Friday, November 30, 2007

Poor neglected blog

Dear blog

Sorry I have been neglecting you lately.  It's not you.  It's me.  I'm on holiday, traipsing round the South Eastern bit of Australia and I feel sure some space will do us good.

Will see you soon.


Sarah  :o)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Weakest links

TinyURL Outage Illustrates the Service's Risks: "The link shortening and redirection service TinyURL went down apparently for hours last night (it's still down, in fact), rendering countless links broken across the web. Complaints have been particularly loud on Twitter, where long links are automatically turned to TinyURLs and complaining is easy to do, but the service is widely used in emails and web pages as well. The site claims to service 1.6 billion hits each month."

Funnily enough, this is one of the things we tell students on T183 (Design and the Web) could be useful for them to shorten the URLs they use as part of referencing internet sources. And yet - it goes down and there is absolutely nothing the OU can do about it. It could be said to be an example of where a VLE might be better. Or is it just that because the VLE doesn't offer that service, we are left with no choice but to go to an external source? The article makes a critical point to conclude, "There ought not be one single point of failure that can so easily break such a big part of the web". True. There ought not to be. But how to build that in without taking away flexibility from those who want it? Control from those who need to implement it? Where does the middle ground lie?

Ways to communicate

Every so often in my inbox arrives an e-mail saying 'you haven't replied to my e-mail, did you get it...' which prompts me to go 'whoops, I read it and forgot to reply'. I keep reading articles which predict the "Death of E-Mail" and "Kids say e-mail is like sooooo dead" and a large part of me feels that there's something in the water where that particular charge is concerned. It set me thinking about the ways in which I communicate these days...

1. Face-to-face
2. Facebook to Facebook
3. Forums
4. Blogs
5. Skype
6. Phone
7. E-mail
8. A.n.other way!

Sometimes I communicate by not communicating myself - I subscribe to a fair few RSS feeds and have them drifting quietly into Google Reader as they are released onto the internet. I read blogs - read, not necessarily always comment. I communicate and don't expect a reply - I may post a link to, a picture to Flickr, a link to a Facebook group. Yes, I check my e-mail every day, but I've got into the habit of not replying immediately and my lack of filing moves their priority further down the list than they used to be. I can't quite pin down why that is. Maybe it feels clunky? Maybe it's just not addictive in the way some social networking sites can be? Maybe there are other ways to communicate which provide other services and are better integrated into your consciousness?

It struck me how much I've learned by using various web 2.0 technologies. I've done a lot more written reflection since keeping various blogs. I've touched base with a load more of my 'friends' (friends in the 'there's no other category to describe the multitude of relationships you have with people' kinda way). I've read more. Thought more. Connected more. And e-mail seems stuck in a period before that. Spam swarms into my mailbox. Viruses abound. You can filter. You can file. But still the onslaught continues...

Maybe it's just Mark Anderson's 'long tail' at work? So many ways of communicating that every niche is catered for. E-mail is stuck in the head? Doing what it does (mainly alerting me to what's happening elsewhere!), but if you're looking for a particular way of keeping in touch, then you just toddle down the long tail to find it? It doesn't mean what it once did to me anyway... but what was that... and what is it now?! Have things changed... or is it one of those weird breakups which start 'it's not you, it's me'...

Saturday, November 17, 2007

VLE theory doesn't match reality?

Random musing time...

I think there's a real risk that when a course team is designing into their offering the means by which students are 'allowed' to communicate with others, that they risk (unintentionally?) showing students the virtual door.  There's an interesting perspective which seems to say 'pedagogically this is the best thing, so it's what we'll do'... but forgets that more often than not these are the result of finger in the wind musings and that other, equally valid, needs and thoughts may be ignored as a result.  It smacks of a patriarchal stance which doesn't seem to tie in with constructivist thinking or even just the fact that students want to meet others... or not.  It all depends!  There is no 'one size fits all' model.

