Innovation in Institutions – and Yet More Jobs…

One of the things I’ve noticed about Twitter is that if you post a link there to a recent blog post, the post can start to get read very quickly. I’ve done a couple of experiments by tweeting links to old posts and comment threads to see if it can give them a little burst of renewed life, and I can anecdotally report that it does seem to work, if you get your twittertext right…

And it’s potentially also a way of using a subset of readers as a sounding board for whether or not to post more widely, to a larger set of readers. So for example, on Friday I replied to a comment on an earlier post (Printing Out Online Course Materials With Embedded Movie Links) with a rather <ranty> comment of my own… and got the following tweet back from @jukesie:

So here goes – I’ve blockquoted it, but it’s not strictly a quote – I have made a few minor changes – so if you want to read the comment in it’s original form, and in the original context, you can find it here.

The context was whether there was any value in adding a QR code visual link to a Youtube movie in the print stylesheet of a piece of online learning material that included an embedded video.

I picked up a catch phrase earlier today, about what UK HE needs: Flexibility, Innovation, Imagination.

So here’s my problem. The future lies around us, and some of us paddle in it. Innovation in the OU is hard to achieve – the feeling is whatever we give to our students, it has to scale and it has to be equally accessible to everyone. We often go for lowest common denominator plays, particularly with respect to assumptions about the availability of technology. The Innovator’s Dilemma rules…

Time out:

When I play with mashups – when I play with ideas – I’m balancing logic rocks. Sometimes they fall over, but that’s okay; if I wanted to build something a little longer lasting, I’d use concrete.

“if QR codes do take off here (they are used in industry but I mean, frequently used for general public) and all new phones start including the technology, and presumably by that time watching videos on phones will be more generally useful, the situation would change.”

QR codes may well not take off, but that’s as may be; something better may come along instead. But finding out how to teach effectively across multiple media at the same time is something I’d argue we don’t know how to do with contemporary devices and today’s lifestyles and expectations, assuming that the mean age of our students is less than the average age of OU staff.

The QR code was a throw away idea that made use of stuff that’s available and is low risk – a simple stylesheet change at its simplest, maybe switched by a preference cookie.

(Sharp intake of breath: “preference cookie – sheesh, that’ll be another week’s work, guv…” And if that is the case, then whither the OU student personalisation project. Here, the “QR code if cookie set” is a lite, but very real, test case of using cookie based personalisation.)

And if we can add a QR code into the print style file, we can maybe do other things – like print stylesheets that include registration patterns for augmented reality models.

So … by focussing on the fact that the QR code route won’t work, you’re missing the whole point. Which is that we need to find ways of exploring how to doodle with new technology in a distance classroom setting, and we need to build flexible components that make it easier – and quicker – to do related and next step things in the future.

The OU is probably unique in that we have a long tradition of using “blended” learning – teaching using different media – although arguably we have let those skills slide somewhat.

The future I have seen trending over the last year – that I’m willing to bet *will* come good over the next 3-5 years – is a “dual view” interaction with media. I sit with a laptop watching the TV – dual view; I read the Sunday papers with a laptop or iPod touch to hand: dual view; I read books and dip onto the web to chase references and look things up: dual view; researchers, designers and programmers at their desks – with two screen: dual view. The near-term future is: Dual View.

QR codes may suck – but that’s not the point. The point is looking for ways of using the technology that’s around us, and maybe the good will of some of our early adopter students, to explore how to use that technology. And also to cobble together building blocks and jisgsaw pieces. I have dozens of pipes and pipe fragments on Yahoo pipes. And it’s amazing how the old ones can come in useful…

And I believe in evolution; and in evolution, stuff fails. All the time. And still things move on…

Anyone who works for the OU knows it can take years to produce a course. So if we wait for the tech then learn how to use it, then write the course material to exploit it, a decade can have gone by. A decade…

I believe that once again we’re looking at various pilots of how to use text messaging with our students? Six or seven years ago, I spent 2-3 days clock time building a mobile WAP site around a course and a programme.

That experiment showed how to repurpose small chunks of info, and looked at some of the information design issues around “micro-sites”. I think I also built an SMS system that was architected in similar way, and explored the mapping between SMS and WAP sites. The app also provided a use case specification for what information might be usefully marked up in microformats on the OU courses and quals pages, which would have made scraping them easy (though of course an lite web service endpoint – maybe serving up a forerunner of XCRI) would have

WAP didn’t fly, but “micro info” has – tweets, SMS, the iUI aesthetic of iPhone apps. (I gave up the Micro Info blog 3 years ago because no-one grokked it.)

