Monday, November 30, 2009

Let's talk

The debate on the misuse of Twitter back channels at conferences continues and I have to mention another good post on the subject from a participant at the Web 2.0 Expo, Michelle Riggen-Ransom, Web 2.0 Expo: Harshtags, Twecklers and the Silence of the Death Star. She suggests that Twitter flows at conferences should not simply be beamed up on the screen behind the speaker, there should be a moderator function. Admittedly the hecklers would still be able to send their wise cracks but at least they wouldn't be magnified on the big screen.

The other main point in this post is also worrying. The participants were so engrossed in their laptops and cellphones that there was very little direct conversation, one of the main attractions of going to a conference in the first place. I've had the same experience a few times; at break times you look around for people to meet but everyone is too busy typing to notice you. In the end you just find a corner and start typing, look as if you're busy.

Are we hiding behind our devices, afraid of real human contact? Social media can certainly extend the reach of a conference and I have "participated" in several via Twitter, Second Life or web meeting. We can also bring the delegates closer together by providing a pre-conference community site to make contacts. But the main event is actually meeting all these net contacts face to face and discussing over a coffee or an evening drink.

As Michelle concludes:
"Next time you’re at a conference, try putting away the iPhone or the Blackberry during breaks. If you disagree with a presenter, seek them out afterwards, write a thoughtful blog post or contact them via Twitter to start a conversation. Say hello to people. Be open. You could meet someone IRL (!) who could become a friend, a mentor or business partner, or even start a project that makes the world a better place for your being in it."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Spam spam spam

I read recently that over 90% of all e-mail in the world is spam. Despite this it's still the most popular means of written communication. I suppose the world's spam filters must be doing a good job otherwise we would have given up by now. However, even if the spam count is low many people feel engulfed by the sheer volume of non-spam e-mail. It's a long time since we actually enjoyed getting e-mail.

If e-mail has become passé then we get our pleasure in other services. I still think it's fun getting a comment on my blogs or someone mentioning me on Twitter (sad, I know). However there are signs that the spammers are taking over even there. There's a good post on James Clay's blog E-learning Stuff called Ten reasons why Twitter will eventually wither and die. He lists ten threats to Twitter mostly to do with spamming and sabotage which is already creeping in. The sheer openness of the service makes it extremely vulnerable to attack and if your identity gets used for spamming or worse you will of course stop using Twitter (or whatever other service). Similarly bloggers give up when their blog gets bombed by abusive spammers.

Could the openness of the social web be its ultimate downfall? The potential for constructive collaboration is enormous but also the potential for sabotage and trashing. How to we protect our net freedom without restricting it in some way?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tweckling II, the speaker's view

The use of Twitter to digitally shout down a speaker at the recent Web 2.0 Expo (see previous post) has produced a lot of welcome debate about how the relative anonymity of the net allows some people to behave in a thoroughly disrespectful manner. The speaker at that conference, Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research, has written an admirably honest analysis of the presentation on her blog Apophenia, Spectacle at Web 2.0 expo ... from my perspective.

She was unable to see the Twitter flow during her presentation but felt increasingly uncomfortable as members of the audience laughed without apparent reason. Unaware of the wisecracks and derogatory remarks going on behind her back her presentation suffered accordingly. The back channel had taken centre stage and she was powerless. Of course if someone had actually asked a question or made a direct comment she could have reacted and dealt with the issue but that didn't happen.

The issue is of course one of respect. If you're using Twitter or other such tools professionally isn't it best to include a photo of yourself and adopt a name that is close to your own. I don't see the point of hiding your identity, especially at a conference where the whole point is to interact and meet people. If you are identifiable you are accountable for your comments and people can easily see who is disrupting the session.