Here's an example.  One of the OU's postgraduate education courses has no course-wide forum, only regional offerings.  A request for an informal, OU-hosted but OUSA run one is turned down.  No reason given.  Fine - but how do I communicate with others on my course?  How do I know who else is studying it other than the very limited pool of people I'm being 'allowed' to connect with?  How do I maximise the possibility that out there are interesting, engaging people to talk to and exchange ideas with if I'm only being revealed a restricted hand?  VLEs have lots of plus points - but this idea of 'we know best' in dictating what services are or aren't offered is a serious drawback.  You want to control the students' experience of their learning environment?  VLE!  You want to control the students' experience of their learning environment but don't end up giving them what they want / need?  Off into the big wide virtual world they go to find what might actually meet their needs.  Bye bye virtual campus.  Hello Facebook?

I can't help but wonder, are VLEs really a supportive environment?  Does it become institution = them.  Students = us?  Are institutions scurrying after the students they themselves drove away?  They can come trampling into Facebook or MySpace etc... saying... 'Sorry... didn't mean to drive you out of our systems... we're here now.  Everything's okay!'  Why not be flexible in implementation?  Be responsive rather than dictating?  Or is this an inherent drawback with VLEs?  They become a lumbering beast which is all about design and control... and casts their users as subservient and unquestioning?  Doing 'what's best' for them rather than what's really best for their users...

Friday, November 16, 2007

Chocs away ... the confectionery-fuelled expedition to Africa

Chocs away ... the confectionery-fuelled expedition to Africa: "Misshapen walnut whips, crumbled flakes and jerry-cans of other chocolate waste are about to power a British expedition's lorry more than 4,500 miles across the Sahara to Timbuktu. The carbon-saving truck is designed to test biodiesel distilled from reject sweets and other byproducts of British confectionery factories."

In honour of this brave and interesting expedition... I intend to dedicate the next year to fuelling myself by the power of chocolate as much as I'm able.

See my dedication to exploring new technologies? I think the Nobel Prize could be mine for the taking... :o)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lots of little Davids trump a single Goliath?

Virtual Learning » Downside of the small pieces model: "Of course institutional sites go down too - but it’s our business to keep them working and at least if services are hosted in-house we can pull out all the stops to ensure they’re fully functional" (Niall Sclater, Director, OU VLE Programme)

Would that be why some of the OU's systems have been down for most of the last 24 hours with no messages communicated about why there's any extended delay? Too busy pulling out all the stops to communicate with the 1000s of students and staff who depend on their services to get their work done?

Funnily enough, if Blogger is down for the day... I can still use my e-mail. I can still use social networking sites. I can still access the internet in general. I can still take notes online. I can use online referencing tools. I can still access my RSS feeds.

If the VLE is down for the day. Bye bye work.

Maybe using lots of web 2.0 tools is a bit too free range and disorganised. Maybe it invites in difficulties regarding privacy and identity when institutions and individuals come together... but oh the redundancy which gets built in to your online experience when you don't put all of your eggs in a single VLE basket.

Yes... I can see the benefit of a single institution beavering away to keep the systems up and running... ermmm...

Monday, November 12, 2007

Zotero - The Next-Generation Research Tool

Zotero - The Next-Generation Research Tool: "Zotero [zoh-TAIR-oh] is a free, easy-to-use Firefox extension to help you collect, manage, and cite your research sources. It lives right where you do your work — in the web browser itself."

It's been a while since I used it - but I'd forgotten how useful this free little tool is if you're using Firefox or Flock as your main browser. If you're not sure if it's something you might like - take a look at the Demo and see the stuff it can do. Very cool! Obviously, that's 'geekily cool'... but still...

Oh, and relating this to VLEs and all that good stuff for a second - if the VLE Wizard is taking requests today - please could you integrate a referencing tool into it which could be used in a similar way to Zotero? No? A list of reasons why it's not possible or desirable? Ho hum... back to my normal pick an' mix of the best tools the web can offer, rather than your typical 'basic, bodged together, bunged out there' style VLE...

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Becoming Net Savvy

Becoming Net Savvy: Author(s):Diana G. Oblinger (EDUCAUSE)

"All of us bear responsibility for learning to be net savvy and supporting the members of our campus communities in the same lifelong process"

Oblinger's article is a much more eloquent version of my spouting about the need for everyone to become more privacy / e-literate aware - her concluding sentence is spot on, "Being net savvy is no longer an option - it is an imperative in the age of information and a responsibility we must all share" (Oblinger, 2007). No opt out. No passing the blame. No them and us. Just accept it and move forward.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Whose privacy issues are they anyway?

