Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Trends and implications

Friday, September 18th, 2009

This is the second in a series of blog posts associated with my keynote at the Italian e-learning society conference. Having set the scene in the talk in terms of taking an historical perspective on e-learning policy and perspectives I then moved on to consider current trends and future directions. I highlighted four recent reports which provide an indication of where technological developments are going, namely

The Horizon reports series, which  provides an annual snap shot of technologies which are likely to have a signiticant impact in one, three and five years.  For 2009 the following six are listed as technologies to watch:

  • Now and in the next year: Mobile and cloud computing
  • Over the next three years: Geo-everything and the personal web
  • In five years time: Semantic aware applications and smart objects

The NSF cyberlearning report also considered current technological developments but considered the implications for education and provided a series of recommendations.:

  • Help build a vibrant cyberlearning field by promoting cross-disciplinary communities of cyberlearning researchers and practitioners including technologists, educators, domain scientists, and social scientists.
  • Instill a “platform perspective”—shared, interoperable designs of hardware, software, and services—into NSF’s cyberlearning activities.
  • Emphasize the transformative power of information and communications technology for learning, from K to grey.
  • Adopt programs and policies to promote open educational resources
  • Take responsibility for sustaining NSF-sponsored cyberlearning innovation.

The IPTS report provides a database of over 200 case studies of the use of web 2.0 technologies in education

The edited book “The collective advancement of education through open technology, open content and open knowledge” provides a summary of the spirit of the increasingly prevalent “open movement”, including of course the open educational resource movement.

coevolutionI then argued that there is (and indeed always has been) a co-evolution of tools and users. From the first very rudimentary communications between humans, through to the development of different forms of symbolic representation (alphabet systems, numerical representations, graphics and symbols) and finally on to the various ways of technological mediation over the last hundred years or so. I quoted Pea and Walllis from the cyberlearning report:

We can now interact at  a  distance, accessing complex  & useful  resources  in  ways  unimaginable in early  eras.

And posed the question, what next?

practicesI then focused in a little more specifically on the actual affordances of new technologies and argued that there is a very good match to what is current thinking in terms of what constitutes good learning.

So the various patterns of behaviour evident in web 2.0 practices maps well to the general shift from a focus on the individual to the social aspects of learning. Similarly location aware technologies clearly have potential in terms of contextualised and situated learning. Similarly, adaptation and customisation maps well to notions associated with personalised learning.

The immersive and 3D/real time environments in tools such as Second Life offer opportunities to set up authentic and experiential learning opportunities. The automatic habit of “Goggle it!” as a mechanism for finding out information could with appropriate learning activities be channelled to enable learners to adopt more inquiry-based learning approaches, indeed I would argue that this is important as otherwise learners will not be able to make informed critical choices about the information they are presented with. 

Different patterns of behaviour are emerging from observation of gaming environments and in particular community-based systems such as World of Warcraft. The notion of peer credited expertise and levels of attainment of expertise could clearly be applied to fostering peer-learning approaches. User-general content and open educational resources are in many ways synonymous, however to fully exploit their potential we need better ways of helping users to deconstruct and repurpose these resource for their own context. Peer support and critiquing is also evident within the blogosphere, which also offers a lot in terms of self-reflection.

Finally, the enormous potential of cloud computing means perhaps we are on the brink of moving towards a dynamic, shared collective intelligence, which maps to notions of distributed cognition.


Despite all these possibilities, I argued that the rhetoric doesn’t map the reality. There are a range of complex reasons for this and a set of fundamental tensions; between integrated IT systems vs. loosely coupled tols, student controlled vs. institutionally controlled tools and personalised vs. institutional tools. I argued that there is no simple answer at the moment, it is not a question of either or for these, but that it is important we are aware of these and adjust our institutional policies appropriately. I pointed the audience to the recent resurgence of the VLE/LMS is dead debate; I suspect variants on this will continue for some time to come!