This topic has certainly sparked off a debate and Danah's blog post has so far received 105 comments.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Not waving but drowning

I finally got a Google Wave invitation and logged in a couple of weeks ago. That's it - so far. It's still in quarantine until I have time to work out what to do with it. I'm not sure why I'm keeping it at arm's length since it must be one of the most awaited (and hyped) applications of all time and I've read plenty of rave reviews from people I trust. I think I got a bit turned off by the whole business of sending out a limited number of invitations (according to Google anyway) and letting the world fight over them. Talk about creating demand. Very clever marketing of course.

Already I have a few contacts in my Wave box and I clicked on one of the conversations. It was a long column of messages and embedded dokuments resembling a long chat session. I immediately felt stressed. Google claim that this will sweep away e-mail and I welcome that. The trouble is that right now I have so many communication channels that I can't find room for yet another, especially one with only a select band of users. When Wave is ready to incorporate my e-mail as well as contacts in Facebook, Skype, Twitter etc then I'll be really interested but I really don't want yet another communication app open on my screen.

Wave is not the first app I've kept in quarantine a while. I signed up for Twitter months before I even sent my first tweet. I signed up and then watched it sit there for a while as I tried to think of something useful I could do with it. Now it's one of my favourite tools and a great source of information. Maybe I need time to adjust and Wave will be a hit when I finally decide to examine it.

If you're already using Wave you will realize that I still haven't learned the basics yet but I suppose I am experiencing the same feelings many teachers and colleagues get when they hear me waxing lyrically about the wonders of Web 2.0 etc. Interested yet hesitant to open Pandora's box and let all the demons out. Good to get a reality check basically.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tweckling - the negative side of conference back channels

I have previously written about public discussion forums which are often sabotaged by self-styled experts who enjoy humiliating any new members who dare to ask a simple honest question. These are nearly always anonymous users hiding behind a deliberately cryptic name and a picture of a cartoon character. Anonymity can foster brutality

Now we have a new term to add to the dozens already spawned by Twitter: namely tweckling. This means heckling a speaker by Twitter, especially at conferences. Many conferences use Twitter as an effective channel for audience participation, allowing participants the chance to comment on speakers, provide links to more information on the topic under discussion and for networking. However the tool can be used in a more destructive manner as described in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Conference Humiliation: They're tweeting behind your back. Here a speaker was criticized openly on the conference Twitter flow and was basically subjected to digital heckling. The audience can sit silently and apparently attentive whilst shouting down the speaker in the digital space. In some cases the presentation can be silently drowned out by the flow of wise cracks. The speaker, not having time to read the steady flow of comments, is powerless. Further examples of Twitter in class, both positive and negative, are in another Chronicle article, Teaching with Twitter: not for the faint of heart.

Of course it's not the fault of the tool, Twitter, but rather another example of the confusion between private and public communication. There's a big difference between writing a quick note to my neighbour that I don't think much of the speaker and broadcasting my views to the whole auditorium and the world. Let's keep the discussion respectful and open. If we're using social media professionally we should not hide our identity.

As a PS to this post I have just seen an article on CNN (Can the law keep up with technology?) discussing the problems the legal world is having dealing with developments in the digital space and in particular offensive remarks made on Twitter.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Terms of service

Every time you sign up for a new service or download an update you get that annoying window with the terms of service. Does anyone read them? We merrily click Yes I accept and move on to the more interesting business of starting the application. We blindly trust that there's nothing unfair or restrictive in these terms and hope for the best. We could be signing away ourselves to lifetime enslavement for all we know. Our trust is complete.

Maybe that's the whole point even from the service provider's perspective. The terms are usually several pages long, in very small print and using lawyer-friendly language. Just sign here please sir/madam. By accepting we can't claim ignorance if we break the agreement. Is there any way of providing a short summary in plain English without compromising the agreement? It is rather important that we understand at least roughly what we're accepting and maybe it's time to press for simpler terms. This short summary can even have a note that full and legally binding conditions are contained in the legal version but that the summary gives a fair representation of those terms.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Digital divide

In a recent Guardian article on the growth of open educational resources (Any student, any subject, anywhere) there was a quote from David Wiley of Brigham Young University in Utah:

"I don't know whether in future the people who answer questions, provide content and provide the degree will be in the same institution. It's likely that institutions will specialise in just one of those areas and then form partnerships with other institutions that play other roles."