Exploring how to supplement text with video, and audio, in a dual view world, with navigation schemes that are natural to use and non-obtrusive (particularly to non-users) is something we need to explore by doing.

Maybe we all need to listen a little to what OUr Chancellor has to say?

(I guess one issue that now arises is that the potential for further commenting has been forked…?)

Just by the by, I’m also engaged in a, err, conversation at the moment about whether or not it will be possible to embed Youtube movies in learning materials delivered via our Moodle VLE. (We have already embedded Youtube videos in at least two of our online Relevant Knowledge short courses, but they use a different delivery environment.)

My argument for embedding is that it presents the material in the flow of the text. A link is a click away, which means that some (possibly significant) percentage of students won’t click through to watch it, and it also takes the student to a different context – specifically, Youtube… which is a vehicle for pushing advertising and keeping visitors onsite…

(There is an advantage to sending students to Youtube, of course – they may find additional, related material there that is in context and relevant – but pedagogically speaking maybe it’s not so good? (The “pedagogy” word is like a Joker in the OU card game. You can play it to try to justify anything… ;-)

Another approach that I’ve idled around over the last couple of years is that we don’t embed videos in the text as such, but we find a way of using progressive enhancement to view a video, from a link, in a lightbox/shadowbox (I do try to be accommodating, you see?). (For a discussion on this, see Interaction Design – “Now Follow This Link” and Progressive Enhancement – Some Examples. For an example of this technique in use, see Animation – Not Just For Numerical Data and click on the “Heavy Metal Umlaut” video link. Note that I’m deliberatley pointing to a page where the video is outsize compared to the lightbox window, to make the point that I know there are “issues” with using this technique naively… I’m not sure that I’m using the most recent version of that particular lightbox script either..)

There are good reasons for not supporting embedding/streamed replaying of media from third party servers in the page resources of a Moodle course, of course, one of which seems essentially policy driven: that media resources are served using an embedded player that draws from a locally hosted content store (I’m not sure if this is a real policy, but it appears, from my limited experience, to be an almost de facto one? Maybe I’m being a little harsh and someone can correct me on that?). So if we were to grab a copy of a Youtube video, and host it ourselves, I believe it wouldn’t be such a technical problem… (Though it would be for the Youtube – who make the content available for embedding as long as you stream the content from their servers, which is how they keep track of how it’s being used…)

Hmmm – and I thought the idea was to make more use of third party content, and find ways of working effectively within a well lubricated rights environment? Now I wonder… can I embed a slideshare presentation in our Moodle VLE? A flickr photo? A scribd document? An IT Conversations podcast?

And finally, here’s a chaser to my recent recent OU jobs round-up post (which also referred to the concerns of institutions, in particular, sharing), in the form of a couple more newly opened up vacancies:

  • 2 x Senior Lecturer – Knowledge Media Disciplines: The Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute has two positions for the role of Senior Lecturer in Knowledge Media Disciplines. The posts are intended to strengthen KMi’s reputation as an internationally leading Research Centre, and to further raise the profile of the Open University.
    You will aim in the first instance to strengthen our research in mobile computing and semantic social software however, we will be open to strategic guidance from successful candidates to other related areas. You will be expected to bid for and win significant research funding, produce high impact research outcomes, build comprehensive collaboration networks, manage project teams to deliver against project tasks, publish your research both individually and jointly, and supervise PhD students.
  • 3 x Technical Developers, Learning and Teaching Solutions (LTS): Over the last three years The Open University has been redeveloping the systems we use to allow our staff to teach and our students to learn online – we are now extending the development team to allow us to continue this work. Do you want to come and join us?
    You will be able to solve complex technical problems, think strategically and work on collaborative teams. Applications are particularly welcome from candidates with experience using PHP, particularly of developing for the Moodle platform. Experience of developing within an open source community would be advantageous.

As ever, none of the above jobs have anything to do with me…

PS I guess this post is related to the On-Line Higher Education Learning Debate? (In case you haven’t guessed, I’m a Trackback whore…!;-)

Will Lack of Relevancy be the Downfall of Google?

