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.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

And the winner is ...

Course evaluation is an integral part of a university's quality control process but it is also extremely difficult to get quality information from them. The best way to make sure the forms are filled in at all is to hand out papers in class and use classroom time to fill them in. On-line evaluation forms are notoriously difficult and returns are often pitifully low unless incentives are offered (eg fill in the evaluation and you enter a prize draw).

However millions of students are happily contributing to a completely voluntary evaluation tool called RateMyProfessors. This site claims to cover over 6,000 universities and colleges in the US, Canada and the UK and asks students to rate their teachers according to a variety of criteria such as easiness, helpfulness, clarity, textbook use and interest level. Lists are then compiled presenting, for example, a top ten "hottest" teachers, whatever that may mean.

This service is clearly controversial and is outside university jurisdiction (a possible reason for students' interest). Teachers may well feel unfairly treated and this is clear in the discussion forum on the site. There is an interesting feature called Professors strike back where teachers state their case on video.

Is this a case of positive consumer action or a place to get your own back on a teacher who gave you bad grades? Whatever it is it is definitely a factor to be reckoned with and it will be interesting if the phenomenon spreads to the rest of Europe.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Blogging in Belarus

Just spent an interesting few days in Minsk, Belarus as part of an exchange program with the Belarusian State University. I love visiting new countries and always learn a lot. We tend to stress the differences between countries rather than the similarities and it's so easy to fall into the trap of wondering why they don't do things the way we do. Campus life here seemed pretty similar to most other places I've visited and many conversations confirmed that we all have similar concerns about improving teaching quality, finding time for all the administration and so on.

The teachers and students I met showed great interest in net-based education and many already used social networks, wikis, blogs etc. The problem is a lack of bandwidth which seems to be a pretty expensive commodity at present. The technical know-how may be in place, the tools familiar but you can't get anywhere without a good plump connection to the net. Some claimed to have much better net access from home than from campus. It must be frustrating to see what everyone else is doing out there and not be able to take part in it all as much as you'd like to.

It made me more aware of the preconditions for our net-based society that we tend to take for granted. If the telecom operators and governments don't invest in getting broadband to everyone then we simply can't participate in Web 2.0, virtual worlds, e-meetings etc.
I got the impression that companies in Minsk did have good net access so there it's there if you want it, but the price is too high for cash-strapped higher education. We need to remember sometimes that we were there not terribly long ago; remember websites with animated ads that took ages to appear or trying to watch video clips that took an eternity to download?

Otherwise Minsk is well worth a visit; incredibly clean, nicely renovated and with a fascinating mixture of impressive Soviet era architecture with ultra-modern structures like the new National Library. It's particularly interesting to see statues of Lenin and Soviet street names brushing shoulders with shiny new glass "business centres", up-market designer shops and the familiar twin arches of Ronald McDonald.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Coming to a screen near you ...

I've just read about a university here in Sweden that has banned students from filming lectures and publishing them on the net without the teacher's permission.

This is a delicate question and shows that education is facing the problems already well known in the music and film industry. Since everyone in class owns a mobile terminal with built-in film camera it's not surprising that students are recording lectures so that they can listen to later. Copyright questions abound here just as in the case of recording a concert or any other live event. Sometimes there is a legitimate reason for recording a lecture, especially for people with impaired hearing or difficulties in taking notes, and a quick word with the teacher beforehand will normally result in permission to record. However it's not acceptable for a teacher to hear later that her/his latest seminar is already out on YouTube.

Maybe we need to discuss with students on a code of practice for this sort of thing and agree on certain groundrules. Most will abide by these. Those who don't are very hard to tackle and there will always be people who get a kick out of breaking any rules no matter how reasonable.

Another point is why they want to record classes. It's actually positive that they want a record of your classes for future reference. Maybe if all classes were recorded and available on the net afterwards there would be little point in recording them on a cellphone. Once again the example of iTunes U points the way.

On the other hand if all lectures are filmed and put out on the net why bother to turn up at all? If it's one way communication then it may as well be on the net. But learning is about participation and interaction and that's where the live event cannot be replaced by a recording.

This debate will run and run and there's no simple solution. However, we can be certain that mobile devices will only become even more powerful and easier to use and that they are here to stay. We have to adapt, just as many other parts of society are doing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Real recruitment in virtual world

I've just found another interesting new angle on student recruitment, this time using a virtual college fair. A number of schools and colleges in the USA arranged a virtual education fair on 6 November called EducationXpo where students could tour the exhibition area and talk to the college representatives. They could choose to be "represented" by an avatar. Colleges had their own exhibition area to show films and staff could chat to visiting students. There was also an area for students to meet each other and discuss.
According to an article in Campus Technology (Dian Schaffhauser, "Schools Take Recruitment Virtual with Online Education Expo," Campus Technology, 11/11/2008) the 12 hour event was more successful than expected and further such college fairs are on the way next year.
A film explaining the background to the exhibition is also available at the site.
It may not replace "real life" college fairs but once again it's an example of using new web solutions to provide added flexibility to the way we interact with our students and maybe reach groups who would not attend the more traditional events.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Social university

We talk a lot about using the advantages of social networking on university web sites but few are really doing it. However I've just seen an interesting example from Texas A&M University who have a special site aimed at attracting new students.