The fame generation needs to learn the value of privacy: "When we live in a society where reactionary bedroom poets are found guilty under terrorism laws, it makes you wonder whether their rather more seasoned and significantly more brilliant predecessors such as Swift wouldn't, in a similar climate, have realised the folly of bunging their every move on Facebook, and made alternative arrangements."

I totally agree with this. There are some distinct new digital communication skills which need to be acquired and acquired rapidly. Millions may be on Facebook, but I'll bet you any money that they're not all aware of the privacy settings required to keep even a modicum of modesty where sharing or not sharing data is concerned. Funny thing is though that it works both ways. It's not just about younger people, students, school kids - whatever 'other than me' category these people fall into. It's everyone. Hyde says in her article that "Gradually, older generations are having to adjust to the notion that not only do younger people not really care about privacy; they often don't even comprehend the idea of it" but I don't believe this to be the case. I don't think that the any generation seriously doesn't really care about privacy, I just don't think that many people are aware of the long term implications of publishing the various aspects of themselves to an unchecked and unknown audience.

Student to student. Colleague to colleague. Friend to friend. Sharing information in a knowing what between those various combinations is fairly straightforward. But what about when those relationships get tangled online? What about the damage caused by the party animal you like to reveal to your 'real' friends being shared with students you've befriended (in that loose 'I know you, but there's no other category so 'friend' will have to do even though you're not actually a friend but... ermmm' kinda way). Aren't they supposed to have at least a little something to respect? Instead, they're either watching the drunken antics of someone who should know better or watching them moan to their 'real' friends about how they really view their job / life / other thing best kept to oneself. It's damaging for a good while longer if your employer / potential employer sees a facet of your character you really didn't want them to. Privacy issues affect everyone.

A blurred, modern, networked life is an interesting concept, but no-one is immune from effects of online indiscretion. Just as students aren't seemingly aware of privacy issues, the universities merrily jumping onto the bandwagon could do with a refresher too before an institution-level gaffe is made.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Get out of MySpace!

Students tell universities: Get out of MySpace!: "Universities are heading in a different direction. E-learning gurus want to exploit their students' passion for the new generation of interactive online communication tools - collectively known as web 2.0 - to deliver academic content. Not content with podcasting mini-lectures to students' mobile phones and i-Pods, they are hijacking the internet telephone system, Skype, and invading FaceBook.

But a research exercise carried out by the Joint Information Systems Committee (Jisc), called the Learner Experience Project, has just revealed, amazingly, that students want to be left alone. Their message to the trendy academics is: 'Get out of MySpace!'

Online spaces are blurring, as universities that podcast and text their students have shown. The Jisc project manager, Lawrie Phipps, explains how the battle lines are being drawn: 'Students really do want to keep their lives separate. They don't want to be always available to their lecturers or bombarded with academic information.' Based on qualitative research - one-to-one interviews with students conducted over two years - Jisc has built up a picture of how students are using IT to manage their social lives. Most are confident and competent IT users, but they are too often unaware of how they could apply their skills to enhance their studies."

Really interesting article from The Guardian about the use of social networking sites by Universities and the feelings students have about that 'intrusion'. Although the idea of life-long learning is a laudable one, we all have different versions of ourselves which we reveal or hide according to our own choices. Sometimes we want to learn in public... sometimes we want to learn in private. It's up to us to invite people in to those private spaces - if we choose to. I'm not sure if there's an issue of respect for boundaries here or of complex power relationships which also need to be respected - but just saying 'because students like using this, they'll like using it to learn' doesn't logically follow. I'd love for their enthusiasm for 'poking' or playing online games to be harnessed into something educational, but who's to say that those activities aren't educational in other ways?

I think that ownership and control over environment are important and there's something mildly uncomfortable about 'friends' from one context being introduced to 'friends' in another. Like an awkward online party where the host can't ever feel quite at ease because their embarrassing uncle has shown up. We use lines of communication because we want to use them. We communicate with the people we want to communicate with. Just because you can get an unofficial invite to the party doesn't mean you should attend.