Every so often, posts come around about new search engines that are going to make a bid to become a Google search killer, but I wonder if the changing nature of the web itself will lead people to a search engine that appears to do search better in those bits of the web that they’re spending most time, and so lead them away from Google?

It’s hard thinking back the 10 years or so to a time before Google, so I’m not sure what prompted me to switch allegiance from Metacrawler to Google? Maybe it was that Google results were dominating the Metacrawler results page? (For those of you who have know idea what I’m talking about, Metacrawler (which lives on to this day, as… MetaCrawler;-) was essentially a federated search engine, that pooled results from several, early web search engines. Before Metacrawler, I used Webcrawler, which was one of the first search engines to do full text search, I think?

In those early days, Google won out on producing “better” results in part because of its PageRank algorithm, in part becuase of its speedy response. PageRank essentially determines the authority of a page by the number of pages that link to it, and the authority of those pages. There’s lots of other voodoo magic in the ranking and relevancy algorithm now, of course, but that was at the heart of what made Google different in the early days.

So Google came good in large part because it used the structure of the web to help people better navigate the web.

But what of the structure of the web now? Many of the recently launched search engines have made great play of being “social” or “people powered” search engines, that leverage personal recommendations to improve search results. The big search engines are experimenting with tools that let searchers “vote up” more relevant results, and so on (e.g. Google’s experiment, or Microsoft’s URank experiment).

But it might be that the nature of recommending a page to someone else is now less to do with publishing a link to another site on a web page or in a blog post, than sharing a link with someone in a more conversational way (though as to how you found that link in the first place – there lies a problem;-)

So although Google won’t be able to snoop on link sharing in “walled garden” social networks like Facebook, I wonder if they are tracking link sharing in services like Twitter? (Google owns rival microblogging site Jaiku, but since buying it, all has been quiet. Maybe they’re waiting for the masses to become conscious of the thing called Twitter, then they’ll go prime time with Jaiku?)

Just by the by, there’s also the “problem” that many shared links are now being obfuscated by URL shortening services, which means that TinyURLs, bit.ly URLs and is.gd URLs all need resolving back to the pages they point to in order to rank those pages. (Hmm…. so when will the Goog be pushing it’s own URL shortening service, I wonder?)

This link resolution is easy enough to achieve, though. For example, the Tiwtturly service tracks the most poplular links being shared on Twitter over a 24 hour period (I think they also used to let you see who was tweeting about a particular URL, because I built a pipe around it – A Pipe for Twitturly – although that functionality appears to have disappeared?)

PS Maybe that Jaiku launch moment will actually be on mobile devices – on the iPhone (which now has Google Voice search), and on Android devices? Maybe Jaiku’s relaunch (and remember, Jaiku was heavy on the mobile stuff) will be a defining moment that hails: “the era of the PC [i]s over,… the future belong[s] to cloud applications accessed via phones”, via Daddy, Where’s Your Phone? which also includes a lovely story to illustrate this: a child overhears her dad answering “I don’t know” to a question

“Daddy, where’s your phone?”

“What do you mean, where’s my phone?” She explained that she’d overheard the question. Why wasn’t he just looking up the answer on his phone?

Cf. the apocryphal story of the child looking behind the TV set for a mouse, and the idea that “a screen without a mouse is broken”… ;-)

On Writing “Learning Content” in the Cloud

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about an experiment looking at the “mass authoring” of a book on Processing (2.0 1.0, and a Huge Difference in Style).

Darrel Ince, who’s running the experiment, offered to post a public challenge for me to produce 40, 000 words as an adjunct to the book using my own approach… I declined, partly because I’m not sure what I really had in mind would work to produce 40,000 words of “book adjunct”, partly because I don’t know what my approach would be (and I don’t have the time to invest in finding out at the moment, more’s the pity:-(….

Anyway, here’s some of my further thinking on the whole “mass authoring experiment”…

Firstly, three major things came to my mind as ‘issues’ with the process originally suggested for the ‘mass authoring experiment’ – two related to the technology choice, the third to the production model.

To use an application such as Google docs, or a even a wiki, to write a book in a sense respects the structure of the book. Separate documents represent separate chapters, or sections, and multiple authors can have access the document. If “version control” is required – that is, if separate discrete drafts are required – then separate documents can be spawned for each draft. Alternatively, if a the process is one of continual refinement, each chapter can evolve in a single document, potentially authored, edited, critically read and commented on by several people.