Current students have been encouraged to produce their own YouTube videos depicting all aspects of campus life and the web site is like a video notice board covered in these student videos. Not always top quality productions but for a prospective student much more engaging than the standard glossy university intro film. Furthermore, these films are from future student colleagues rather than top management and possibly more credible to the target audience. Why spend big money when your students can produce more credible advertising for free?

One possible snag is who checks these productions to ensure that nothing offensive is broadcast? If it's an official university site then the university is responsible for what is communicated there. I'm sure they have some kind of safety mechanism in place.

In addition to this they also have a link to Facebook, where you can instantly link up with many student communities at Texas A&M, as well as a link to the university's content on iTunes U (podcasted lectures).

Just a gimmick to attract students? Maybe, but if it does attract new students more than traditional methods it's well worth it.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Built-in obsolescence

Those wonderful market forces demand that we have to replace all electronic devices in our lives every few years to keep up with the accelerating gallop of technical development. This sad fact was once again made clear to me when I tried to find a replacement cartridge for our trusty old printer. It has worked flawlessly now for about 8-9 years and is still going strong. However I've now discovered that the print cartridge for it isn't in stock any more and as a result we'll have to dump the printer. What's more, a new printer costs about the same price as the cartridge would have cost had it still been available! So it's time to buy a new printer and reckon on it lasting a handfull of years at most.
Imagine now a world where we buy devices that can be upgraded over the net. The hardware is built to last (give me chrome fenders and leather upholstery!) and you pay to download all the upgrades you may need over the years. I admit it's tricky to download printing ink but I really hate to take perfectly functioning machines to the rubbish dump. What about the IT industry doing its bit for the environment and working towards net-based solutions rather than this hysterical production of billions of devices to replace the ones produced only last year. Just visit any major electronics store to see the overwhelming range of products these days.
Maybe a revamp of the old thin client principle with all the applications available on the net rather than sitting on your bulging hard-disc. Many are working in this direction so we can hope for more sanity in the future.
Farewell then old printer, let's hope we can be a bit smarter in the future.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Peer learning

With such a wealth of content available today, as well as an increasing willingness to share course material through initiatives like Wikiversity and various open educational resources (OER), the role of the teachers is to provide a framework for study, help students choose relevant material and facilitate discussion and reflection. Of course this all takes place within the confines of a university with a clearly defined syllabus and accreditation.

However that traditional framework is being challenged. Universities like MIT have opened up their courses for all to see as MIT Open Courseware. You are welcome to view all courses and follow them completely free but if you want guidance and credits you'll have to sign up and pay the fee. Wikiversity offers free course material and even entire courses that can then be used by teachers anywhere. But what about running courses based on free material but independant of any university?

That is the thinking behind an interesting new initiative called the Peer 2 Peer University. Courses of around 6 weeks study will be offered using freely available resources and lead by "sense makers" who will be volunteer teachers from various universities around the world. These will be recognized experts in their field providing the courses with academic credibility and will be assisted by "tutors" who may be graduate students. Small groups of students will participate in open community-based learning, working their way through the course material, discussing and collaborating on assignments and getting feedback and guidance from the teaching staff. In this way courses can start whenever there are enough students ready to form a group (preferably 8-14 students). According to the project's website they are even planning to get universities to award credits for P2PU courses. In order to ensure students' commitment to courses there will be small course fees to pay.

The whole concept relies on committed tutors who use P2PU to enhance their academic reputation and the opportunity to work in communities they would not otherwise have access to. The role of the "sense makers" is more to provide academic depth to the courses and to liaise with the tutors. Whether these people will get some kind of financial reward for their contribution in the future depends on the success of the project.

P2PU does not aim to assemble a repository of learning resources since everything is already out there. The missing link is the coordination and guidance to help learners with the emphasis on peer learning. The project hope to be able to start courses in early 2009. It will be very interesting to see how this develops.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Lost in translation

Despite all the e-meeting tools available today it is still refreshing to attend some "real life" meetings now and again! I spoke at a seminar in Gdansk this week and had the chance to get some interesting insights into the state of e-learning there and make a few new contacts that wouldn't have been so easy over the net.

The key to being able to get so much out of the seminar was the fact that my hosts provided me with an interpreter, the first time I've had that sort of service. As a result I could follow everything despite the obvious language gap. As far as I could make out my interpreter kept up with the speakers with possibly only a second or two delay. Even if I do quite a lot of translation work I take my hat off to simultaneous interpreters who must need remarkable levels of concentration.

My own multi-tasking capability fell well short of the mark as I realised that I couldn't make notes whilst listening to both the speaker and the interpreter. The extra speaker seemed to paralyse my ability to write.

Will we ever have automatic simultaneous interpretation? Plenty work is being done but I feel we're a long way from giving professional interpreters any cause for job insecurity. Google Translate offers to translate texts or whole web pages between about 34 languages and seems to do a relatively good job. It's not always grammatically correct but you get the gist and some sentences do turn out right. However idiomatic language is tough and I wonder if we'll ever have a tool that can cope. Try this text on it and see if you get an acceptable result.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A wiki world

Wikis are everywhere these days. Not as many as there are blogs but still. What started with the ever-expanding Wikipedia in around 230 different languages has developed into many fascinating spin-offs.

