community showing that people can form vibrant communities round just about anything; from sharing similar bookmarks to enjoying the same TV show. In the past we filtered first and then published (the traditional role of book publishers and record companies) whereas now we publish first and filter later. Everyone can now publish but then we need filters to find what we want from the vast resources. Could libraries help to fill the role of filtering this information overflow? We see an overwhelming range of services and technologies and hope that things will eventually stabilise but instead we can only expect increasing diversity and experimentation.

Shirky’s recent book Here comes everybody deals with these themes and he has, of course, a useful blog built around the ideas in the book if you feel like participating in the debate. You can also watch a pre-conference interview with him on YouTube.

It struck me that so much of what is going on on the net today is non-commercial and voluntary and goes completely against the commercial norms of the market. People are connecting with each other to solve problems and create new solutions without any financial rewards at all. On-line reputation is however hard currency. Imagine if a company or team of experts had planned to write Wikipedia and planned it as a traditional project, no doubt asking for external funding. How much would Wikipedia have cost? Would anyone have backed it? But it happened and is expanding daily through a vast network of passionate enthusiasts whose reward is being part of something new and exciting.

One speaker introduced the idea of perpetual beta for the development of Web 2.0 and that seems a very fitting description. Many are hesitant about trying out new web tools because they can’t see the return on investment but it’s impossible to know what will pay off in the long run. Some at first insignificant efforts have later resulted in major breakthroughs. We need to foster a climate where people are encouraged to try out new ideas on a small scale without strict demands on ROI. The advantage of Web 2.0 is that the tools are inexpensive and the only major investment is time. Only by constantly experimenting can we learn to use all these new tools effectively.

I'll post more from this conference in a day or two!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

President 2.0?

I read an article in the latest Newsweek about Barack Obama as the first online president. His campaign was very web-oriented and he has, seemingly, an impressive list of friends on Facebook. His promises to get more people involved in government has struck a chord with the web-savvy generation that voted so clearly for his promise of change. There is talk of streaming discussions on the net, offering wikis on various political initiatives to get more people involved in the decision-making process and so on. The article debates whether Obama can deliver on these promises or whether the realities of White House convention will prevail.

What is really interesting here is the signals this could send to the rest of the world about the use of the social web. If Obama really does open up some of the processes of government to the public domain then the rest of the world will be forced to take notice. There are wonderful initiatives going on everywhere in the use of social software but it is nearly always a bottom-up process without commitment from management. Now if a major world leader starts using new media then all other leaders in politics and in industry will be forced to examine their own operations.

It reminds me of a similar case in Sweden in the mid-nineties when Prime Minister Carl Bildt started using e-mail to distribute his ideas to a mass audience (an early example of blogging basically) and also to famously e-mail Bill Clinton at a time when world leaders didn’t do e-mail. This not only enhanced Bildt’s image as a modern politician it also inspired other leaders to get on-line and e-mail moved into the mainstream of business communication.

President-elect Obama has an unprecedented level of expectations to live up to and if he can meet half of them he will go down in history. His administration could really be a major catalyst for change in the way government is carried out and how it taps into the power of social networking at grassroots level.