There are quite a few books out there that have been written by one or two people round a blog, but there the intent was to create posts that acted as tasters or trial balloons for content and get feedback from the community relating to it. John Battelle’s book on search (Dear Blog: Today I Worked on My Book), and the Groundswell book (7 ways the Web makes writing a book better & faster) are prime examples of this. “The Googlization of Everything” is another, and is in progress at the moment (Hi. Welcome to my book.).

The Google Hacks book I contributed a single hack to (;-) used separate Google docs docs for each hack, as described in Writing a Book in Google Docs. (In part, the use of Google docs as the authoring environment was a ‘medium is the message’ hack!) There the motivation was to author a ‘trad’ book in a new environment – and it seemed to work okay.

In each case, it’s worth remembering that the motivation of the authors was to write a book book, as with the mass authoring experiment, so in that sense it will provide another data point to consider in the “new ways of authoring books” landscape.

The second technology choice issue was the medium chosen for doing the code development. In a book book, intended for print, you necessarily have to refer the reader to a computer in order for them to run the code – offline or online doesn’t really come into it. But if you are writing for online delivery, then there is the option of embedding interactive code development activities withing the test, using something like Obsessing, for example. Potentially, Obsessing, and even the processing.js library, might be pretty unstable, which would provide for an unsatisfactory learning experience for a novice working through the materials (“is my code broken or is the environment broken?”), but with use and a community around it, either the original developer might be motivated to support the libraries, or someone else might be minded to provide maintenance and ongoing development and support an engaged and contributory audience. After all, having a community finding bugs and testing fixes for you is one of the reasons people put time into their open code.

The other major issue I had was with respect to the structuring and organising of the “book”. If you want to play to network strengths in recruiting authors, critical readers, editors and testers, I’m not sure that providing a comprehensively broken down book structure is necessarily the best model? At its worst, this is just farming out word creation to “word monkeys” who need to write up each structural element until they hit the necessary word count (that maybe a little harsh, but you maybe get the gist of what I’m trying to say?). The creativity that comes from identifying what needs to go into a particular section, and how it relates to other sections, is, in the worst case, denied to the author.

In contrast, if you provide a book stub wiki page as a negotiation environment and then let “the community” create further stub pages identifying possible book topics, then the ‘outline’ of the book – or the topics that people feel are important – would have had more play – and more sense of ownership would belong with the community.

A more ‘natural’ way of using the community, to my mind, would be to explore the issue of a ‘distributed uncourse’ in a little more detail, and see how a structure could emerge from a community of bloggers cross referencing each other through posts, comments and trackbacks – Jim Groom’s UMW edu-publishing platform or D’Arcy Norman’s UCalgary Blogs platform are examples of what a hacked-off-the-shelf solution might look like to support this “within” an institution?

The important thing is that the communities arise from discovering a shared purpose. Rather than being given a set of explicit tasks to do, the community identifies what needs doing and then does it. Scott Leslie recently considered another dimension to this problem, in considering how “getting a community off the shelf” is a non-starter: Planning to Share versus Just Sharing.

It strikes me that the “mass authoring” experiment is trying to source and allocate resource to perform a set of pre-defined tasks, rather than allowing a community to grow organically through personal engagement and identify meaningful tasks that need to be completed within that community – that is, allowing the tasks to be identified on an ‘as required’ basis, or as itches that occur that come to need scratching?

The output of an emergent community effort would potentially be non-linear and would maybe require new ways of being read, or new ways of having the structure exposed to the reader? I tried to explore some of these issues as they came to mind when I was writing the Digital Worlds uncourse blog:


(though it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense without me talking to it!)

As part of the challenge, I was advised that I would need about 16 authors. I’m really intrigued about how this number was arrived at. On the basis of porducity (circa 2,500 words per person, assuming a 40, 000 words deliverable?). When I as doing the uncourse posts, my gut feeling was that an engaging 500-800 word blog post might get say a handful of 50-200 word comments back, and possibly even a link back from another blog post. But what does that mean in terms of word count and deliverables?

Another issue that I had with taking the ‘recruit from cold’ approach were I to take up the challenge is that there is potentially already a community around Resig’s processing library, the obsessing interactive editor for it, and Processing itself.