Since wikis are all about sharing and collaborating they're particularly relevant for education. Teachers and developers can share teaching material, collaborate on course development or share learning objects via a wiki and the principle of Creative Commons. This way you are free to use the material as long as you give due credit to the author(s).
  • Wikiversity has course material and even entire courses in most subject areas and offers the chance to further develop what is there.
  • Wikimedia Commons is a massive database of photos, films, diagrams and drawings that can be used in course material.
  • WikiEducator is a forum for collaboration and project work.
  • Wikibooks is a free library of educational books that anyone can edit.

The list goes on and it's fascinating just browsing around to see what's in there.

There are also plenty wiki tools for you to write your own wiki. I've done my own basic first attempt on web 2.0 tools (in Swedish) and found it easy to set up and build without demanding any knowledge of strange symbols or codes. Last week I heard about a site that compares all the wiki tools available. It's called WikiMatrix and the list of wiki tools in there takes a bit of scrolling! Once again you feel like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a truck and wonder why the world needs 130 different wiki tools. Five or six would be tricky enough but this is ridiculous. We're drowning in choice.

Monday, October 6, 2008

iPod therefore iAm

It has taken me a long time but I have finally gone out and bought myself an iPod. The reason for not doing this earlier has mostly been that I tend to listen to music while driving and in my car, CDs still rule. When travelling by train or bus I have used a trusty old radio with headset (charmingly retro/uncool/stone age - tick as applicable).
What has brought me round to the iPod has been the growth of podcasting and in particular video podcasting. Now I can download lots of interesting material that I'd never listen to or watch at scheduled broadcasting times and listen to them whenever I want. iTunes have a vast selection of podcasts to download, all free, plus the enormous resources of iTunes U (University) with lectures from dozens of universities, regularly updated and you have a never-ending source of knowledge and entertainment.
One thing struck me as odd when I unpacked my new toy - the lack of instructions. Normally you get thick volumes of them in at least 10 different languages that take up 90% of the packaging but this time a simple little folded paper with simple illustrations. Is it SO intuitive? Seemingly yes but I'm still a bit wary.
I've got an amazing 120 GB memory to fill up and despite downloading all my music (almost 1,000 songs), the last three years of photos and a nice selection of podcasts I've still got over 100 GB of free space left! I just have to work out how to get films on it ....

Monday, September 22, 2008

Classroom 2.0?

I was talking to a teacher today about classrooms and how the standard layout has remained the same despite the advent of the net, problem-based learning, collaborative learning etc etc. The traditional model of a teacher up front with students sitting in rows taking notes prevails and shows little sign of disappearing any time soon.

The virtual world of Second Life should have inspired us to try out radical new learning environments. You can meet people in the sky, under the sea or on top of a mountain and there are of course a few who really do try out new ideas. However it's interesting to see how many still build classrooms, lecture halls and libraries just like the "real" world. My avatar has been to several seminars in SL and has sat together with rows of other avatars listening to someone presenting PowerPoint shows (and my real self has in turn watched the avatar ... see earlier entry!). I can't be too critical here because I've also been guilty of this but it just goes to show how difficult it is to escape from the traditional paradigm.

When we design new schools and lecture halls do we get the teachers and students involved in the design process from the beginning? I've just read a stimulating new report on how to create stimulating learning environments produced by the British organisation JISC. It's called Designing Spaces for Effective Learning - A guide to 21st century learning space design and has many examples of how colleges and universities are trying to create learning spaces for the 21st century.

I particularly like the example of a university that has abandoned the traditional lecture model in favour of:
"active learning sessions, involving mini-lectures, videos, demonstrations and problem solving. Questioning and discussion replaced knowledge transfer as the main model of delivery, and a custom-built lecture theatre – the InterActive ClassRoom – was created"
(example from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow).

Related to all this is an interesting film on the gap between traditional learning environments and students' reality produced by students at Kansas State University.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Get offa my tag cloud

I've just added my tag cloud to the blog via and I'm afraid it looks rather messy. Other people's tag clouds look much cooler. I don't really understand why some of the tags have even appeared in my cloud and it all goes to show that I need to spend more time learning the finer points of tagging. I've got hundreds of bookmarks but have not actively tagged very many of them so I suppose they generate some kind of default tags instead. It's a simple matter of the more effort you put in the better the result and Web 2.0 is no exception to this rule.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Identity crisis

My digital footprint keeps on growing but my life doesn't really have room for it all. Almost every week now I join up with some new social network or web service. My portfolio of user names and passwords is also becoming frighteningly impressive and it's getting harder to keep them all in order (just waiting for someone to tip me off on a web service that organises even that for me!). It's hard to find secure passwords that you have any chance of remembering. I remember reading several years ago that the most common password is "password" but many sites won't accept simple solutions like that. If you try to enter a simple password you get told that it's too easy and that you really should use a mixture of letters and numbers and preferably lower and upper case letters.

