127 posts categorized "Communication Tools"

March 07, 2010

Clarifications: Glow, VLEs, School filtering

Whether through over-zealous editing, poor transferal of interview material from me, over compression of complex arguments or the fact that newspapers feel they can only put online what little will fit in the paper edition (and in the case of the TESS, put even less online than in the paper edition), After being misquoted in a national education newspaper, for which the journalist has apologised (thanks), I feel moved to clarify some of the remarks attributed to me.

I also feel obliged to point out the boon that Glow, the national schools intranet, offers, something that will not make as sexy a story as the journos might want but which, frankly, matters a damn site more than their headlines.

1. Is "Glow the modern equivalent of a worksheet"? Absolutely not.

The original quote was lifted and, I believe, altered for Friday's Times Education piece, originally from an interview which coasted onto the subject of Glow and its Virtual Learning Environment. Glow does have a traditional VLE element, but VLEs and Glow as a whole are different. Becta, the UK technology in education agency, has its own take on what VLEs can offer and it is largely based around the administrative advantages:

VLE can help teaching and support staff manage and deliver a variety of daily tasks, including:

  • general class administration and organisation
  • the creation of lesson plans using existing resources
  • assessment and monitoring of students
  • allocation and marking of on-line assignments
  • discussion and support with students on line.

The various interactive tools of VLEs can also support learners with both class work and homework, and can cater for individual learning styles. For example, students can:

  • submit and track their assignments on line via a personal home page
  • contribute to and participate in discussions with classmates and other schools via the various conferencing tools
  • work at their own pace within and out of school – this is particularly beneficial to learners with special educational needs, such as students in hospital or children unable to attend regular classes for health reasons.

In this respect, I feel that most VLEs on the market today are like virtual filing cabinets, places where one can store virtual worksheets, PowerPoints with which to kill even more learners and summative assessment tools to finish off a few more.

Glow offers a VLE, with the summative assessment element hugely stripped back, reflecting Scotland's world renowned work in Assessment for Learning, but it packs in a heck of a lot more.

Most of Glow's impressiveness comes from its participation tools. Take, for example, GlowMeet. It is a game-changer, technologically to some degree but more through the imagination of teachers, Local Authorities and the central education agency managing the project, Learning and Teaching Scotland. In the past few months we have seen conferences between over 600 students and a world-famous author (though virtual book-signing still hasn't caught on), 1000 pupils learning about the Scottish puffin, a circus virtually attending school, and a master printmaker sharing his skill with the next generation.

It is a game-changer in that video conferencing with, say, Skype is a relatively one-to-one experience between classes. Glow encourages one-to-many and many-to-many experiences within a context, and as a result it helps spawn new connections between participating schools with a shared vision, shared outcomes and share culture that would take, relatively speaking, ions on the open, social web.

Case in point: when I was developing 22 international connections a year through blogs, wikis and podcasts at Musselburgh Grammar School I thought I was living the dream. It was just a shame that while we courted enthusiasm and links with schools on six continents, we failed to convince the teachers down the corridor that sharing materials and ideas and conversations online was a worthwhile exercise. Making international connections between learners is actually quite easy. Finding those connections within your own country can be a lot harder.

2. Do people who use VLEs change their pedagogy for the worse? Can VLEs "de-skill" teachers and students?

It can happen - and there's research to support this. The research is from the Higher Education world, but much of the VLE instructivist stuctures of HE VLEs like Blackboard are shared by one of the UK school system's most popular VLE platforms, the Open Source Moodle. The main risk comes from people using the VLE as their only technological tool, mistaking it for a learning tool rather than an organisational one, and not a) being aware of other potentially better tools for certain jobs out on the open web and/or b) not having access to them because of web filtering policies in individual schools or school districts.

This risk of pedagogical down-skilling is therefore very real in any environment where heavy blocking or filtering of communication and learning tools online (e.g. Web 2.0 technologies) prevents their use or prevents students and teachers experimenting to see what their potential uses might be.

Even if web access is opened, there is then a requirement to provide ample training opportunities in the pedagogical changes one might make in the light of these ever-changing toolsets on offer, especially for those who are less comfortable online. Without this, the likelihood, says the research, is that teachers will fall back to the lower, organisational baseline of technology on offer through the VLE.

Again, in Glow, things are a bit different. There is a toolset that is a) already far more than simply organisational, b) opens up both experienced and less experienced web users in the teaching population to learning opportunities afforded by video conference, shared whiteboards and asynchronous discussion through forums, for example, c) actually designed for learning and collaboration, not organisation, and d) constantly developing (since autumn 2009, at least) to offer tools more akin ot those available on the wider web, but with the added value of a Scottish education community (through authentication) with shared values, goals and outcomes.