There are already net institutions like Peer 2 Peer University and University of the People using open educational resources and building their courses around student-driven collaborative learning. Obviously there will be a need for universities or other organisations who specialize in examination, providing self-learners and collaborative learners with the opportunity to get academic recognition for their efforts. I now realize that such examination specialists are already up and running according to an article in e-Campus News, Credit by exams expands student options.

Evidently two institutions, Excelsior College and Pearson VUE already offer thousands of students the chance to sit exams without having attended classes. This is of course an extremely attractive way of saving considerable sums of money on tuition fees with exams at Excelsior costing a mere $85. This opens the way for students to study on open courses or simply by pure self study without having to put yourself deeply in debt. However, to be successful you will need to be highly disciplined, have excellent digital competence and have built up a wide personal learning environment to provide , reference, support and encouragement.

While there are plenty resourceful students who can meet these demands it is even more important to find ways of helping new students gain access to education and they need hands-on guidance in how to use the net and filter information. Those who do not have any experience of higher education and who are not so digitally literate need teachers/mentors who are close at hand, preferably face-to-face. If you feel intimidated by computers and the net there isn't much comfort in knowing that all resources and support are on the net. Local learning centres and libraries are already working with this in many countries but often with low funding or through temporary injections of project money. New learners are easily discouraged and if they meet technical difficulties they will drop out. Support must be local and accessible.

Collaborative net-based learning has enormous potential for those with the necessary skills but the majority of people who would benefit from open education lack the skills to get on board. The open courses and examination forms are great for the already initiated. I hope we can find equally creative ways of narrowing the digital divide so open education can benefit the majority.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Going public

If you say something controversial at a meeting, in class or even at a party there's an ever-increasing likelihood that your comment will be broadcast to the world almost instantly. Someone in the audience will have a smartphone and can inform all their contacts via Facebook or Twitter almost before you've finished your sentence. Someone may even be filming you.

This can have positive effects of course and can extend the reach of a conference or class but in many cases this sort of social reporting can have damaging effects. It just needs someone to misunderstand a comment or willfully misrepresent what was said to start all sorts of malicious rumours. I read a while ago that many celebrity parties ban cellphones because people can't relax if there's the risk that anything they do or say may be out on the net within seconds.

These themes are discussed in a new BBC article called Social media challenge social rules. The writer, Bill Thompson, admits to tweeting and sending photos during a recent conference but wonders where we should draw the line on this. Gossip has never travelled faster or further than today and maybe we need to develop a new sense of respect for what may or may not be communicated.

We have the ability to communicate with the world and suddenly all of us have to consider issues previously only considered by newspaper editors. When we send a tweet or make a blog post we are publishing in the public domain and have to consider the consequences. Remarks that you can make to a close friend in private may not be appropriate to broadcast. A vital part of the digital competence that needs to be taught in schools and colleges is a sense of appropriacy and respect or other's feelings. You never know who may read your text or see your photo. Maybe we need to learn to be more critical of what we publish.

Monday, November 9, 2009


Say what you will about Twitter but no-one can deny the diversity of content and wealth of imagination that's out there. I can't help spreading the word about a particularly bizarre Twitter service; Big Ben! Yes London's famous chimes can now be heard across the twittersphere though in text format. If you subscribe to @big_ben_clock you will get a tweet every hour on the hour saying quite simply BONG up to 12 times depending on the time. Gripping stuff indeed.

I assume that this service is automated. What's most amazing is that Big Ben has 10,439 followers as I write. Particularly disturbing to people like me who try to use Twitter for relatively constructive purposes and only manage to gather 150 followers (sniff).