There are now several tools available to help people who are OD-ing on social software. If you've got multiple blogs, wikis everywhere and are a member of far too many networks and communities you can now gather everything in one place and showcase your entire repertoire at one address. A new contender in this category is called Popego and it even promises to deliver related content and contacts to you once you've registered all your other networks there (I've previously mentioned FriendFeed which is a similar service). I got in there and have tried to register my various identities but keep getting told that my user name doesn't exist. In some cases I can't even remember what my user name is. I like the idea and it could be fun if I can only remember who I am.

I am however quite enthusiastic about, a social network based for sharing music. It tracks everything you play on your iPod and computer and tells your friends what you're listening to. It also enables you to compile your own "radio channel" so that your friends can hear the music you like. Whenever you listen to a track you get information about the artist via a wiki (you can add details to the wiki of course) and you can also download tracks and albums via Amazon.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Russian doll effect

I attended a conference in Second Life today. Or rather I eavesdropped on a conference since I generally find that on-line events tend to run in the background when you're at work. Whether you participate via an e-meeting tool or SL it's very easy to hide and do other things at the same time I'm afraid. So I half-listen to the speakers whilst writing e-mails, documents or answering phone calls. I imagine most people do the same unless something very special grabs your attention. However, it does allow you the luxury of being part of an event and hearing some of the content without the travelling and organisation (but minus the all-important networking and discussion).

One feature however did make me think. I sat at my desk looking into a screen where my SL avatar was sitting looking at another screen in SL that showed a film of other people at the real life conference looking at a screen showing someone's presentation. Then one of the presenters at the conference showed an e-meeting on the screen where a presenter somewhere else showed his presentation on a screen in the e-meeting tool.

It would have been fun if the guy in the e-meeting had shown a feed from SL showing us watching the conference watching him etc etc.

Magritte would have loved it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

15 minutes of fame

I saw an amazing map in today's edition of the Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter. It was an article about how popular the TV reality show Idol has become in the world. All countries in the world with an Idol show are shaded in blue and those who broadcast another country's Idol are shaded in green. It seems that if you want to completely avoid the concept you'll have to move to Mongolia, Belarus or Angola but it is probably only a matter of time before they join the flock. Intriguingly even North Korea was shaded in green - I'd love to know which Idol show they broadcast!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Pictures at an exhibition

I enjoy art galleries and especially work from the past 100 years or so. I was walking around one the other day and I looked at some video art. Of course I began thinking about preservation. Paintings and sculpture can of course be preserved for hundreds of years for future generations to admire and study but what about film and modern video? If future archaeologists discover a video tape or a DVD how are they going to play them?
Today's artists and writers have a vast range of media by which to express themselves but how will it be preserved for future reference? If Shakespeare had written exclusively on the net there wouldn't be anything left of his work now. The collected letters of Wordsworth or Dickens are still available but who will ensure that the collected blogs or e-mails of today's writers are preserved? Many artists are doing very interesting work using net-based tools but such work will be transient, available only as long as the server is connected or the format becomes obsolete.
I read a great science fiction story as a kid about space explorers who land on Earth to find it uninhabited and in ruins, presumably after a nuclear war. They find the remains of human civilisation and most importantly a film. They take the film back to their own planet and scientists discover how to play it. After years of analysis and study they feel that they have a good idea of what life was once like on Earth. Only one thing baffled them. At the end of the film were four words they couldn't decipher .... "A Walt Disney Production".

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Connecting people

The net keeps on opening up new opportunities for cooperation, communication and access to information and it’s easy to get swept away in the euphoria. There are undoubted benefits in terms of increased democracy, better international understanding and access to education. However the same openness and ease of use also offers boundless opportunities to exploit, cheat and spread hate.
I read a recent article in the local paper about exploitation in connection with virtual worlds. Workers in poorer countries are employed to produce ready made hero avatars for World of Warcraft and suchlike that are then sold to the highest bidder. The bidders are players with money who don’t like the idea of playing all the tedious levels needed to earn a hero of this calibre. The idea is that you just buy your way in at the top and get someone else to do the “dirty work”. Of course I shouldn’t be surprised, that’s the way the real world works and why should the net or virtual worlds be different?
I’ve also found a fun tool called Bambuser that allows you to broadcast video on the net direct from a cellphone or web camera. A chance to share your experiences with friends and family, new opportunities to connect and collaborate. Enormous opportunities in education like live broadcasts from a field excursion. But on the other hand this sort of technology offers new opportunities to break copyright, stalk, spread offensive images and infringe on privacy. There’s plenty of that available on the net already. Even if siteowners tighten up security and delete offensive material there’s always someone with a server somewhere who doesn’t ask questions.
But somehow I have that blue-eyed belief that the net should offer us a new chance to build something positive, something better. Virtual worlds should give us a chance to be different and break out from conventions and preconceptions. Your second life could be somehow “better” than the first. Stupid I know but I don’t think I’m alone in this delusion.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Stream of consciousness