Cloudworks: design decisions

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Juliette Culver and I have just had a paper accepted for Computers and Education on Cloudworks. A draft is available here. The paper describes the first three phases of design decisions, along with evaluation of each phase. We have just being using Cloudworks extensively as a means of live blogging the ALTC 2009 conference and plan to reflect on the experience and what worked and didn’t. Would really welcome any thoughts on the paper or on the current look&feel/functionality of the site. Below is a summary of the design decisions to date:

Design Decision 1.1 Cloud metaphor

We wanted to avoid the use of technical terms such as ?learning design? and hence choose to call the core objects of the site ?Clouds? and the overall site ?Cloudworks?. The notion of Clouds was intended to indirectly evoke metaphorical images of ?blue skies thinking?, ?thinking at an elevated level?, ?visioning and thinking creatively?. The name ?Cloudworks? also works as an acronym for ?Collaborative Learning Design at The Open University?, although it is important to stress that we do not see Cloudworks as a specific tool solely for the OU but as a generic tool for anyone to use.

Design Decision 1.2 Initial content population of the site

In order that visitors to the site did not find an empty site and had examples of the type of content expected on the site, we made the decision to initially populate the site with some content. This was done in two ways. Firstly, through trawling existing sites for good practice ? this included harvesting the 44 case studies of the use of VLE tools mentioned earlier, appropriation of learning designs generated by the AUTC Learning Design site ( and a selection of examples from other well known learning object repositories and case studies of good practice.  The criteria for inclusion was that the examples should present a good spread in terms of pedagogy, subject and tool use and should provide different types of representations from short textual narratives through to more complex visual designs, as well as being representative of the different potential types of Clouds that might be included in the site. Secondly, once we had a reasonable mix of seeded Clouds, we ran a series of five ?Cloudfests? with potential users, where participants were asked to generate Clouds for the site and where they also critiqued existing Clouds. We used the data from the interviews with teachers and the 44 case studies of the use of the VLE tools, to draw out barriers and enablers to finding, discussing and sharing learning and teaching ideas and used these to help steer the discussing in the Cloudfests. 

Design Decision 1.3 Include social features

Analysis of the design interviews with teachers and of the VLE case studies showed that teachers value the opportunity to share ideas with others; indeed for many a named contact to get further information about a particular learning and teaching intervention was perceived as more useful than finding similar information via a website. This was particularly true if the teacher knew the individual and valued their expertise, but was also because they felt there was then an opportunity to follow up with further queries if required.

The importance of socialisation in social networking is well recognised and is one of the underpinning philosophies we have adopted for the site. As a result, from the early stages of development of the site, each Cloud was intentionally social, in that others could comment on and add to it. In the initial stages of development, these social aspects consisted simply of the ability for users to add comments to Clouds and these comments then appeared in a linear temporal fashion under the Cloud. However, our ultimate aim was to build a much richer set of social functionality, drawing on observation of other successful Web 2.0 social practices, alongside evaluation of users? perceptions and use of Cloudworks.

We wanted the focus of the site to be around Clouds and associated discussions, rather than replicating more complex social networking sites such as Ning or Elgg, where the user can incorporate multiple Web 2.0 tools for aggregating content and for communication. We wanted therefore to keep the focus on objects (Clouds) about learning and teaching. This metaphor of a Cloud as a social object was a core principle of the site.

Design Decision 1.4 Tagging within categories

Instead of allowing completely free tagging we restricted the use of tags, allowing free tagging within three categories: pedagogy, tool and discipline.  The aim here was to make it simpler for people to search for particular types of content without having the constraints of pre-defined vocabularies. We felt these three categories reflected the intended scope of the site and acted as a reminder to users of the kinds of things they might either be interested in looking for or contributing. Again these categories were abstracted from the teacher interviews and case studies, as these were what teachers typically used to filter information. 

Design Decision 1.5 Low barrier to entry

One of the themes at the initial vision workshop was the tension between a low barrier to entry to encourage users to generate content verses the desire for high-quality content (the issue of reputation systems and evidence for quality came up frequently). It was also clear from the workshop that detailed information about a topic was often less important than having contact details for a person to talk to about it  (which triangulates with similar comments from the teacher interviews as discussed earlier). Each Cloud thus consisted of a short informative title, a two-line description, a more detailed account and any relevant links.

