Friday, May 28, 2010

Justifying Wikipedia

Here are some new resources that can help to explain Wikipedia to skeptical colleagues. As I have written in earlier posts (Wikipedia goes undercover, Wikipedia again), there is considerable resistance to Wikipedia amongst teachers both in schools and universities. Students are advised not to use Wikipedia as a source in their work on the grounds that it is not academically reliable.

There is now a very useful page on WikiMedia Outreach, FAQ for librarians, that answers many common complaints about Wikipedia. For example:

How common are mistakes on Wikipedia?
Because Wikipedia is editable by anyone, we can't guarantee you won't stumble across a mistake; you may. But mistakes are fairly rare: external studies have suggested they occur at about the same rate they do in traditional encyclopedias. One thing that's great about Wikipedia is that it allows anyone to correct  a mistake. So where a printed encyclopedia will need to wait for its next edition, for a mistake to be fixed - on Wikipedia a mistake can be fixed instantly, and often is.

Another useful source of ideas is Wikipedia in the classroom: Tips for effective use on Faculty Focus which, for example, recommends students writing new Wikipedia articles as written assignments.

Finally a new video from those wonderful people at Common Craft called Wikipedia: Verifiability and Neutral Point of View.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Peer 2 Peer University - interview with Stian Håklev

I've written several times over the last year or so about Peer 2 Peer University and their work with creating a platform for student-centred collaborative learning. As part of a Swedish project to stimulate the use of open learning resources I am interviewing a number of OER experts to give our project an international perspective.

My first interview in this series is with Stian Håklev, co-founder of Peer 2 Peer University. We discuss first OER in general and then quickly move on to P2PU; its origins, experience so far and future plans. The recording was made using Adobe Connect Pro.

Watch the interview with Stian Håklev

Monday, May 24, 2010

The rise and rise of social media

Statistics on social media are getting increasingly spectacular. One of the most quoted just now is that if Facebook was a country it would be the 3rd largest in the world. Here's a newly updated version of a film on the impact of social media that can be useful in persuading skeptics that this is much more than a passing fad. Food for thought though personally I prefer to mute the background music.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The soundtrack of our lives

Dog Looking at and Listening to a Phonog by Beverly & Pack, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Beverly & Pack on Flickr

Music is everywhere today. We work, study, exercise, drive and read to a constant musical accompaniment. Indeed music has never been so important in our lives. At the same time it is seldom something we concentrate on. When was the last time you sat and really listened to a piece of music?

Back in the seventies the stereo system was a high status possession. Massive decks with amplifiers, tuners and turntable complete with extremely expensive speakers took pride of place in many living rooms and often there was one armchair which gave you the ultimate listening experience. You sat there and listened to your records with often stunning sound quality. I used to listen like that but very seldom do so today. I listen to more music than ever before but almost always while I'm doing something else.

The New York Times has a good article on just this theme, In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back, with a very long string of readers' comments after it. Today hi-fi systems are rare and most music is  consumed as compressed, low quality mp3 files using rather simple earbuds. Music would seem to be one of the few areas where technology has lead to quality and performance being sacrificed for convenience, in stark contrast to say television where enormous improvements in quality have taken place in recent years.

According to one expert quoted in the article:
“People used to sit and listen to music,” Mr. Fremer said, but the increased portability has altered the way people experience recorded music. “It was an activity. It is no longer consumed as an event that you pay attention to.” 

Has music become simply a background activity, one of many distractors we have running when we're doing something else? Since we seldom give it our complete attention we are not too worried about the quality as we were in the days of the armchair hi-fi. It's simply "good enough".

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Txting gets serious

Texting (27 Jan 10) by ejbSF, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  ejbSF 

How many teenagers you know use e-mail regularly (if at all)? Or for that matter how many use their cellphones to talk? Not many I suspect. The communication defaults of many years are under threat and the winner of the communication battle seems to be good old texting. Curious, since texting/SMS virtually predates e-mail and is a supremely primitive service that was included in the old GSM mobile system in the early nineties. SMS became a success completely by accident since its main purpose from the beginning was to enable cellular operators to inform you that you had a voice message waiting for you. The operators were completely taken by surprise when youngsters started using the text service to communicate to avoid paying the high call charges. A fine example of an accidental technology that gets used for something completely different from what the inventors intended. The rest is history.