James Joyce took a revolutionary step in English literature when he wrote his epic novel "Ulysses". Instead of using traditional narrative techniques he simply wrote down everything that went through the narrator's head, however absurd, unconnected or irrelevant. The technique became known as "stream of consciousness" and reflects the sort of disjointed thoughts that go through our heads all day every day. Imagine writing down everything that comes into your head in a non-stop flow and you get the idea of what some of the narrative in "Ulysses" is like.
I've been looking at some web tools and they remind me of the stream of consciousness concept. So-called micro-blogging is attracting more and more devotees, using applications like Twitter and Jaiku amongst others. The idea is that you can tell everyone what you're doing right now, all the time. You can send in text, voice and video and your friends can follow your every thought and deed through the day. The real charm of it all is that most people can update their sites from mobile terminals and can therefore update their friends as often as they like and easily.
Friends and family can network and keep tabs on each other without the need to find a computer with net access, especially useful when backpacking and such like. These tools are not meant for blogs like this one but quite simply for your digital stream of consciousness in whatever media form you feel like using from moment to moment.
A Twitter log is, of course, hardly Joycean but I'm sure the old master would be fascinated at the ability to record thought and images as and when they happen or come to mind and make them instantly available. Most of what goes on in there is highly personal and probably of little value to anyone but the author and a few friends but somewhere some people must be doing very creative work with this medium.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Virtual worlds - waiting for take off

I attended an interesting seminar in Second Life yesterday. I've been to quite a lot of events there over the last year or two and still find it fascinating to see my avatar sitting with other avatars participating in a meeting while I sit at my RL desk drinking coffee. This one was about how business and the academic world in Norway were using SL and it struck me that SL seems to have reached a plateau after the explosive development of 2007. Plenty of companies, universities and other institutions working in there but it's still in its infancy really. When will virtual worlds become mainstream?
It's still a bit too exclusive. SL in particular requires client software, regular updates and most importantly a really good graphics card. I've already had 2 computers who couldn't cope with SL and several people I know have given up with SL when their computers started struggling. There are now several new virtual worlds on the market (Google's Lively, Vivaty and 3DXplorer) but all seem to have drawbacks and none are as massive and immersive as SL. The new ones work in your browser and are integrated to the web (great!) but restrict communication to text chat and have only pre-set environments (game set and match to SL).
Businesses in SL are testing the technology and waiting for a mass market which doesn't seem to be happening as fast as we had hoped for last year. Waiting for the killer application takes time and when it comes it's not often what you expected.
Look at SMS. Originally it was a rather basic and dull signalling function in GSM phones to enable operators to tell you that you had a voice mail message. It's not even so simple to use since you have to text everything on a tiny keypad with multiple clicks. The developers could never have imagined that SMS would take off the way it did and even today, when mobiles have every function under the sun, people still text SMS messages like never before.
Virtual worlds need to be linked to each other with servers all over the world as with the web. You create your avatar and can teleport to any other world. You need to have free, open worlds where anyone can meet anyone and anything can happen and you need other worlds where special rules apply and with restricted access and privacy (as on the web). Just now it's all rather fragmented and mainly for enthusiasts. But I'm probably just too impatient.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Digital preservation

Remember the original TV version of Mission Impossible? I always loved the start when Jim Phelps got his orders from a reel-to-reel tape recorder rounding off with the classic line "This tape will self destruct in five seconds" after which the tape magically went up in smoke. Self-destructing tapes are still not commonplace even today but we do have a problem with information that inexplicably disappears.

I've had several cases of files that I've stored on a USB memory stick that suddenly became corrupted and about as useful as a second-hand Mission Impossible tape recorder. My digital camera suffered a similar fate this summer when one day's photos became corrupted data overnight. Back to a favourite theme then; how long can you trust a memory stick to actually store what you put on it? How long will a CD or DVD last?

I read an fascinating article in Dagens Nyheter (in Swedish) about the growing concern about digital preservation. The problem is how we are going to preserve all the digital films, photos and documents on all the world's servers. According to one test around 40% of all DVD-R discs will be unreadable within 15 years and similar figures apply for many other storage forms. All archived material has to be reformatted regularly otherwise the next generation of computers will not be able to read them and just this task will be a full-time never-ending job for a lot of people. In contrast paper can be preserved for hundreds of years.

An interesting example was the BBC's project to produce a digital domesday book to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the first one. One million people contributed to this epic which was produced on a laser disc. Sadly 15 years later the material was unreadable because the technology which could read the files had become obsolete. Furthermore it costs $12,000 a year to preserve a digital movie and a mere $1,000 to keep a traditional film version in a suitable archive.

It's reassuring to read that there are now projects and organisations dedicated to trying to find solutions to this enormous problem. It would also be nice if the industry could cooperate by trying to ensure more compatibility between applications and especially backward compatibility. Otherwise we face losing vast amounts of information, documentation, culture and entertainment for ever.