3. We're missing the real story: internet filtering is our biggest challenge

Glow will gain more power to its elbow, however, when the abilities of teachers and students to incorporate more of the freely available, but currently blocked, content to their learning journeys.

This is not a Glow issue, though, and it's a mistake to blend the issue of filtering with the use of a VLE or communications and learning platform like Glow.

However, Glow's infrastructure offers an enviable world first in terms of reach and depth: not only is there a technical infrastructure, but there is a human one, one that can help set up those lessons of how to navigate the big, wide, wild web out there. To do it, though, we need the courage of Local Authorities to open up their access more and more, and empower this glowing network of trainers, students, teachers and enthusiasts to take the lessons we all must learn on web literacy and pass them on.

The way things are going, though, it looks like Scotland will be the envy of the world for its national intranet and the ugly duckling for its 20th Century approach to modern literacy. While England and Wales take the issue of opening up networks from blocked to managed to student/teacher-managed web access, Scotland's policy document doesn't even mention it - in fact, it copies the English statement word for word and strips out mention of how filtering should be approached.

This is the story. This is the sexy headline. This is the issue that we need to tackle much more aggressively.

I hope this is clear. I hope that it makes enough sense for people, should they wish, to challenge it or support it. I, frankly, want to move on, to explore and challenge this filtering issue. And, no, you can't quote me on that.

March 04, 2010

Blackberry email adds 10 working days to our year

Lost in Text

The Telegraph reports that the average Briton sees 10 extra days of work added to their year as a result of always-on email through devices like the Blackberry.

Yesterday, in a workshop that included an overview of some productivity tips for coping with more information, I made the point that for teachers more than any other profession, the notion of push always-on email was abhorrent:

  • Always-on email uses up mental bandwidth that, in teaching, is needed to concentrate on the 30 different learning challenges in front of you;
  • Always-on email encourages disorganisation in the sender's world: no email should ever be sent requesting a meeting any sooner than 24 hours ahead. If you need to see someone that soon, go and knock on their door. If you need a meeting with that person then the subject matter should be of such importance (and not urgency) that you can leave it so others can have time to prepare;
  • Always-on email is a distraction from doing the task in hand. If you don't think focus is important, then just spend some time in the world of Merlin Mann.
  • Always-on email outside the normal working day means you are working for free. If you need more time to do parts of your job that are not teaching then either a) ask for less contact time or b) lose some of your job that does not contribute to teaching your youngsters. Don't ask permission to do this. You're the professional, after all.

I was astonished, though, at the resistance to this concept. I'd have thought that good email management was a release for everyone, yet a few folk still felt that they had, in the course of the workshop and my keynote, received some useful emails which they wanted to think about. Fair enough, but they weren't concentrating, weren't able to concentrate, on the really challenging stuff I was trying to get them to think about. Their choice, and one I often make in a conference situation.

But we must always give ourselves the opportunity of maximum mental bandwidth at least once in the day to deal with the complex goals we're trying to achieve.

Pic from Kendriya in Andy Polaine's Lost In Text Flickr group (permission pending).

February 23, 2010

How Glow will almost certainly shine. Eventually

Andrew Brown
Once more a Glasgow Herald journalist chooses 2% of an argument in his quotation from a McIntosh and leaves out the more positive 98% that he could have printed but would not have made such a 'good' story.

Andrew Brown has indeed engendered "a new mood of collaboration" since he took over the Directorship of Glow, the national schools intranet in Scotland, in November - collaboration was something he, I and what felt like a small band of colleagues at the time felt was missing in so many parts of education. I can't wait to see what he pulls off in the longer term; he's already managing to move on from the hype of usage stats of sign-ins and sign ups and is talking about how he can make things better until a new version of Glow is commissioned later this year.

Here's the full text of what I said in an interview on how Glow may shine once more:

I firmly believe that Glow's biggest challenge is not its usability (Andrew Brown has already made simple, cheap, quick changes for the better in that respect) or cost (it's modest compared to startups trying to do the same). No, the biggest challenge is the approach Local Authorities take in implementing the internet that lives around and within Glow. Most Local Authorities in Scotland continue to operate locked down or highly managed internet access, meaning many of the most educationally useful content and collaboration websites, services and tools are unavailable.

