Archive for October, 2007

A vision of students today

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

I always love Michael Wesch’s videos - I first saw his ‘Web 2.0… the machine is us/ing us” at an Ideas in Cyberspace conference and it sent shivers down my spine because it seemed such a fantastic means of encapsulating some of the key issues… I have just watched his latest on students of today and it resonates so much with our findings from our learner experience research and the work of others.

See his recent blog on current reactions to the video.

The nature of academic discourse

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

Doing this blog has really got me thinking about the nature of academic discourse. It particularly hit me yesterday when I was checking the proofs of a paper that will be coming out in Computers and Education soon on our LXP learning experience work. Whilst reading through the paper a number of things came to mind. The paper took a particular stance on the work – weaved a specific narrative – which is of course what papers are supposed to do. It grounded the work in the wider literature and fore grounded certain aspects of the data to support the chosen narrative. It presented a coherent story (well at least I hope it did!). This was in stark contrast to the reality of the research process. In my mind I could remember the messiness of the real research process, the various blind alleys we went down as a team, the panic at different points (will the technology work? will we be able to recruit any students to the study? will the data generate anything useful in terms of our research questions?). Another ‘view’ on the LXP project is through various conference presentations – these also weave a particular story, for example for a lifelong learning conference I considered the implications for lifelong learning, whereas at EUROCALL 2007 I concentrated on the findings from the Language learners. So although presentations, like papers, weave a narrative, because the medium is different (i.e. a slide presentation with pictures, audio and video alongside a verbal presentation as opposed to a textual paper) the message is different too. I have also blogged about aspects of the work and blogging seems to offer an alternative style of voice, one which is much more reflective and ‘of the moment’. So the function and nature of the three media seems to be:

  • Academic paper: reporting of findings against a particular narrative, grounded in the literature and related work; style – formal, academic-speak
  • Conference presentation: awareness raising of the work, posing questions and issues about the work, style – entertaining, visual, informal
  • Blogging – snippets of the work, reflecting on particular issues, style – short, informal, reflective
  • Which of these is a true representation of the research? Which is real academic discourse? In the old simple world, academics were recognised and rated primarily by their textual output – ‘the seminal text’, ‘the paper published in the best journal in the field’. And indeed that of course is still the primary mechanism for the Research Assessment Exercise (don’t get me started on that one again). But now increasingly the blogosphere is offering an alternative style of academic discourse, which you could argue is potentially a counter-culture to mainstream academic publishing. It has its own federated peer-reviewing mechanisms, such as cross-referencing between blogs and indicators of esteem such as the technorati authority. Increasingly academics are taking note of this new communication space – however one could argue that the uptake is sadly slower than it should be, I can’t believe it has taken me this long to recognise the value of blogging. In welcoming me to the blogosphere George Siemens wrote

    It’s great to see research-focused academics entering the blog space. We need a edublog ecology which runs the full breadth from practical application to theory and research.

    I wholeheartedly agree with him and hope that in time, more researchers take the plunge and communicate their findings and thinkings through blogs as well as via papers and presentations.

    Coming back to the question of which represents academic discourse – to my mind it’s all three – in different ways writing a paper, giving a presentation and blogging all help me to formulate and take forward my thinking on a particular topic, a means of meaning making and transformation of the raw ‘data’ to new understandings – surely that’s one of the cornerstones of what being an academic means?

    A wish list for ICT policy

    Saturday, October 20th, 2007

    One of the key findings from our Learner Experience Project (LXP), diagnosis which looked at how students were using technologies was that there was a glaring mismatch between the technological infrastructures institutions were providing and the personal tools students were actually using. The findings showed that students were using a variety of different tools, cialis appropriately these for their own needs. Whilst most institutions were concentrating on provision of basic tools and an institutional VLE, students are connected into social networks and using a variety of freely available communication tools (Skype, Wordpress, MSN chat, the list is endless). If the freely available tool is better than the institutional support one, why should student use the latter? Or put another way, how likely is it that the students will use the institutional version? Which raises a bigger question, what tools should institutions be providing as standard and to what degree should they be taking account of (and allowing) students’ own personal tools? I think this is a huge and fundamental issue for institutions and I don’t think we have really woken up to the significance of this mismatch or the implications if we don’t attempt to address it. Worryingly I suspect most ICT-related policy documents don’t even touch upon this.