The Swedish Centre for Long-term Digital Preservation is just one of many international groups working with this. There's also an EU project called CASPAR. Good luck to them!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Dazzled by choice

Back to work again and I'm warming up by checking through the e-mails and clicking on interesting links. I read an interesting piece which likens Web 2.0 to a Turkish bazaar (see article by Trent Batson, "Web Bazaar: The Problem of Abundance," Campus Technology, 8/6/2008). We're used to shopping at convenient and comfortable supermarkets with clearly displayed product ranges and set prices. Web 2.0 is however rather chaotic in comparison and you have to shop your way through a confusing maze of products and services produced by a bewildering number of suppliers.

Nice comparison and it explains some of the problems of trying to explain Web 2.0 to sceptical colleagues. People shop at supermarkets because it's convenient and everything is available under one roof. Teachers who feel unsure of net-based education in general find the supermarket of the IT world daunting enough never mind venturing into the dark alleyways of the Web 2.0 bazaar, especially when you don't even speak the local language. There are some excellent applications in there but which will be the winners and how many will still be here this time next year? It's an exciting place to shop, there's infinite choice but you need to be well-versed in the field to be able to find the right solution.

I like the idea that we are beginners at handling abundance. Choice is stressful as I have no doubt written before. Wouldn't it be wonderful to get say 20 relevant hits when you Google something instead of 10 million? We're not used to dealing with having too much of everything.

How much choice can we cope with? How many different social networking tools do we need? How many video editing applications? How many platforms? How many different types of car insurance? How many different types of pizza? I've been to pizzerias with a take-away menu of over 100 pizzas to choose between. I end up choosing the same one every time because the vast range of choices leaves me like a rabbit caught in a car's headlights and so when the guy asks me what I want I just turn on the auto-pilot.

We need filters/guides/agents/brokers in order to make sensible choices in all the confusion and those who can develop these functions will be winners in the future Web 2.0 bazaar.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Far from the Madden crowd

I must admit I'm a bit of a gaming enthusiast, especially sports games. I've been playing for ten years now though sadly without ever mastering any game I've ever tried; my finger coordination just isn't fast enough to cope with any game at advanced/professional level. Despite my lack of talent I keep hoping that some day I'll stumble upon some magic formula that will enable me to step up a level and play as well as the average 13 year old. I've tried most of the sports available; FIFA, NHL, NBA, Cricket and most recently Madden (American football).

EA Sports' Madden 09 is due for imminent release and that causes an enormous media hype especially in the States. Today I decided to order it and discovered to my horror that it won't be available for PC this year and the message is clear - if you want to play sports games in the future you'd better invest in Xbox or Play Station or you can forget it. Of course it's not too expensive to go out and buy a console and continue playing but I feel frustrated at the whole issue.

How many electronic boxes do I have to buy every year to keep up with development? What's the life expectancy of each of these boxes/formats/programs? We've got lots of boxes, enormous tangles of cables and other electronic equipment around the house but have chosen not to invest in a games console since the computers have so far filled that role. I'll probably be forced to fork out in the end but only under protest.

Think of all the music and films you have. Vinyl LPs, audio cassettes, CDs, mp3 files, VHS, DVDs, mini DV cassettes etc etc. All of them requiring different players and virtually no compatibility anywhere. I've managed to convert lots of music to mp3 but when will that become obsolete? At times like these I can understand how some of my more technophobe friends feel. Whatever you buy will be out of date a couple of months after you've bought it. It certainly keeps the wheels of commerce in motion but I do wish we could have a bit of stability for a while.

Proprietary solutions are the headache. Can't we try and find audio and video formats that can be played by all devices? Games that can be played on all devices? The answer is sadly predictable - companies earn more money by shutting out each other. Your Play Station game is just as useless without a Play Station console as the old Betamax video format (remember that?) was useless without a Betamax player. You pay your money and take your choice but tough luck if you bet on the wrong format.

Will I buy Madden 09? Not at present anyway and maybe not at all. Problem is I suspect that my desire to keep playing sports games will be greater than my futile protest at market forces.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Learning or consumption?

Ubiquitous learning is a concept which I see quite often in articles. The idea is that learning is accessible anywhere and at any time. We can access the net, download lectures to our mobile terminals, communicate and collaborate whenever we want. But how often can it be truly labelled as learning?

We consume vast amounts of information every day but how much do we learn from it all? I watch films, read articles, listen to talks but I'm afraid I don't retain too much of it all. I have to do a fair amount of active processing before I can really say I've learnt something from it. Sadly I consume vast amounts of information without really reflecting over it. To learn something I need to reflect, discuss with someone, take notes or take some kind of action based on the information. Otherwise it just fades away into the subconscious leaving only a few random impressions. It would be more accurate to talk about ubiquitous information. We can access everything everywhere and there is an unlimited amount of it. To turn that into learning requires the addition of some kind of structure, some kind of timetable with deadlines. If not we merely consume.

We can fill the net with excellent educational content offering the potential for learning but without structures for reflection and processing we will seldom learn from it all. Consumption of information is passive whereas learning is active and I think the former is what we are mostly involved in. We mistake the presence of information for learning. That's where the teacher comes in - to provide framework and focus to turn information overload into learning.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The missing link?