For example, there are plenty of resources already out in the wild to support Processing (eg at the Processing.org website) that might just need some scaffolding or navigation wrapped around them on order to make a “processing course” (copyright and license restrictions allowing, of course…)? So why not use them? (cf. Am I missing the point on open educational resources? and Content Is Infrastructure.) Of course, if the aim was to manufacture a “trad book” according to a prespecified design, this approach may not be appropriate, compared to seeing the structure of the “unbook” arise as engagement in an emergent and ongoing conversation – the next chapter is the next post I read or write on the topic.

From my own experience of Digital Worlds, I wrote a post or two a day for maybe 12 weeks, and then the flow was broken. That required maybe 2-4 hours a day commitment, learning about the topics, tinkering with ideas, seeing what other conversations were going on. It was time consuming, and the community I was engaging with (in terms of people commenting and emailing me) was quite small. Playing a full role in a larger community is more time consuming still, and is maybe one downside to managing an effective community process?

The idea behind the experiment – of looking for new ways to author content – is a good one, but for me the bigger question is to find new ways of reading and navigating content that already exists, or that might emerge through conversation. If we assume the content is out there, how can we aggregate it into sensible forms, or scaffold it so that it is structured in an appropriate way for students studying a particular “course”, If the content is produced through conversation, then does it make sense to talk about creating a content artefact that can be picked up an reused? Or is the learning achieved through the conversation, and should instructor interventions in the form of resource discovery and conducting behaviour, maybe, replace the “old” idea of course authoring?

In terms of delivering content that is authored in a distributed fashion on a platform such as the UMW WPMU platform, I am still hopeful that a “daily feed” widget that producing 1 or more items per day form a “static blog” according to a daily schedule, starting at the day the reader subscribes to the blog, will be one way of providing pacing to linearised feed powered content. (I need to post the WP widget we had built to do this, along with a few more thoughts about a linear feed powered publishing system built to service it).

For example, if you define a static feed – maybe one that replays a blog conversation – then maybe this serves as an artefact that can be reused by other people down the line, and maybe you can post in your own blog posts in “relative time”. I have lots of half formed ideas about a platform that could support this, e.gg on WPMU, but it requires a reengineering (I think), or at least a reimagining, of the whole trackback and commenting engine (you essentially have to implement a notion of sequence rather than time…).

(To see some related example of “daily feeds’, see this ‘daily feeds’ bookmark list.)

So to sum up what has turned out to be far too long a post? Maybe we need to take some cues from this:

and learn to give up some of the control we strive for, and allow our “students” to participate a little more creatively?

See also: Learning Outcomes – again . It strikes me that predefining the contents of the book is like an overkill example of predefining learning outcomes written to suit the needs of a “course author”, rather than the students…?

Dual View Media Channels

When I was putting together a talk (Users and Demons) for some visitors to the OU Library from the Cambridge University Library Arcadia project (who also put together the Cambridge Library Science Portal) a month or two ago, I included a slide depicting what might be a “typical” user of Library research related services.

//flickr.com/photos/zachklein/320561109/
“Where I work” by Zach Klein

Note the presence of the dual computer screens on the desk – wandering round the various corridors of the OU, it’s surprising how many people are now working with dual screen computers.

But the dual screen view is not just for the office desktop. I now find that I watch television with a laptop on my knee (and looking at my friends’ Tweets, I know some of them are in the habit of watching television with iPod or iPhone to hand (I can tell from the clients that the tweets are posted with)) – dual screen viewing again, though this time with one big screen relaying “pure” video content, and the other information, or a conversational back channel.

I also read Sunday papers with a laptop nearby – for fact checking, story chasing, and related info… Not a dual screen view, but a dual media view: one display surface for “fixed” textual information (the newspaper), one screen, with network connection.

Every time I go to a seminar or conference presentation, and many of the times I go into a meeting, I take a laptop. Dual channel, stereo info… One channel: other people, face-to-face; one channel: a screen and keyboard connection to the net.

And even if 2D Sema codes are not the way to go for Printing Out Online Course Materials With Embedded Movie Links, I’m convinced that dual media channels are going to have a huge impact on the way we deliver educational materials, particularly to distance education students.

In fact, I’d probably go further and suggest that it’s likely that one of the channels will be a predominantly one way, fixed content, information delivery channel (a book, TV programme or lecture, for example), and the other channel will be a two way channel to the net, providing access to supplementary information, user discovered resources, and people – discussion, conversation, and active reflection.