Design Decision 1.6 No private content

Another tension from the initial workshop was between the website being open and issues such as rights clearance and student access. Here following the Web 2.0 principle of harnessing collective intelligence resulted in the decision that, in order to gain critical mass for the site, all the content should be open and no private content would be allowed. We felt that in order to capitalise on Web 2.0 practices the site needed to be open and also that existing tools behind institutional firewalls (such as password protected forums, blogs and wikis) already provided adequate mechanisms for sharing and discussions within distinct groups. Openness allows for serendipity, for a Cloud created and discussed within one community to be discovered and re-appropriated in another context. However we also needed a means of validating users and hence anyone can view content on the site, but to add content or comment on existing Clouds the user needs to register on the site. 

Design Decision 1.7 User Profiles

As discussed earlier, sharing and discussing experiences is a core facet of teacher practice and hence we recognised that the information on the site about individuals needed to be informative, to enable others to gain quickly an overview of that individual?s expertise and interests. Hence the user profiles, in addition to having user-generated information (such as name, institution and interests), also included an automatically generated stream of the clouds that user has created. This helps to differentiate users within the site; so for example it might be inferred that users with a lot of Clouds have some degree of authority ? although in the initial stages no peer reviewing or voting of Clouds or individuals was included, this is certainly one of the more advance features we are interested in exploring. The aim is to not only provide a listing of users within the site, but an indication of their interests and expertise.

Design Decision 1.8 Cloud types

The core aim of the site was the intention for it to be a place to share and discuss learning and teaching designs and ideas. At an early stage of the conceptualisation of the site it was decided that these designs/ideas would be described as ?Clouds?. In the first version of the site there were five types of Clouds.

Design Decision 2.1 Amalgamate cloud types

The initial five categories of Clouds were amalgamated, so that now the sole object in Cloudworks is a ?Cloud?. This decision was made because it became clear that it was difficult to categorise clouds into the types suggested. For example, it is not clear if a site containing a number of designs should be included as a ?Resource? Cloud or a ?Design? Cloud. Likewise, the distinction between a tool and a resource was not always clear-cut.  Nonetheless, the types of Clouds which could be included remained the same, i.e. a short description of a learning and teaching idea, a more detailed learning designs or case studies of practice, a question or issue a user was seeking advice on, or information about particular resources or tools and how they can be used to support learning and teaching.

Design Decision 2.2. Increase social features

It was clear that the site was not being used socially. We were generating the majority of the activity on the site, either in terms of the creation of new Clouds, or through use of the site in workshops. As well as retaining the social element of being able to have a comment around a Cloud, in the revised site, new content and discussion was made more prominent on the home page, with a list of new clouds in the centre and new comments on clouds on the left hand side. The intention was to help make the site appear more dynamic and to highlight site activity to encourage further activity. 

Design Decision 2.3 Cloudscapes

A new feature ?Cloudscapes? was introduced to address the issue of focusing on community engagement. Clouds can be aggregated into ?Cloudscapes? associated with a particular event, purpose or interest. Example Cloudscapes include: conferences, workshops, projects, research interests, types of pedagogy, course design team spaces, tool development spaces, or course-specific Cloudscapes. 

Design Decision 2.4 Following functionality

As discussed earlier, the ability to comment on Clouds was seen as the first step to mimicking some of the practices around the use of other Web 2.0 tools. Another practice, evident in many social networking sites, is the idea of indicating who you are connected to ? the concept of connecting to friends and following their activities is prevalent in many sites such as Facebook, Ning, Elgg, Linked-In and Twitter. We were particularly interested in the way in which the microblogging site Twitter ( has been appropriated over the last year or so as a lightweight mechanism for engaging ideas and sharing and were struck by the way in which this matched our criterion for low barrier to entry of use of the site as discussed earlier.  In Twitter posted messaged (tweets) are constrained to 140 characters and tend to be a mix of light hearted and professional comments. Users ?follow? others and can be ?followed?, anyone following you will see your tweets and vice versa. In the e-learning community we have seen an uptake of Twitter as a mechanism for providing a community back chat of discussions around e-learning issues and research. We wanted to explore how such practices might be replicated in Cloudworks, as a result a ?follow? feature was added to the site. Users can follow both people and Cloudscapes. A list of who and what they are following then appears dynamically on their user profile, helping to enrich the picture of an individual?s interests and expertise discussed earlier.