After discovering the wonders of FriendFeed there's another tool worth noting that promises to link Facebook with a university's learning management system. It's called CourseFeed and enables Facebook to link with an LMS giving students the ability to integrate their social network with their academic studies. Sounds like the missing link offering the best of both worlds but the question is whether we should let Facebook log into our LMS and collect information. Michael Hotrum's interesting blog takes up this question and for more comments just go there.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Keeping tabs

I see there's a new service for social networking fans. It's called FriendFeed and the idea seems to be to enable you to keep track of what your friends are doing on all the other social networks (ie if they add an entry in Facebook, a new video on YouTube etc). I've been looking at all sorts of Web 2.0 services in the past months and have an enormous collection of bookmarks as a result. You can be a member of a handful but you can bet your friends will be involved in networks that you haven't even heard of yet. So now you need a sort of broker service to keep tabs on what's going on everywhere else! Fascinating phenomenon.

This leads me to wonder how this will affect the orderly world of university IT. At present we have relatively secure networks offering students and staff selection of applications including the learning management system. Our firewalls and anti-virus programs protect us from the big wide world and we have a certain amount of freedom to customize and personalize. Now as more and more people start using the myriad of free tools for networking, video production, publication etc. there seems less and less point in IT departments investing in expensive commercial products. The LMS seems to be more and more of a walled garden; safe but cut-off from the outside world. Students and a number of teachers are already using the new tools and this is going to lead to friction. How can we exploit the potential of Web 2.0 in a university setting without abdicating a certain level of control? A great deal of coursework and communication between teachers and students should not be open for public view and needs to be protected. Can you run a course on , say, Facebook? Of course you can but should you? Who owns it all in that case? If you have all your material on Google Apps doesn't Google own it? The university certainly doesn't.

Can we combine the security of campus IT with the innovative potential of Web 2.0? If I knew the answer to that one I wouldn't be sitting writing this little blog.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The sound of silence

I can remember when there was literally nothing on television. Weekdays were largely TV free till the late afternoon when the children’s programmes started. They showed the testcard so that TV repair people could check that the set actually worked. At around 11 pm a presenter would tell us that the evening’s programmes were over and wished us all a very good night. Sometimes they even played the national anthem as a subtle hint that it really was time to go to bed. Even radio stations were silent at night.

Today there is still very little to watch on television but it goes on round the clock. 57 channels and nothing on. When they can’t think of anything to broadcast they switch over to TV-Shop with hours of hysterical ads about miracle fitness devices and anti-wrinkle cream. Or they show 5 back-to-back episodes of some instantly forgettable Dallas lookalike soap from the eighties. Who watches this stuff in the middle of the night? Anything to avoid silence.

Some channels show a very special type of phone-in quiz show. A young aspiring TV presenter gets the daunting task of filling an hour or two of non-prime time TV by trying to persuade the sparse audience to phone in and answer questions. The cash prizes are quite tempting and the questions are often along the lines of “What colour is the White House?” But no one phones and the presenter has to fill the time by commenting on the weather, what she/he had for breakfast etc. They can go on for 20 minutes without anyone phoning and you can sense the creeping desperation in the presenter’s voice as the nagging suspicion grows that there may not be anyone watching at all. I must say I admire their courage. If you survive a few months fronting one of these shows you deserve to go on to more rewarding roles. It takes guts to talk and smile non-stop for 2 hours in front of a camera knowing that your nationwide audience may be in single figures, including several who are unconscious.

We fill our lives with noise. People of all ages have their iPods almost permanently plugged in; when walking, jogging, gardening or travelling. Comfortable, handy, fun but again a sort of padding to block out the world, the avoidance of silence. When do we have time to rest, to think, to just be? Silence is awkward, it demands reflection. Sunday as a day of rest was an excellent idea and just as relevant today as it was for the Israelites of the Old Testament. Imagine a day when the shopping centres are closed and people just rest. A day when it’s OK to switch off. Hardly likely in our 24-7 globalised individualistic society but a nice dream.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mobile learning

Where does learning take place? We still tend to think that we learn when we visit certain buildings labelled school or university. Indeed, we still build such places on the assumption that they encourage and stimulate learning. Our students gather in classrooms for lectures and seminars but most of the learning that goes on happens elsewhere; in cafes, bedrooms, parks, trains, buses etc. Those places have always been learning environments. Discussions in student cafes were often more stimulating than the rather contrived discussions that took place in the lecture hall. The difference today is ubiquitous net access allowing students not only to discuss with colleagues but also with a global network of students and experts who share the same interest. Basically we have instant access to unlimited knowledge, the latest research is instantly available and in many cases you can easily start a discussion with the author of a report or thesis.
I’ve been looking at the impressive collection of lectures and teaching resources freely available on iTunes U. Almost 50 universities offer a wide range of video lectures in all subject areas that can be downloaded to your iPod completely free. All universities in this venture are in the USA but the question is when European universities take the step. Many universities are still sceptical to filming lectures and making them available on the net. Many are worried about copyright and teachers are worried that their jobs may be threatened if all their teaching is out on the net. MIT’s OpenCourseWare has made whole courses freely available to anyone in the world. Wikiversity is built around the idea of teachers from all over the world sharing learning objects and making them freely available.
We’ve seen the revolution that has happened in the music industry over the last 10 years. Remember record stores? The ones that are left are in trouble and instead we now download all the music we want and mix our own playlists as many times as we want. Is a similar process under way in education?
If you can access all the lectures, simulations, literature, research and discussion on the net what is the future role of the university? The trump card is still examination – you can access all of MIT’s courses but you can’t get the qualification unless you enrol and pay your fee. The key is the teacher’s role; not as lecturer but as guide: Helping the student to choose the most relevant material, developing their information competence and encouraging critical thinking. There is so much knowledge out there it is almost frightening. We need help to filter it all, to organise it and interpret it. Teachers who can help students with this and encourage them to exploit the potential of the net will be the key to the next generation of higher education. The ability to stimulate net-based group/project work and create dynamic virtual discussions will be essential.
Could we be able to compile a course with material from many sources in a similar way as we compile a playlist? Instead of receiving the traditional course literature list the students could be able to find their own course material consisting of both literature and multimedia. The teacher’s role is to be able to help the students choose wisely and providing them with a sounding board as they navigate their way through the course. No longer would the student be restricted to discussing only with classmates and teacher. Contacts from all over the world can be involved in the discussions and experts can be consulted at any time.
Where, then, does learning take place? Anywhere. Any time. Anyhow.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Everything 2.0