We used to engage with content through marking marks on paper – it was called taking notes. We’re going to engage with it in a far more active way, embellishing it and enriching it (not just noting it or annotating it) with supplementary material pulled viewed via a screen.

PS if you haven’t checked out the Cambridge University Library Portal, you should do…

The shape of things to come, maybe? It’ll be interesting to see what their web analytics say about the performance of the site? ;-)

PS see also: Daddy, Where’s Your Phone?

Playing With Google Search Data Trends

Early last week, Google announced a Google Flu trends service, that leverages the huge number of searches on Google to provide a near real-time indicator of ‘flu outbreaks in the US. Official reports from medical centres and doctors can lag actual outbreaks by up to a couple of weeks, but by correlating search trend data with real medical data, the Google folks were able to show that their data led the the official reports.

John Naughton picked up on this service in his Networker Observer column this week, and responded to an email follow-up comment I sent him idly wondering what search terms might be indicators of recession in this post on Google as a predictor. “Jobseeker’s allowance” appears to be on the rise, unfortunately (as does “redundancy”).

For some time, I’ve been convinced that spotting clusters of related search terms, or meaningful correlations between clusters of search terms, is going to be big the next step towards, err, something(?!), and Google Flu trends is one of the first public appearances of this outside the search, search marketing and ad sales area.

Which is why, on the playful side, I tried to pitch something like Trendspotting to the Games With a Purpose (GWAP) folks (so far unreplied to!), the idea being that players would have to try to identify search terms who’s trends were correlated in some “folk reasonable” way. Search terms like “flowers” and “valentine”, for example, which appear to be correlated according to the Google Trends service:

Just out of interest, can you guess what causes the second peak? Here’s one way of finding out – take a look at those search terms on the Google Insights for Search service (like Google Trends on steroids!):

Then narrow down the date over which we’re looking at the trend:

By inspection, it looks like the peak hits around May, so narrow the trend display to that period:

If you now scroll down the Google Insights for Search page, you can see what terms were “breaking out” (i.e. being searched for in volumes way out of the the norm) over that period:

So it looks like a Mother’s Day holiday? If you want to check, the Mother’s Day breakout (and ranking in the top searches list) is even more evident if you narrow down the date range even further.

Just by the by, what else can we find out? That the “Mother’s Day” holiday at the start of May is not internationally recognised, maybe?

There are several other places that are starting to collect trend data – not just search trend data – from arbitrary sources, such as Microsoft Research’s DataDepot (which I briefly described in Chasing Data – Are You Datablogging Yet?) and Trendrr.

The Microsoft service allegedly allows you to tweet data in, and the Trendrr service has a RESTful API for getting data in.

Although I’ve not seen it working yet (?!), the DataDepot looks like it tries to find correlations between data sets:

Next stop convolution of data, maybe?

So whither the future? In an explanatory blog post on the flu trends service – How we help track flu trends – the Googlers let slip that “[t]his is just the first launch in what we hope will be several public service applications of Google Trends in the future.”

It’ll be interesting to see what exactly those are going to be?

PS I’m so glad I did electronics as an undergrad degree. Discrete maths and graph theory drove web 2.0 social networking theory algorithms, and signal processing – not RDF – will drive web 3.0…

Google MyMaps Now With RSS (= Easy Geoblogging)

A tweet from Jim Groom earlier this week alerted me to a post he had just written entitled Google My Maps with RSS.

Now some time earlier this year, I’d hacked together a Yahoo Pipe that would generate an RSS feed from the KML feed output of a map, and so provide an ad hoc geoblogging environment from Google MyMaps (MyMaps GeoBlogger – Blogging From Google Maps).

But the availability of the RSS feed direct from the MyMap just makes this a whole lot easier…

And yes, the RSS output is geocoded (that is, the feed is GeoRSS):

PS Google also just changes the Terms of Service on Google Maps. As with all rights issues, I’m not totally sure I understand what the actual consequences are… For a discussion, see Ed Parsons’ Who reads the Terms of Service anyway...