    Mike Caulfield puts forward an approach, which offers some hope. Struggling with his own institutional policy, he started to think laterally and came up with a wish list for driving ICT policy, namely that ICT policy should be about:

  • using technology to help students and faculty to change the world,
  • developing graduate students who think creatively about technology and loose processes,
  • starting to bring institutions (and our learning) into the Networked Age.
  • It made me think ‘what would my wish list be?’ and ‘how could we use something like this to drive policy, what would it look like in practice?’

    Conference: form and function…

    Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

    There are so many conferences in our area now that I am sure you could literally go from one to another 365 days a year! I am currently on a programme committee for a conference and part of a working group looking at how we might better practice what we preach ;-) and utilise the power of the technologies to the full for the conference. I remember vividly going to the WWW conference in 2002 in Hawaii and it having a profound impact on me, as it was the first conference I had been to where the whole space was wireless and almost everyone had their own laptop with wifi. People were live blogging, MSN chatting, emailing, checking references to details as people were speaking, etc., etc. I had some weird moments of virtual mixing with real! I know this is more common now but it was novel then. It struck me there were downsides too of course, constant access to email meant that people weren’t getting 100% away from work and immersing themselves in the face to face conference ’scene’, people weren’t give full attention to presenters and the boundaries between presentation sessions and breaks blurred.

    Nowadays I expect wifi and feel quite grumpy if it isnt there and of course different conferences are ‘technoloogy-enabled’ to different degrees. At ASCILITE last December I really liked the way they used in situ podcasts with presenters straight after their talks - it gave a dynamic, additional take on the talks. And at Eurocall this year they had live video streaming of keynotes, recording of most sessions and an active conference blog. The conference as a result had almost as many attending virtually as face to face. Of course there are now numerous virtual conferences too; I think the annual JISC one works very well and gets significant engagement because it is very well structured and organised.

    So as a working group we are trying to think of how we can apply both knowledge of what the technologies can do and our own experiences of conferences. A number of people have for example been very positive about 51 weeks (see for example David Wiley’s post on this) so that is something we are exploring. It made me reflect on the question of ‘what makes a good conference?’ and ‘how can technology really add value - before, during and after the event?’. I haven’t got the answers to these questions but it seems to me that a good starting point is to think about what the purpose of a conference is and then consider how technologies might add value. For me there are three things

  • 1. Opportunity to keep abreast and catch up on the latest research,
  • 2. Present some of my stuff and get feedback,
  • 3. Network with friends and make new contacts.
  • Oh and maybe a fourth - get inspired and enthused. Will be interesting to see what we come up with as a group and whether it makes a different to the feel of the conference, I hope so!!!

    Tracing technology use

    Sunday, October 14th, 2007

    Methodology is one of the key challenges facing projects which attempt to elicit the learner voice in how they are using technologies and what this means in terms of their learning. What methods best represent the student experience? We found the use of audio logs incredibly valuable in the LXP project. The audio logs acted as short, in-situ, emotive diaries in contrast to semi-structured videos such as those produced by JISC from students who took part in the LEX study, which appear to provide more of a reflective, post-event summary. More on both projects is available from the JISC Phase One Learner Experience site. When I visited the team at CARET about their e-learning pathfinder project, Learning Landscapes, Matt Riddle talked about one of the sub-projects that was also evaluating students’ use of technologies. The project used an innovative range of methods to capture the data. Here’s a little more on it from their abstract from ALT-C

    The project makes use of a number of innovative research techniques. We identify relevant demographic characteristics and technology-use combinations to produce a technology-use matrix. It employs a series of techniques including the ‘experience sampling method’ (Intille et al 2003), the ‘day reconstruction method’ (Kahneman et al 2004), methods inspired by the “cultural probe” approach (Gaver and Dunne, 1999, Arnold, 2004) - such as the ‘cold turkey method’, the ‘very advanced technology method’, and ‘movers and shapers’ focus groups.