The lack of interest in e-mail and voice calling presents a problem to many colleges and universities. How do we communicate with our students? Standard student e-mail accounts are often unread and the only way to really get through is by texting. Texts are hard to avoid whereas it's easy not to log into your student e-mail account for a week or so. Texting is ubiquitous in that everyone has a mobile, therefore everyone is contactable. All other channels have an opt-in factor and often have competing and mutually exclusive solutions.

Texting has definitely come of age in the academic world; so much so that there's a whole conference dedicated to it. The University of Bath is host today to the Let's talk about txt 6 conference with sessions on how texting is being used in higher education for marketing, student communication and learning. The fact that this is the sixth such conference shows that all this is well-established even if it has taken me until now to discover it! I certainly am not aware of a similar volume of interest here in Scandinavia. Read more about the conference in an article on Merlinjohnonline, Leading texters head for Let's Talk About Txt 6.

I will certainly follow the conference proceedings with interest. The telecom boffin who decided to dedicate the 140 byte signalling channel in GSM to text communication should be pretty proud today.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Nothing new under the sun

Today we rely on our cellphones for news and entertainment and the days of seeing such devices as mainly telephones are already in the past. But the idea of getting live feeds from events and access to breaking news over the telephone is nothing new. According to a BBC article, The 19th century iPhone, they had all that over 100 years ago. In the early years of the telephone, as with most new technologies, it was not clear exactly what it was going to be used for. Evidently one early suggestion was that people could phone up their local telegraph office to order a telegram!

The BBC article describes an early British service called Electrophone. This started in the 1890s and enabled subscribers to listen to live feeds from London theatres and opera houses as well as summaries of the latest news. It was a costly service but survived until radio rendered telephone delivery obsolete.

A relevant reminder to us all that the best use of new technology is seldom evident from the start and that we have to accept many false starts before we find that "killer application".

Photo: Library of Congress on Flickr Commons

Sunday, May 16, 2010

End of the middle men?

I've just learnt a new word thanks to a blogpost by Rob Tucker, Disintermediation: The disruption to come for Education 2.0. The term disintermediation refers to the way new net tools are cutting out the middle men in many areas of business. The main example in the post is that of the travel agent, a shrinking business now that so many people fix their own travel direct on the net. It can also refer to record shops or book shops which are now becoming endangered species due to the massive rise in online sales. The net cuts out the need for intermediaries, thereby cutting overheads and enabling us to do business direct with the suppliers.

The point of the article is that education is next in line for disintermediation. Schools, colleges and universities are the middle men here who are unnecessarily complicating the process of learning. Today's social web enables global collaborative learning and prompts many to question the need for the limitations of the traditional classroom. There is a clear disconnect between the classroom focus on individual learning and students' focus on networking. While most school and university exams focus on testing what each individual knows, the business world increasingly demands employees who are good at networking and can solve problems by drawing on the knowledge of their personal learning networks. These 21st century skills are seldom taught or valued in schools and colleges today.

But does this mean that schools and colleges will soon be obsolete as record stores or travel agents may well be? I believe that they may be for those who are sufficiently digitally literate to take charge of their own learning. Just as some people enjoy the challenge of planning and booking their own holiday, there will be many who can plan and take responsibility for their own learning. For them the traditional arenas will become increasingly irrelevant and I expect new structures and institutions to appear in the near future to support this movement. More alternative avenues for academic study will no doubt appear to accommodate new forms of learning.

However there are many more who simply lack the skills, inclination or patience to take responsibility for their own education and will need considerable help. Most of us need someone breathing down our necks to achieve anything at all. We're very grateful for someone else to provide a framework or point us in the right direction. I book a lot of my travel myself but when it comes to more complicated bookings I have sometimes realized that it simply takes up too much of my time and am quite happy to pay for a travel agent to do that extra work for me. The same is true of all those other areas where we are drowning in choice (electricity, telecoms, pension insurance etc).