PPS for easy maps data mashups, check out GeoCommons.com. The CogDog gives an eduview here: Geocommons Makes it Easy for Anyone to Mashup Data & Maps. You might also find this technique for geocoding data from a Google spreadsheet useful…

Innovation in Online Higher Education

In an article in the Guardian a couple of days ago – UK universities should take online lead, it was reported that “UK universities should push to become world leaders in online higher education”, with universities secretary, John Denham, “likely to call” for the development of a “global Open University in the UK”. (Can you imagine how well that call went down here?;-)

Anyway, the article gave me a heads-up about the imminent publication of a set of reports to feed into a Debate on the Future of Higher Education being run out of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

The reports cover

The “World leader in elearning” report, (properly titled “On-line Innovation in Higher Education“), by Professor Sir Ron Cooke is the only one I’ve had a chance to skim through so far, so here are some of the highlights from it for me…

HE and the research funding bodies should continue to support and promote a
world class ICT infrastructure and do more to encourage the innovative
exploitation of this infrastructure through … a new approach to virtual education based on a corpus of open learning content

Agreed – but just making more content available under an open license won’t necessarily mean that anyone will use this stuff… free content works when there’s an ecosystem around it capable of consuming that content, which means confusion about rights, personal attitudes towards reuse of third party material, and a way of delivering and consuming that material all need to be worked on.

The OERs “[need] to be supported by national centres of excellence to provide quality control, essential updating, skills training, and research and development in educational technology, e-pedagogy and educational psychology”.

“National Centres of Excellence”? Hmmm… I’d rather that networked communities had a chance of taking this role on. Another centre of excellence is another place to not read the reports from… Distributed (or Disaggregated) Centres of Excellence I could maybe live with… The distributed/disaggregated model is where the quality – and resilience – comes in. The noise the distributed centre would have to cope with because it is distributed, and because its “nodes” are subject to different local constraints, means that the good will out. Another centralised enclave (black hole, money sink, dev/null) is just another silo…

“[R]evitalised investment into e-infrastructures” – JISC wants more money…

[D]evelopment of institutional information strategies: HEIs should be encouraged and supported to develop integrated information strategies against their individual missions, which should include a more visionary and innovative use of ICT in management and administration

I think there’s a lot of valuable data locked up in HEIs, and not just research data; data about achievement, intent and sucessful learning pathways, for example. Google has just announced a service where it can track flu trends, which is “just the first launch in what we hope will be several public service applications of Google Trends in the future”. Google extracts value from search data and delivers services built on mining that data. So in a related vein, I’ve been thinking for a bit now about how HEIs should be helping alumni extract ongoing value from their relationship with their university, rather than just giving them 3 years of content, then tapping them every so often with a request to “donate us a fiver, guv?” or “remember us? We made you who you are… So don’t forget us in your will”. (I once had a chat with some university fundraisers who try to pull in bequests… vultures, all of ’em ;-)

“It is however essential that central expenditure on ICT infrastructure (both at the national level through JISC and within institutions in the form of ICT services and libraries) are maintained.” – JISC needs more cash. etc etc. I won’t mention any more of these – needless to say, similar statements appear every page or two… ;-)

“The education and research sectors are not short of strategies but a visionary thrust across the UK is lacking” – that’s because people like to do their own thing, in their own place, in their own way. And retain “ownership” of their ideas. And they aren’t lazy enough…;-) I’d like to see people trying to mash-up and lash-up the projects that are already out there…

the library as an institutional strategic player is often overlooked because the changes and new capabilities in library services over the past 15 years are not sufficiently recognised

Academic Teaching Library 2.0 = Teaching University 2.0 – discuss… The librarians need to get over their hang-ups about information (the networked, free text search environment is different – get over it, move on, and make the most of it…;-) and the academics need to get their heads round the fact that the content that was hard to access even 20 years ago is now googleable; academics are no longer the only gateways to esoteric academic content – get over it, move on, and make the most of it…;-)

Growth in UK HE can come from professional development, adult learning etc. but might be critically dependent on providing attractive educational offerings to this international market.

A different model would be to encourage some HEIs to make virtual education offerings aimed at the largely untapped market of national and overseas students who cannot find (or do not feel comfortable finding) places in traditional universities. This approach can exploit open educational resources but it would be naïve to expect all HEIs to contribute open education resources if only a few
exploit the potential offered. All HEIs should be enabled to provide virtual education but a few exemplar universities should be encouraged (the OU is an obvious candidate).

Because growth in business is good, right? (err….) and HE is a business, right? (err….) And is that a recommendation that the OU become a global online education provider?

A step change is required. To exploit ICT it follows that UK HEIs must be flexible, innovative and imaginative.