    Seeing things differently

    Sunday, October 14th, 2007

    Yesterday I posed a question about new ways in which we might conceptualise and understand things, here’s a great example via John Naughton’s blog

    RSS Really Simple Stupid

    Sunday, October 14th, 2007

    OK confession time… I have only just ‘got’ RSS feeds – please don’t tell my employers… an admission like that with a job title like mine is tantamount to a sack-able offence! Let me unpack this a bit more… Of course I knew what RSS feeds were, price I remember Debra Hiom – from SOSIG (now part of the intute gateway of subject resources) explaining to me years ago when I worked at ILRT how they were using RSS feeds on the site. But my understanding of it then was at an abstract level, viagra as a concept. A year or so ago I painstakingly set up a personalised Google page and Google Reader and subscribed to various sites but it wasn’t very satisfactory and half the time the pages didn’t load – my fault probably – but after a while I stopped bothering. It just wasn’t worth the time and effort and I couldn’t see the point. Over the summer I started using a MacBook Pro and found that the way in which the browser Safari enables you to set up bookmarks and RSS feeds was so, viagra so easy that using them has now become embedded in my daily practice. So in a sense I have gone through three levels of learning it seems to me:

  • 1. Conceptual – where I understood the concept of RSS feeds but couldn’t/didn’t use them,
  • 2. Applied – where I could use RSS feeds but it didn’t transform me/change my practice,
  • 3. Transformative – where the use of RSS feeds has actually changed the way I do things.
  • Maybe there is a No. 4 too – now that I really do ‘get it’, I can’t for the life of me understand why I ever had a problem with them and frankly am feeling a little sheepish ;-) But there is another point I want to make. Part of the above is about me and the way I learn. I get impatient with new technology and can’t be bothered to take the time to find out how to use it – that is until I get the motivation to use it, then I become a real geek, get under the bonnet and get my hands well and truly dirty! I just couldn’t see the point with RSS feeds, until recently. So my motivation made a difference, but the intuitive nature of the Safari interface made a big difference too. John Naughton makes a similar point about the ‘iPod moment’, arguing that it’s not the iPod in isolation:

    It’s slightly misleading because it implies that the appearance of a gizmo is the crucial event. Not so. The genius of the iPod was that it was paired from the outset with iTunes software — and that that software had a beautiful, intuitive interface.

    Now I don’t want to open a whole can of worms here but dare I say it the word ‘affordances’ springs to mind? I know there is lots and lots of debate on the use of this in our area (see for example the debate Martin Dyke and I had with Tom Boyle and John Cook on the paper Martin and I wrote putting forward a taxomony of technology affordances and also the review by McGrenere and Ho). In our paper we cited Gibson’s original use of the term as cited by Salomon

    “Affordance” refers to the perceived and actual properties of a thing, primarily those functional properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used. (Salomon, 1993, pg 51)

    Gibson’s original definition was

    The affordances of an environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. … I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment. (Gibson, 1986: 127)

    So my reflection on my ‘nirvana moment’ with RSS exemplifies this – i.e. it was a combination of me and my style of learning, the context/time (and associated trigger in terms of motivation/need), the core functionality of the technology (what it could do, but also what it could do in relation to my needs at a particular point in time) AND an intuitive interface.