Education 2.0, whatever that may be, will see some radical departures from traditional approaches to education but will still be largely based around the traditional intermediaries of schools and colleges. They will not be the only road to academic achievement but will still be the most obvious option for the vast majority. However they will have to accept a new role and alter their approach to education to stay in tune with the net-based society that is forming.

"There will always be physical schools - students need to go somewhere during the day to enable the engine of modern economic progress: two parents working. But these schools will evolve into things that look more like civic centers - hubs for community involvement and rich relationship-building, augmented by more spontaneous micro-communities that span the globe, forming and bursting like soap bubbles. None of these things are certain. What is certain is that disintermediation rarely has a delicate touch. It will change the way we teach and change the way we learn in the decade and decades ahead."

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Speaker-free conference

Cathy Telling Stories About Storytelling by mikecogh, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  mikecogh 

Academic conferences follow a time-honoured tradition with a very predictable format and few radical innovations. Keynote speakers, break-out sessions, panel discussions and debates are the order of the day and even if we now add in Twitter feeds and other social networking tools there's often the feeling at the end that the best part of it all were the coffee breaks and the evening mingle.

I wonder if we can organise speaker-free conferences or at least 50% speaker-free. Think of those giant LAN-gatherings where kids gather in their thousands to play collaborative games; what concentrated and dynamic commitment! My dream is an academic conference that manages to generate some of that power and commitment. All the participants at academic conferences are experts in their own area and have a lot to say. How can we get everyone involved and make it a valuable and stimulating experience? How can we integrate the online participants?

The concept of unconferencing already exists and there are plenty of methods available to activate dynamic discussion groups with or without technology. The virtual world of Second Life is also used for conferences with varying degrees of success but is often confined to participants who are already comfortable with the virtual environment.

The problem is that mainstream conferences seldom consider any radical departures from the traditional format. Presenting a paper is of course an academic merit and the conference is a showcase for researchers. However I feel that many conferences try too hard to cram in as many presentations as possible, often allowing only 15-20 minutes per speaker with the result that most delegates feel punch-drunk at the end of the day. I've been involved in conference organisation myself and know how difficult it is to step out of the comfort zone.

Let's have more free discussion sessions without demands for someone to summarize in front of the whole class afterwards (often a rather dull ritual to show that we've all been working hard). Let's find more ways of involving the online community in the conference proceedings with new ways of using technology constructively - for collective brainstorming for example. Imagine delegates leaving the conference exhausted but elated after having really contributed to a meaningful dialogue like the kids after a LAN.

I know that many are already doing this but let's try and make it mainstream. I don't mean we should sweep away the best points of an academic conference, just that we question some of the traditions and try new ways of getting people really involved.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Wikipedia again

As a follow-up to previous posts on Wikipedia I'd like to recommend an article by Matthew Shapiro on Education Week called Embracing Wikipedia. He is also concerned about teachers banning the use of Wikipedia as a reference and refers to a recent study (Internet encyclopedias go head to head, Nature) showing that for every four errors found on Wikipedia you can find three errors in Encyclopedia Britannica.

That will no doubt come as a shock to many Wikipedia opponents but it's worth thinking about how reliable the traditional reference works actually are. Another point is that the Wikipedia errors get corrected, often very quickly, whereas the errors in the print encyclopedia don't get corrected till the next edition. This doesn't mean that Wikipedia is completely trustworthy, just that it should simply be brushed aside. It is one of many sources and since it is the sixth most accessed resource on the web it should not be ignored.

Monday, May 10, 2010

"Net generation" not so open

You read a lot these days about how young people are using social media recklessly and revealing their entire private lives to the world. I'm not sure and although I can't link to any conclusive research in this area I suspect that this problem is as relevant for the over 30s, if not more so. In fact I would claim that teenagers actually prefer relatively "closed" social networks to wide open ones and that their parents are the ones who share with everyone. Texting, Skype and MSN are the dominant means of communication and there you only communicate with friends. Many are wary of open apps like Facebook and Twitter since you don't know who will be reading (often parents and teachers!).

