Saturday, March 23, 2019

Social media in education - it's complicated

CC0 Public domain on Pexels
The use of commercial social media in education has brought many benefits and taken online collaboration to new levels. I cannot even imagine my work without access to these platforms and tools (including the Blogger platform this blog uses). The tools we use every day are overwhelmingly commercial and our data is being stored and even sold to third parties. However these platforms and tools are today so firmly embedded into all sectors of education and in most cases there are few credible alternatives. The commercial social media are slick, well-designed, user-friendly and in many cases integrate nicely with each other whilst the non-commercial alternatives tend to be more complicated to set up and a bit clunkier in design. We have many reasons to review our use of these platforms and tools but are they simply too addictive and attractive to consider giving up?

This dilemma is very well discussed in a new article by Terry Anderson (one of the people who first inspired me to get interested in social media about 15 years ago) in the latest issue of the Journal of Learning for Development, Challenges and Opportunities for use of Social Media in Higher Education. He lists the benefits of social media in education along with references to research in the field as well as all the reservations and misgivings that have emerged in recent years and states that "The biggest reason that persons stay active users of social media is not because they feel secure and comfortable but, rather, they appreciate the value or service that the media provides." The value and convenience still outweigh the privacy concerns and the question is whether we continue to tolerate this or look for alternative solutions.

We see that the large potential benefit to social media use is coupled with deep threats to our privacy and control over our own activity and thought. Obviously, using these commercial products, with their questionable ethical practices, are not the type of learning product or environment that public higher education institutions have traditionally used. Is the pedagogical and motivational value sufficient to allow institutions to hold their collective noses and use the product anyway?

At the same time, informal learning thrives on social media and offers us instant access to educational material. If you want to fix something then a quick search on YouTube will almost always provide you with a solution. Google's product range enables simple and effective collaboration and networking opportunities. There are countless Facebook groups offering a forum for discussion and advice on practically every topic under the sun. Similarly there are hashtags on Twitter providing professionals with a convenient space for dissemination and discussion. The crossover from informal to the formal education is unavoidable. However it is hard to do research on how social media are used in education since the data is strictly protected by the companies that offer the platforms.

If we should somehow wean ourselves off commercial social media in education couldn't we build our own alternatives that institutions can control? Anderson describes in the article how a social networking platform was developed at Athabasca University and but even if it offered a secure environment for discussion, sharing and creation it simply couldn't match the rapid development and attractiveness of the commercial players. It never managed to build the critical mass so essential for a social network.

Our system, like other social media, only becomes useful when it is used and is only used when it becomes useful.

The conclusion is that if we are going to continue to use social media in education, institutions need to become much more platform literate and be able to make informed choices about which tools to use and which to avoid. The GDPR legislation in Europe for example is an important step in the right direction of protecting personal data.

Education has unparalleled opportunity to monitor and improve its own practices. Teachers have new ways to connect with students and, as importantly, means to monitor and intervene in student learning so as to increase the efficacy of both teaching and learning. Students have new ways to find, retrieve and share their learning products and opportunities. However, the cost of these benefits currently is reduction in privacy and user control. Continuous monitoring, research and surveillance of the is of critical importance to the development of educational quality and opportunity.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Myths that refuse to die - open-plan offices

For some reason we keep building open-plan offices despite frequent studies that show them to be counter productive. I seldom meet people who actually enjoy working in this type of environment though many put a brave face on it and echo the organisation's belief that it promotes openness and synergy. The latest evidence against open office spaces comes in new research from Harvard University summarised in the British Psychological Society's Research Digest, Open-plan offices drive down face-to-face interactions and increase use of email.

The study monitored the behaviour of employees who had recently moved to an open-plan office and shows that they became significantly less collaborative than they had been before the move. Instead of engaging in all the spontaneous lively discussions and collaboration envisaged in the popular mythology they became silent, preferring to discuss with each other by e-mail or chats. The most striking result of the research is the magnitude of the reduction in face-to-face interaction in the open-plan office.

We began with a specific research question: does removing spatial boundaries at work to create open, unbounded offices increase interaction? Our two empirical field studies were consistent in their answer: open, unbounded offices reduce F2F interaction with a magnitude, in these contexts, of about 70%. Electronic interaction takes up at least some of the slack, increasing by roughly 20% to 50% ...