Design Decision 2.5 My Cloudstream

Another feature evident in many web 2.0 sites is some type of activity stream. This shows activity of relevance to an individual such as: who has recently connected to whom in your community network, new posts added, comments made by others etc. To mimic this we introduced the notion of a ?Cloudstream?. An individual?s  ?Cloudstream? includes a temporal listing of any new Clouds a user creates, as well as Clouds from any individual or Cloudscapes they are following.

Design Decision 3.1 Add RSS feeds

In line with increasing the Web 2.0 functionality associated with the site, RSS feeds are now available for Clouds, Cloudscapes and people. This enables users to flag only those aspects of the site they are interested in and means rather than having to go to the site, the information can be send to them as an RSS feed and incorporated into their chosen personal digital environment. 

Design Decision 3.2 Integrate streams from Web 2.0 sites

A common Web 2.0 practice, particularly evident in the blogosphere, is the ability to integrate dynamic content from other Web 2.0 sites, often using a ?cut and paste? embed code. Dynamic Twitter, Flickr and Slideshare streams are now possible for both individuals and Cloudscapes. In each case an agreed ?tag? is used as a means of identifying appropriate content for inclusion. For example, if a conference has an agreed Twitter tag #conf09, use of this on the conference Cloudscape will dynamically incorporate all the tweets including that hash-tag. 

Design Decision 3.3 Merge the tag categories

Evaluation of the earlier versions of the site and how tags were being used on it, indicated that users were confused by having three different categories of tag-clouds and in fact were not finding these distinctions helpful, particularly when creating Clouds associated with workshops or conferences, where tags associated specifically with the content of the Cloud and the name of the event were emerging as more natural tags. As a result the tag-clouds have been merged so there is no longer a distinction between pedagogy, subject and tools. 

Design Decision 3.4 Make the home page more visual

Jelfs highlighted in her usability report that the homepage was too busy and not very engaging. Analysis of other feedback indicated that users were not always clear about the scope of the site and what it contained. As discussed above, the newly added Cloudscape facility provided a useful means of engaging specific communities, particularly at workshops and conferences. We wanted to highlight this and hence featured Cloudscapes were added to the front page of the site. We felt this offered the dual purpose of highlighting current, active communities and as a means of illustrating the range of different types of Cloudscapes that could be created.

Cloudworks Future Development 

A second user design was commissioned in April 2009 and a new design based on this was launched in July 2009. As part of this the site was completely rebuilt in CodeIgniter ( The new design provides a much cleaner look and feel and a simpler, more intuitive navigational structure. Initial feedback on the new design has been very positive.

Further enhancing the social aspects of the site is the key driver for the next stage. The success of the use of the site for conferences and workshops is encouraging; nonetheless the site is still not being used in the spontaneous way we envisaged in the original vision statement. We therefore intend to work with a few specific communities in-depth, to articulate their needs and evaluate their use of the site over a number of months. Potential communities to work with that we have identified so far include a cross-institutional community interested in e-learning, a group developing and deploying OER, a pedagogy and research group interested in enquiry-based learning and a support network for careers work and innovation.    

By adopting a reflective approach and not tying down the site in terms of tight specifications a number of surprising patterns of use have emerged. For example, we could not have anticipated at the start of the project the success the site would have in terms of acting as a shared live blogging space.

This post has described a set of design principles which have shaped our development of the site. We have argued that these principles have been derived from our original vision for the site and the associated theoretical perspectives it draws on and that we have used findings from our evaluation work to progressively improved the functionality of the site. We will continue to incorporate further Web 2.0 functionality, trying to pick up the best of social networking practices and appropriate them within the site.

Conferences offered time-bounded events where people are bought together around a shared interest. Cloudworks provides a simple to use back channel to capture and archive the conference discussions. Similarly it works well as a mechanism for capturing discussions during workshops. It is also proving useful as a mechanism for aggregating and discussing resources for a particular community of interest. For example a Cloudscape has been set up to support a group of learners on a language course. We are beginning to explore how the site can be used to support other types of community, as well as looking at ways in which such community engagement can be initiated and sustained.