  • Conole, G. and Dyke, M., (2004), ‘What are the inherent affordances of Information and Communication Technologies?’, ALT-J, 12.2, 113-124
  • Gibson, J.J. (1986), The ecological approach to visual perception, London: Lawrence Erlbaun Associates
  • Salomon, G. (ed) (1993), ‘Distributed cognitions – psychological and educational considerations’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • The web 2.0 meme machine

    Saturday, October 13th, 2007

    Reflecting on a lot of what I have been reading and listening to recently – through blogs, patient publications and conferences, viagra I was reminded of a book I read a few years ago which I am sure many others have read too – namely the Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore. The folllowing quote is taken from her website:

    Memes are habits, skills, songs, stories, or any other kind of information that is copied from person to person. Memes, like genes, are replicators. That is, they are information that is copied with variation and selection. Because only some of the variants survive, memes (and hence human cultures) evolve. Memes are copied by imitation, teaching and other methods, and they compete for space in our memories and for the chance to be copied again. Large groups of memes that are copied and passed on together are called co-adapted meme complexes, or memeplexes.

    A search on ‘meme web 2.0’ shows that the concept has been taken up and applied with vigour, see for example the well cited Web 2.0 meme mindmap . Other words and brands are memes in themselves – ‘facebook’, ‘myspace’, ‘flicker’, ‘YouTube’ in the ways in which they are being discussed - not just products but ways of working, as philosophies almost. Just go and have a perusal around the Social Networking site for example. An example of a ‘change in action’ is evident I think in the term social graph as opposed to social networking, see for example Stowe Boyd’s postings on this, such as his debate with Dave McClure.

    There are two points I want to make– the first is that the way in which web 2.0 and related vocabulary have infiltrated our lives since O’Reilly’s original posting in 2005 is staggering – talk about an infectious disease! This does to my mind nicely illustrate many of the arguments Susan Blackmore makes in her book. But the second point I want to make is that behind the simple rhetoric of headline meme titles – ‘web 2.0’, ‘e-learning 2.0’, ‘social networking’, ‘social graphs’, etc. there is huge complexity. Complexity in a technical sense in that things are changing so rapidly it’s getting increasingly difficult to keep up, but complexity also conceptually – how do we best describe these phenomena? How do we distinguish between the tools, their functionality, their relationship with users and the environment? What metaphors best describe this? Space metaphors have long been used, but as the interaction of tools, people and the environment become ever more complex and interconnected boundaries between time, space, tools, and individuals start to blur; space alone as the primary metaphor is not enough.

    Let’s try and unpack this a little… Where am I now in terms of my presence? Physically at home on a coldish October morning in the UK, cat by my side? Wherever you are when reading this blog? In my Twitter or facebook persona? Or floundering around as some half realized avatar in second life? How do the different threads of my presence online interconnect? What about taking a tool perspective? Is Second Life a tool that enables you to interact in a 3D-environment, or is it a philosophy for a new way of thinking, working, connecting, breaking away from conventional identities? See for example some of the rhetoric associated with the Schome project.

    Of course technology innovations tend to come in waves - meme waves perhaps ;-). A key one in the UK in the late nineties was the emergence of VLEs and MLEs. The classic diagram you saw everywhere at the time now looks somewhat quant. MLE diagram(As an aside I was guilty too of using it in my presentations and then panicked one day because I realized I didn’t actually know who to attribute it too, it kind of had an official JISC badge to it but no one there seemed to know the origin, anyway after a lot of scouting about I traced it back to Bob Powell – thanks Bob!). VLEs were quickly moving from being interesting toys for a few innovators to play with to being standard agenda items on official university committees, new roles began to emerge in terms of supporting the implementation of VLEs and associated use. However, it soon became apparent that although these terms quickly entered general discourse, there was considerable confusion in terms of what they actually meant. JISC commissioned Sarah Holyfield to produce a report that tried to make some sense of this. She looked at the various notations, diagrams and descriptions people were using at the time to pin down these concepts, and although the terms themselves appear old fashioned now (no one ever talks about MLEs anymore!) some of the ways of representing ideas are worth skimming through and considering in terms of how they might be used in today’s context.

    From a different discipline perspective, Morgan (1986) describes a series of metaphorical models and ways of thinking about organisations (organisation as machine, brain, organism/ecosystem, culture/mini-society, political system). (As an aside I think from memory I came across this reference through a conversation with Olig Liber – how does that get represented in my social graph?). And without too much thought it is easy to see how some of these ideas could be applied to our current context and how they might provide a means of helping us to explain the complex nature of the interaction between technologies, users and the environment.