We live in a world of never-ending upgrades and enhancements all carefully designed to make everything instantly obsolete and ensure that you can never get off the rollercoaster of consuption. This has been going on for years of course so it's interesting that the current craze for Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 etc has only got as far as 2.0. We should be in double figures by now at least - makes me think of an old joke about the big Hollywood tychoon (maybe Sam Goldwyn) commenting on the latest Biblical epic production, "What, only 12 disciples. Think I'm some kind of cheapskate. Get me hundreds!" I'm keen to see what happens east of the decimal point in the near future; whether we get into web 2.3 applications and how they differ radically from web 2.2. Actually there's a very interesting blog called Life 2.0 which has many thought-provoking articles on creativity, innovation and our relationship to technical advances.

I'm compiling a guide to all those Web 2.0 applications and have tested quite a few to see how they can be used in education. A major hurdle for the curious investigator is that you have to become a member of everything and that means lots more user IDs and passwords. I try to use variations on a theme for the swelling number of clubs and services that I belong to but it gets harder to keep tabs on them all. The answer is of course to use one of those password services that store all your passwords behind one master password. Attractive but isn't that a giant security risk if someone gets their hands on the master password?

I'm trying a lot of different services, some of which may transform the way I work and others that will have little or no effect. Social networking hasn't really inspired me so far though I can see enormous potential for those more "social" than myself. I've been using Facebook, Linkedin and a few others but they seem to demand a lot of care and attention to become really worthwhile. They need to become firmly embedded in your daily routines and need regular updates (that word again!) in the form of new fun objects, links, films, comments etc. How many such applications can one person juggle with effectively as well as everything going on IRL (in "real" life)? I've been working with Second Life for over a year now and the learning process involved in getting established there took a lot of time and energy. It's funny how many of us claim to suffer from stress about all the demands of modern society and at the same time willingly join up for activities that demand high levels of participation.

The minute I join yet another community/service/club and the welcome message plops into my mailbox I accept a certain level of responsibility. I want to be a "good" member of the community, show that I'm active and creative and feel that I'm contributing to the cause. Sadly, however, I don't always reach that level of commitment and it gets added to the list of things I feel slightly guilty about not finding time for. Becoming a member of something is, at least for me, a commitment and at present there are several potentially interesting communities that I'd like to find out more about but am unsure if I want to become a member of. Illogical I'm sure but it bothers me. How many things can you be an active member of? Writing this blog is a commitment too even if my readership is bubbling around zero at present.

"I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members." Groucho Marx

Saturday, April 5, 2008


I've contributed to a few blogs but never considered starting my own until now. The biggest obstacle has been the fact that the net is bursting with blogs that virtually no-one reads and why should I add to the pile? I belong to a generation that feels that you have to work hard to get published and if you can publish absolutely anything without even a bit of a struggle then what's the point? The point of this and probably the majority of blogs is not to become famous but simply to write down ideas and impressions and be able to access them anywhere. If you have a few friends or colleagues who want to contribute then that's a bonus.

I'm interested in seeing what happens when I start this blog and how it develops. I don't have a clear idea of what I want to do with this but I like the idea of just casting off and letting the wind blow me along. Will anyone stumble upon this and comment? How do you get noticed in the world of blogging? Will I turn up on other blogs? If I continue writing like this, probably not.

Has anyone done any research into dead web sites, defunct blogs etc? There must be millions of sites where nothing has happened for years but they still use up space on someone's server with digital tumbleweed blowing across the home page. Google sometimes offers one as a possible answer to a search but when you get there and it says "Last updated 20 July 2002" you get a sinking feeling. How many petabytes of space could be saved by dumping all that digital trash? Or should it be saved for posterity and if so who decides? If you want some web-based nostalgia take a look at the Internet Archive which has a vast archive of old web sites but I'm not sure how much of the blogosphere they preserve.

I promise to press the self-destruct button on this one before the tumbleweed hits town.