However the broader vision of a site, where it acts as a conduit for sharing learning and teaching ideas and designs, where teachers upload ideas as a matter of course, and as a back channel drip feeding new innovations, has not yet being achieved and is a much more ambitious and difficult thing to realise. Barriers to this are social and cultural as well as technical. Technically we intend to continue to incorporate and test out Web 2.0 type functionality. We will continue to run activities and events using the site and intend to set up further evaluation studies to tease out the social and culture barriers. We also intend to work with specific ?champion? communities to explore how the site might be used to meet they needs. 


A step forward for constructivism

Friday, August 15th, 2008

Really interesting paper on an environment for creating Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) by Wild et al. which I picked up from Terry Anderson’s blog.  As Terry says, the paper describes:

A markup language by which designers or learners create scripts of learning activities that in real time mashup a host of Web 2.0 tools that allow individual or groups of learners to create their own learning context and content. In the process, of course, they gain skills of media production, increase their social capital by expanding and deepening personal networks and create archives of artifacts available for retrieval by themselves and others.   

2.0 vs. 1.0 - what’s the difference

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

Interesting article on the difference between web 1.0 and 2.0 via John Naughton

Martin the twitter bird

Monday, June 30th, 2008

OK we now have official confirmation that Martin Weller is indeed the supreme ‘twitter-bird”! Actually on a serious note I am finding twitter increasingly useful, as a background chat to keep abreast of what others are doing, as an alert to new blog posts, just for fun, and as a means of actually doing some Spanish learning - which is pretty urgent with another TMA looming and the final exam not far away!


I love clouds!

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

I just love TweetClouds which I came across via David Weinberger’s blog. Here’s mine. “Learning” seems pretty prominent which is a relief given my job title! ;-) “Lol” features alot so not sure what that says about me!!

Remember the milk

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

I run hot and cold about ‘to do’ lists… sometimes I am totally rigorous about using them and get great satisfaction ticking items off, then I get bored, neglect the list and find when I return most of the entries refer to projects long finished, papers never written, or holidays done and dusted…. expect for the ‘DO EXPENSES’ that one always seems to be current - sigh… Now is this a function of me and the way I work (or perhaps more correctly the way I don’t work) or something to do with the tools just not quite hitting the spot? So today I’m going to give another tool a go, one which I have been meaning to try for some time, but reading Alex Little’s blog prompted me into action. Remember the milk looks pretty promising so far, I like the ability to categorise into different interests and also the option to tag. So let’s see how long this one lasts. Ohh  I mustn’t forget to add ‘Do expenses’ ;-)

Evil blackboard indeed

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

I was shocked to hear about the outcome of the Blackboard vs. Desire2Learn case via Terry Anderson’s blog. To be honest I can’t believe Blackboard won. I remember at the time that the section on e-learning in wikipedia expanded rapidly as the community rushed to document the ‘true’ origins and history of the area. It was a great example of web 2.0 philosophy in action. The worry with this outcome is what are the implications for the future???? It seems the battle of corporate vs. collective ownerships rages on…

Camtasia and SnagIt free!

Sunday, December 2nd, 2007

I’ve been meaning to get a copy of Camtasia for ages and so was really pleased to see, via Tony Karrer’s blog, that version 3.1 is now available to download for free alongwith SnagIT. :-) Was also interested to see the interactive conversational approach to getting across concepts being adopted by Jellyvision and the simple but effective video clips that commoncraft produce (both found via Cathy Moore’s blog). Am looking forward to experimenting with them.  Clearly these have fantastic potential educationally, offering alternative means of presentation and interaction with learners exploiting the full potential affordances of the media. Two questions: How can we get these ideas taken up by teachers, many of whom are still struggling with the basics of their institutional LMS/VLE? How can we ensure that right mix of tools, mapped to learner preferences? 

Glimpse of the future

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

This video which I came across via John Naughton’s blog  gives a glimpse of what the future might look like if the current technological trends and associated impact on changing business models continue. Of course predicting is always dangerous particularly in relation to technology, nonetheless I think the video raises some interesting issues….