Monday, July 26, 2010

Forget me not

Soon after writing my previous post on being able to filter what you write on social networks I read an interesting article in the New York Times, The Web Means the End of Forgetting. This discusses the digital trails we leave and the fact that whatever we write may come back to haunt us. Since everything is searchable whatever you put on to the net may be taken down and used in evidence against you. Online reputation is a fragile comodity and many have discovred the drawbacks of not thinking too hard before posting.

Forget Me Not by snopek, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  snopek 

Identity boundaries are getting increasingly blurred as we reveal more of our work life to friends and relatives and more of our provate life to colleagues at work. Even if we do manage to filter our posts as I suggested earlier once you tell a few people something interesting you can assume they will pass it on. It's the first law of gossip and is even more true on the net.

There's even a service called Reputation Defender that promises to enhance your digital reputation by making sure that all the positive information gets top scores in a Google search and although the embarrassing stuff cannot be deleted they make sure it ends up at the far end of a search list. A sort of personal spin doctor. It's no longer only celebrities who need help with their media profiles.

One tempting solution mentioned in the article is that of being able to label content with a digital sell-by date after which the content will self-destruct, in true Mission Impossible style. I like that idea on social networks where you must choose how long you want a photo or text to be accessible. It would certainly free up storage space otherwise clogged up with digital junk. The problem is whether we can trust such a system. When we delete something on our computers we naively assume that they are gone forever but if a skilled IT technician gets hold of your hard drive it's amazing what they can dig up.

Dirt diggers will always find something in your past no matter how careful you are. We may have to get used to a web that never forgets and become more forgiving and tolerant of previous misdemeanours.

"Our character, ultimately, can’t be judged by strangers on the basis of our Facebook or Google profiles; it can be judged by only those who know us and have time to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses, face to face and in context, with insight and understanding. In the meantime, as all of us stumble over the challenges of living in a world without forgetting, we need to learn new forms of empathy, new ways of defining ourselves without reference to what others say about us and new ways of forgiving one another for the digital trails that will follow us forever." 
New York Times, The Web Means the End of Forgetting

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Filtering needed in social networks

If anyone from Facebook or Twitter should read this here's my suggestion for making social networking more versatile. The main problem is that when I send a tweet or post something on Facebook, all my "friends" can see it, whether they want or not. Why not let people group their contacts into different categories like family, close friends, colleagues, tennis club members etc and then let you choose which groups to send posts to? In this way I can avoid bothering work contacts with details of my family activities or boring my family with work-oriented comments.

A recurring discussion on edublogs is whether or not you should have students as friends on Facebook. There are advantages and disadvantages of this of course but we could easily solve the problem by enabling this kind of friend filter. Comments that are relevant to my student friends can be easily sent whilst material that is not relevant to them will not reach them. Nearly all of my tweets are about net-based learning but sometimes I'd like to use Twitter to comment on other interests. Either I send irrelevant coments to my e-learning colleagues or I have to create a second Twitter account. If I oould just choose from a quick menu which groups I want to tweet to the problem would be simply solved.

So what about it Facebook and Twitter?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The cost of anonymity

Roy Greenslade writes in The Guardian (Paper puts up a paywall for comments) that a US newspaper, The Sun Chronicle, has decided to impose a fee of 99 cents to comment on its net edition. They have seemingly got tired of anonymous abusive comments and ask readers to pay for the privilege of replying. You pay the fee by credit card and the name on the card is the name responsible for the comment. The idea is of course that if comments are traceable then people will be more responsible.

It could work but then again it could easily kill off all comments as even bona fide comments may be deterred by the extra work involved in commenting. The wreckers will simply move elsewhere but genuine readers could also be silenced. A relatively small proportion of sites that offer interaction actually have significant dialogue and it may not be wise to scare off your most faithful readers.

Anonymous abusive comments are one of the curses of the net. Stephen Downes has found a name for this, anonorage, in his comment on the Guardian story (Paper puts up a paywall for comments). Good discussions get destroyed and I know several people who have abandoned their websites in the face of incessant sabotage by spammers and wreckers. Free speech should of course include the right to make anonymous comments, though this right also includes the obligation not to sabotage others' free speech or integrity. I don't think the Sun Chronicle's move will change anything but there is a risk that unless we find smart ways of combatting the misuse of anonymity the web could drown in spam.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The future of education

Films about the impact of technology on education seem to be produced with ever increasing regularity and below is one of the most recent to emerge though it hasn't reached viral proportions like so many others. The basic message is that low-cost or free online university education is increasing just as traditional campus education costs are soaring.

However the existence of the low-cost online variety presupposes the existence of the campus university and that such institutions have the resources to pay teachers to offer the online variety. MIT offers excellent free course material but it all costs a lot of money to produce. Without the income from campus students and research staff the universities would be pushed to offer so much online content. Online education gives universities the chance to reach out to new student groups who cannot afford full-time education or who cannot consider moving to campus.

This new market attracts many new types of educational institutions who are more flexible than traditional universities. I'm sure we will see new niche players specialising in, say, examination or providing a learning environment but I can't see the traditional university structure being swept away any time soon. The video shows that alternative models of higher education are gaining ground. It's not a battle, it's simply increasing diversity and the various forms are dependent on each other. Unfortunately many traditional universities are finding it hard to recognize the potential of the "alternative" forms.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Back in Belarus

I've just spent an enjoyable and interesting few days in Minsk, Belarus, as part of a project between my university, Linnaeus University, and the Belarusian State University. This cooperation has been going on for a few years now (see earlier post on my first visit in 2008) and we are now at the stage where we're designing a joint net-based course in media management to be run in 2011 with students from both countries.

E-learning is still relatively new in Belarus where university education is still virtually synonymous with campus-based full-time studies. There are few areas in the country that are far from a university and the idea of universities offering distance courses for professional development hasn't really taken off, except for more traditional correspondence courses. In 2008 the university had very poor bandwidth on campus which made e-learning virtually impossible but now they're rolling out Moodle as a learning management system and I saw one course in mathematics which featured some nice simulation models. So the basic requirements are in place for this joint course.

One feature that has still to be resolved is how to distribute video lectures since most streaming video formats are blocked by the firewall to save bandwidth. The answer could well be to use YouTube which works fine. However most students in Minsk access the net from thier own computers at home where they often have more bandwidth than at the university; an unusual situation compared to many other countries. It's all a matter of finding common denominators between the two countries and adapting to suit them.

It will be interesting to see how the course works.We can expect a mix of very different student groups. In Sweden, net-based courses normally attract part-time students over 25 who have full-time jobs, family and don't live near the university they are studying at. These students will be studying with Belarusian full-time campus students most of whom are under 25. Plenty scope for increasing students' intercultural understanding and also, of course, plenty scope for misunderstanding. Students and teachers will need to be prepared to accept and adapt to other ways of working and to find common ground as much as possible.

Of course the course objectives and subject matter are the most important but on a course like this I would say that the side effects are almost as useful for the students' development. Learning to collaborate on the net with people of different age groups, nationalities and cultural backgrounds is undoubtedly a vital 21st century skill that will be of great use in the students' future careers. We just need to make sure the technology we use on the course is as clear and easy to use as possible. Work in progress.