Flexible… innovative… imaginative…

ICT has greatly increased and simplified access by students to learning materials on the Internet. Where, as is nearly universal in HE, this is coupled with a Virtual Learning Environment to manage the learning process and to provide access to quality materials there has been significant advances in distance and flexible learning.

But there is reason to believe this ready access to content is not matched by training in the traditional skills of finding and using information and in “learning how to learn” in a technology, information and network-rich world. This is reducing the level of scholarship (e.g. the increase in plagiarism, and lack of critical judgement in assessing the quality of online material). The Google and Facebook generation are at ease with the Internet and the world wide web, but they do not use it well: they search shallowly and are easily content with their “finds”. It is also the case that many staff are not well skilled in using the Internet, are pushed beyond their comfort zones and do not fully exploit the potential of Virtual Learning Environments; and they are often not able to impart new skills to students.

The use of Web 2.0 technologies is greatly improving the student learning experience and many HEIs are enhancing their teaching practices as a result. A large majority of young people use online tools and environments to support social interaction and their own learning represents an important context for thinking about new models of delivery.

It’s all very well talking about networked learners, but how does the traditional teacher and mode of delivery and assessment fit into that world? I’m starting to think the educator role might well be fulfilled by the educator as “go to person” for a topic, but what we’re trying to achieve with assessment still confuses the hell out of me…

Open learning content has already proved popular…

A greater focus is needed on understanding how such content can be effectively used. Necessary academic skills and the associated online tutoring and support skills need to be fostered in exploiting open learning content to add value to the higher education experience. It is taken for granted in the research process that one builds on the work of others; the same culture can usefully be encouraged in creating learning materials.

Maybe if the materials were co-created, they would be more use? We’re already starting to see people reusing slides from presentations that people they know and converse with (either actively, by chatting, or passively, by ‘just’ following) have posted to Slideshare. It’d be interesting to know just how the rate of content reuse on Slideshare compares with the rate of reuse in the many learning object repositories? Or how image reuse from flickr compares with reuse from learning object repositories? Or how video reuse from Youtube compares with reuse from learning object repositories? Or how resource reuse from tweeting a link or sharing a bookmark compares with reuse from learning object repositories?

…”further research”… yawn… (and b******s;-) More playing with, certainly ;-) Question: do you need a “research question” if you or your students have an itch you can scratch…? We need a more playful attitude, not more research… What was that catchphrase again? “Flexible… innovative… imaginative…”

A comprehensive national resource of freely available open learning content should be established to provide an “infrastructure” for broadly based virtual education provision across the community. This needs to be curated and organised, based on common standards, to ensure coherence, comprehensive coverage and high quality.

Yay – another repository… lots of standards… maybe a bit of SOAP? Sigh…

There is also growing pressure for student data transfer between institutions across the whole educational system, requiring compliance with data specifications and the need for interoperable business systems.

HEIs should consider how to exploit strategically the world class ICT infrastructure they enjoy, particularly by taking an holistic approach to information management and considering how to use ICT more effectively in the management of their institution and in outreach and employer engagement activities.

There’s huge amount of work that needs doing there, and there may even be some interesting business opportunities. But I’m not allowed to talk about that…

ICT is also an important component in an institution’s outreach and business and community engagement activities. This is not appreciated by many HEIs. Small and medium enterprise (SME) managers need good ICT resources to help them deliver their learning needs. Online resources and e-learning are massively beneficial to work based learning. Too little is being done to exploit ICT in HE in this area although progress is being made.

I’ve started trying to argue – based on some of the traffic coming into my email inbox – that OUseful.info actually serves a useful purpose in IT skills development in the “IT consultancy” sector. OUseful.info is often a bit of a hard read at times, but I’m not necessarily trying to show SMEs how to solve their problems – this blog is my notebook, right? – though at times I do try to reach the people who go into SMEs, and hopefully give them a few ideas that they can make (re)use of in particular business contexts.

Okay – that was a bit longer and a bit more rambling than I’d anticipated… if you ewant to read the report, it’s at On-line Innovation in Higher Education. There’s also a discussion blog available at The future of Higher Education: On-Line Higher Education Learning.

Just by the by, here are a couple more reports I haven’t linked to before on related matters:

It’s just a shame there’s no time to read any of this stuff ;-) Far easier to participate in the debate in a conversational way, either by commenting on, or tracking back to, The future of Higher Education: On-Line Higher Education Learning.

PS here’s another report, just in… Macarthur Study: “Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project”