    So the questions I leave you to ponder are:

  • “How much do we understand the nature of the interaction between technologies, users and the environment - beyond the rhetoric of the web 2.0 meme?
  • And

  • “How can we represent this understanding conceptually?”
  • References

    Morgan, G. (1986) Images of organisations, 2nd Edition, London: Sage Publications

    Digital kids

    Friday, October 12th, 2007

    Next week we are having a meeting of the seven projects who are involved in the JISC’s Learner Experience Phase Two programme. A key questions underlying alot of the research around students’ use of technologies is ‘to what extent is the hype about digital natives, the net generation etc. true?’. I think the evidence is mounting… I think there is an emerging consensus from, for example, the studies by Diana Oblinger (Educating the net generation is well worth reading) and others through Educause (see also the recent ECAR survey), the work that David Kennedy and others are doing in Australia. And today I came across this posting about a recent keynote by Michael Furdyk:

    Here we had (at last!) a clear articulation of the new expectations that are driving the learning characteristics of our students: multiprocessing; multimedia literacy; discovery-based learning; bias towards action; staying connected; zero tolerance for delays; consumer/creator blurring; social networking.

    It will be great to catch up with the other projects involved in the JISC work and compare notes on our own findings in relation to this. The follow on BIG question is ‘So if these are the learning characteristics of modern learners, what does it mean in terms of how we design courses, to ensure that we take account of this and provide an engaging and innovative experience for our students?

    Going back to basics…

    Friday, October 12th, 2007

    Yesterday was a strange experience for me. I picked up a large package from DHL, which marked the start of me going back to being a student. Yep I have signed up for a level one Spanish course with the OU. For all my ‘research talk’ about ‘the learner voice’ I thought it was time to put my money where my mouth is and actually experience being a student using technology myself. So three reasons for doing this really – one professional and two personal… Firstly, I am rubbish at Languages but have always wanted to be able to speak another language. I did some Italian classes years ago and it was great! It made such a difference going to Italy and being able to communicate, albeit at a pretty rudimentary level. Secondly, my eldest daughter, Eleanor, is learning Spanish at school, so I thought it would be fun to learn together. And thirdly, I wanted to experience being an OU student myself, what it feels like, and most importantly what it is like to learn, formally, in a technology-enhanced environment. When I opened the box I had the classic reaction, a mixture of excitement at seeing all the materials and books and panic ‘what the hell have I committed myself to?’, ‘what if I fail?’ It is interesting how motivating I found the physical artefacts – the books, the CDs. The study calendar immediately became a learning scaffold – I focused in on the start date, the timetable, the deadlines. As a day-to-day user of technologies to support everything I do, I can see that I am going to be a demanding learner! I am going to want this course to use those technologies to the full. Having the physical books is great – but I also want electronic copies so I can download them and read whilst on the move – and so I was delighted to see six book pdf’s on the course website. Reflecting on my first impressions when opening that box fore-grounded and bought alive in a personal way some of the recent research I have been doing on students’ use of technologies as part of the LXP project (and now as part of the following on PB-LXP project). A phrase from the recent paper we have had accepted for Computers and Education (Conole, et al., forthcoming) in particular was uppermost in my mind

    “The findings indicate that students are immersed in a rich, technology-enhanced learning environment and that they select and appropriate technologies to their own personal learning needs. The paper concludes by suggesting that the findings have profound implications for the way in which educational institutions design and support learning activities.”

    Yep! How true is that! I look forward to participating in the course over the next year – both from a personal perspective (and let’s hope I actually learn Spanish!!!) and from a professional perspective (it will be interesting to reflect on my own experience alongside our emergent findings for the PB-LXP project). Wish me luck! ;-)


    Conole, G., De Laat, M., Dillon, T. and Darby, J. (forthcoming), ‘Disruptive technologies’, ‘pedagogical innovation’: What’s new? Findings from an in-depth study of students’ use and perception of technology’, CAL Conference Special Issue of Computers and Education