These are early days and it'll be interesting to keep an eye on the changes. I sense that social networking could be a seriously powerful tool for bringing people together in multiple contexts, but there needs to be an increasing degree of contextual sensitivity by users and a subtlety in their development / use before they become really effective. Martin Weller has been blogging about the demise of the VLE recently and he makes some interesting points... but although I'm not keen on VLEs which are a bit Jack of all trades and master of none, at least they can provide a distinct learning space which is knowingly entered into by all participants.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Children bond with their robot playmates

Children bond with their robot playmates | Technology | The Guardian: "It may not be able to read an encyclopedia in seconds like Johnny 5 in Short Circuit, or have the emotional neuroses of C-3PO from Star Wars but a new robot may be able to teach children about social interaction, according to US scientists. The childlike automatons could become a feature in nursery schools after researchers found that toddlers soon learn to regard them as human. It is thought the robots could enrich the classroom environment by demonstrating social skills and good behaviour. Scientists studied how children aged between 10 months and two years played with the 'social robot' when left in the same room."


There's something very wrong about the above. Have we really got to the stage where it's too inconvenient just to have children around real people and they must be taught how to be human by something that's not human?? I'm all for the appropriate use of technology in education - but this is a step wa-a-a-a-a-a-ay too far.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Productivity and the RSS journey

10 Steps to More Productive Feed Reading | GearFire Student Productivity: "10 Steps to More Productive Feed Reading 28 Feb, 2007 Organization, Productivity Like it or not, RSS is now very popular across the internet, and it is widely believed to be the most productive way of staying updated on your favourite blogs and sites. The ease and efficiency of RSS feeds vs. visiting the actual web page has allowed people to subscribe to many more sites than they would regularly have time to read. Unfortunately, as your feeds pile up, you are forced to spend more and more time on your feed reader. Here are ten steps to (hopefully) help you streamline your feeds, and reduce the time you spend on your feeds each day."

The above is a handy little guide to making better use of RSS feeds. After my Google Reader meltdown the other day I've given my feeds a prune, become more ruthless with marking as read and use the share facility to produce a single source of useful stuff, abandoning the rest by not displaying unread stories.

The RSS journey...
First, you don't know what RSS feeds are.
Then you discover what they are.
Then you discover how useful they are.
Then you find an aggregator / reader and subscribe to a few
Then you subscribe to a few more
Then some more
Then... more
And more
Then, you realise that it's taking you an hour to read the blasted things and RSS is no longer the time saving 'bring it all to you' genius idea you thought it was... so you have to act
So you do
So you cull
So you skim
So you learn the time-saving facilities within your Reader
So you make it useful again and remind yourself that from time to time, marking everything as read and starting afresh is perfectly okay

The CommonCraft "RSS in Plain English" guide starts by saying that "there are two types of internet users. Those that use RSS and those who don't"

I'd go further than that... there are three types. Those that use RSS. Those that don't. Those who use it effectively.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

United Nations - FreeRice

FreeRice: "1 word = 10 grains 5 words = 50 grains Play and feed hungry people"

Simple idea, mildly addictive, good cause. What more could you ask? :o)

Friday, November 2, 2007

Mark as read

My Google Reader has got the better of me.  A few days without reading the various feeds and they've built up to avalanche proportions and I risk drowning in the little blighters if I attempt even the most basic skim read.  So... I marked them all as read.  How liberating!!  The thought occured to me - wouldn't it be lovely if we could just mark life as read when it got on top of us?  Right now, my life is chaotic to say the least.  Just loads to do and feeling like there's not even a sniff of a chance of getting on top of it, or at least that's how it feels.

I wonder though, how much of life could be like a subscription service.  Normally, we're subscribed and we're busy keeping on top of it... but, you know what... when it does all get too much, it's okay to step out and 'mark it as read'.  You don't actually miss that much, and something will come along which fills you in on the main events.  So, my new mission.  To find out what can be marked as read a little more often, and read the things I really need to.

Here endeth my musings... 

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