A common complaint about the open-plan office is the lack of privacy and the difficulty of speaking to a colleague without everyone else overhearing you. The constant movement of people in and out of the room also disturbs thought processes and keep you wondering where a colleague is going now or where they have been. Transparency becomes a distraction rather than a stimulus to increased activity. The BPS article states:

If you’ve ever sought refuge from the gold-fish bowl of an open-plan office environment by cocooning yourself with headphones, or if you’ve decided you’d rather not have that challenging conversation with a colleague in front of a large group of your peers, and opted to email them instead, then these findings will come as little surprise.

Many such offices fall silent since every conversation risks disturbing someone and as a result many people wear headphones all day and communicate by text. The next question then is why bother to travel so far to the office to sit all day doing work that could be done just as well from home? The incentive to come to work is even lower when you have no assigned space and have to take whatever desk is free when you arrive. This lack of personal space where you have your family photos, mascots, a plant or other comforts reinforces a feeling of anonymity and the feeling that if you left no-one would notice. Of course there are exceptions where an open-plan environment really works but the evidence against the concept is stacking up and I wonder how much longer it will continue to be ignored. As one article points out  (Inc. It's Official: Open-Plan Offices Are Now the Dumbest Management Fad of All Time) even if the real reason for open-plan is simply to save money on office space the amount of money lost to the resulting inefficiency should make organisations think again.

Conclusions? We need a variety of spaces, both physical and digital, for different types of work. People need private space to feel secure and work well but they also need spaces for discussions, meetings and interaction. Working from home offers greater flexibility but to make it work well we also need digital meeting spaces for spontaneous discussions and collaboration. We can move between these spaces during our daily work but a fundamental requirement would seem to be a quiet space to call your own.

ReferenceEthan S. Bernstein, Stephen Turban. The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences. 2018.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Informal networking - the missing link in online conferences?

Mingling by Alaska Library Association, on Flickr
"Mingling" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by Alaska Library Association
If we are going to see a rise in online conferences in order to reduce the carbon footprint of educational conferences, we need to find ways of replicating the most positive features of the on-site conference. For most people the best part of a conference is the chance to make new contacts in the informal spaces of the conference: during coffee and lunch breaks, between sessions and during the social programme. Online platforms can already deliver the keynote lectures and we are learning how to run interactive workshops and seminars online using collaborative documents, breakout groups and so on. However the chance meetings in the corridor or at an informal reception are where the online meetings fall flat.

However, a colleague recently showed me an online meeting platform called Sococo that offers a way forward for online conferences. Sococo is aimed at the corporate market but the concept can certainly be developed for academic purposes, either by them or a completely different organisation. Have a look at the video below to get an idea of how this works. Basically you can design a virtual office with a lobby, group rooms, large meeting room and so on. The plan shows where each participant is and you can move to different rooms to talk with someone or have a small meeting. Or everyone can gather in the main hall for a large meeting or lecture. Everyone in a room can then have video and audio contact with everyone else as well as being able to screenshare and chat as in all other web meeting platforms. The difference is that you can invite someone to meet you in the lobby or in a smaller room for more informal contact, or even in a hall or lobby. You can even knock on the door to a room and ask to join the discussion in there.

I particularly like the simple interface with the participants represented simply by coloured dots and names. When you are in a room you can see everyone via their web cameras but the office plan shows you where everyone else is at the moment. The step from the most popular web meeting tools to this one is therefore very small and is therefore more appealing than using a virtual world solution where you first need to create an avatar and then work out how to navigate. I don't think Sococo is designed for large conferences but it would be interesting to try it with smaller gatherings. We could also offer virtual city tours using GoPro cameras. The conference dinner will be hard to accomplish but maybe you could create a number of web meeting group rooms, divide up the participants into random groups and ask them all to have their own dinners in front of them.

Creating a sense of space and interaction is a vital factor as we develop more engaging online meeting environments. I don't think we can fully replicate the advantages of face-to-face on-site meetings but if those become less acceptable this is the only way forward.