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…!;-)