Contrary to popular belief, social networking appeals to all age groups. 64% of all Twitter users and 61% of Facebook users are 35 or older (Study: ages of social network users). It's a similar story in many other apps normally associated with the so-called net-generation. Most users are no doubt relatively unaware of their own security settings and that in many cases the default setting is that everything is public. You have to take the initiative if you want to restrict access. There's been a lot of public debate about how much information Facebook in particular owns about each one of us and what that information may be used for in the future. Read, for example, a recent blogpost Top ten reasons you should quit Facebook.

An article in the New York Times, The tell-all generation learns to keep things offline takes up the growing privacy concerns of many young people and confirms my suspicion that they are more concerned than their parents' generation:

"In the Pew study, to be released shortly, researchers interviewed 2,253 adults late last summer and found that people ages 18 to 29 were more apt to monitor privacy settings than older adults are, and they more often delete comments or remove their names from photos so they cannot be identified."

Basically you have to assume that whatever you publish will be seen by more people than you might wish and therefore be careful what you publish unless you're sure of the security settings. Maybe it's time to move some activities away from Facebook and suchlike and on to more secure or more relevant networks. Many people mix work and play on, say, Facebook, resulting in unfortunate consequences. Decide what you want to do on each network and who you want to communicate with and be consistent. Use different identities or even different networks (eg Facebook for private and LinkedIn for work) to avoid work contacts learning all about your family life and vice versa. This is nothing new really, it's just that we have new and exciting settings for interaction today and we have to relearn a few common sense principles.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Unintentional marketing pays off

The President of Macalester College in Minnesota, Brian Rosenberg, was not particularly aware of social media until he agreed to take part in a light-hearted video aimed at college alumni and  recorded as part of President's Day at the college. The video was then released on YouTube and became an instant hit with 39,000 views in the first month and the college president suddenly had a cult following on the net. The video made the college known to a vast number of people (writing this post adds to that number!) who would never otherwise have shown any interest in the place. Furthermore the video became an unintentional fund-raising tool with donations spiking in the period after the video's release.

More on this story can be found in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, What I learned from YouTube. The main lesson to be learned here is the power of social media in that you can reach audiences you wouldn't reach by more conventional marketing methods. The cost of this video was very low compared to its impact and reach. Not all such initiatives pay off of course but Rosenberg draws the conclusion that you have to be innovative to get noticed. Breaking the traditional, well-polished academic mould now and again can have a liberating effect.

"Yet it is precisely that meticulous cultivation of image that can make the occasional moment of self-parody so powerful and so liberating for both the community and the president. While our primary audience was alumni, I have been moved by the number of faculty and staff members who have expressed pride in working at an institution that was willing to risk, even in this seemingly casual way, being both authentic and distinctive."

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What's a zettabyte?

There's a certain fascination in extremely large numbers. Children often invent their own vocabulary for numbers higher than a billion; I remember using zillion for example. The world of computing is teaching us to use all sorts of new prefixes to describe the vast amount of information in the world today. I remember when a megabyte of information was considered a lot but now we talk more in terms of gigabytes and terabytes.

So I enjoyed reading an article in the Guardian, Goodbye petabytes, hello zettabytes, stating that the total amount of digital information in the world today is fast approaching the zettabyte level and is set to reach 1.2 ZB by the end of the year. In case you wondered, a zettabyte is a million million gigabytes or the equivalent of 75 billion iPads. Once you get up to these levels you lose track of how many zeroes there are. If you enjoy mind-numbing number crunching have a look at a couple of entries in Wikipedia: the biggest number of all, the Googolplex and the names of large numbers

The trouble is that this vast amount of information is largely unstructured and impossible to retrieve despite the growth of Google. Our texts, photos, films and music are stored on servers, own computers, CDs, DVDs and memory sticks and most of us hardly even bother to label them. Just imagine a famous tourist attraction like the Eiffel Tower. How many photos of it are taken per day every day, every year? Just watch the camera flashes in the crowd at say the opening ceremony of the Olympic games and imagine that each member of the 80,000 crowd took at least 100 photos per person. Where are we going to store all this in the future and more importantly should we even try to store it all? Who decides what to save? There must be plenty scope for some serious spring cleaning on the web. How many identical photos of the Eiffel Tower does the world need?

Photo: by Anne Helmond on Flickr, CC-BY-NC-ND