This is not a-typical:
Hours of video archive on YouTube - blocked.
Weblogs where students can publish their work and accept feedback - blocked.
Wikis, where students can collaborate on writing documents together - blocked.
Social networks, where students can not only prune and make acceptable their 'social' face online, but also develop their future professional shop window - blocked.
Skype and other video conferencing facilities - blocked or made unworkable.

Glow was, at the time of its inception, a revolution in offering all of these functionalities at a time when they did not exist, at scale and for free on the open internet. If Glow has failed, it is by default of the tendering process of nearly all Government contracts, by not being responsive (or being able to be responsive) to these changes, not at least, to the degree that a purely commercial venture would have had to be in order to survive.

As these "emerging technologies" did indeed emerge and move more into the mainstream, Glow was still having to train people in the clicks required to do what, in the open market, was quicker and more intuitive to do.

There are four factors that will help Glow seize the day, in the right hands:

1. The new iteration of Glow offers great hope.
First of all, there is potential to offer something more innovative in the very tendering process that leads to the product. Something that demands more responsiveness, not prescriptiveness. Something that demands flexibility, not "deliver what you said you would, or else".

2. There is also technologically a lot more on offer to make something that encourages true lifelong learning.
Currently, it's not clear to learners, teachers and parents where the learning "on Glow" will go when our children leave school. Above all, that online portfolio of work, of students and of teachers, risks being lost when they leave the intranet to head into the Wild World Web. With open source technologies and more interplay between commercial social networks and blogging platforms, for example, there's potential for my portfolio of work, contacts and connections to move with me from school into the world of business, or simply the world of Facebook.

3. Socially people 'get' the point of connecting more than they did even two years ago.
Two, three, four, five years ago I was spending some painful time trying to convince people of the fact that learning knows no national boundaries, and that Glow should not have been about content, content, content. Making connections with people in the education system (and in Glow) and those outside it (and outside Glow) needs to be a key component of any future strategy for Glow.

4. We need local management of Glow to open up.
Local Authorities, the ultimate "deliverers" of the national intranet, either have to be encouraged to open their networks or, quite simply, overruled by central Government to do so. The latter should never have to be invoked. School children and teachers need to be able to access more of the content that is freely available on the web already, through the sites that I've mentioned already. It is not sustainable, when teachers are finding themselves unable to purchase pens and pencils, to spend millions on "content" to deliver online. Glow must not be a "million-dollar textbook". Instead, Glow's role as content provider should be demoted, even made redundant. Instead, Glow should be the connections-maker, a network of trusted links and connections in the same way as LinkedIn is fast-becoming the UK business world's network of trusted business connections.

Likewise, claiming that Glow offers a "safe internet", as some have proffered, is misleading at best, potentially damaging. Glow has the potential to be as risky as the dark corners of a 1970s school building. A platform doesn't remove the risk. Education does. Educating our youngsters and the teachers that have to lead them on this web journey should, in fact, become Glow's top priority of all (see Ofsted Research from February 2010):

Pupils in schools that use ‘managed’ online systems have a better knowledge and understanding of how to stay safe when using new technologies, according to a report published today by Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills.

‘Managed’ systems are systems that have fewer inaccessible sites than ‘locked’ systems and so require pupils to take more responsibility for their own safety. ‘Locked’ systems make many websites inaccessible and although this ensures pupils’ safety in school it does not encourage the pupils to take responsibility for their actions or prepare them for dealing with systems that are not locked.

This is where Glow has been making some of its biggest gains, in taking new ways of working, learning and teaching to more teachers through its regular Glow Meets. I say "new" - many of us were working on low or no budgets to train colleagues in these tools up to six years ago, but with blocked tools and lack of support from those that believed "Glow will do that" we've seen great delays in schools being able to take advantage of what the rest of the world have been using more proficiently for some years.

Glow under Brown's leadership is increasingly seeing that support, that optimism that Glow might, one day not too long away, be able to "do that" and more.

The "more" is that it won't be catching up with the technologies that are all around it, but rather inventing new ones and new ways of exploiting what's out there already.

I'd hope that this is the last time that Glow is commissioned by the Scottish Government. But I mean this in a really positive sense:

If, within five years and with the wealth of technological and social promise on offer, a company cannot take on this mantle and make it a workable free venture in Scotland, and a tangible commercial one worldwide, iterative and churning innovation regularly for profit, something is wrong. I'd like to see our public money considered an investment, not a one-off grant to make a traditional publicly procured one-off service.

January 08, 2010

Communities, Audiences and Scale: eight years on

Communities staring in the same direction
Eight years ago Clay Shirky penned his Communities, Audiences and Scale, pointing out the difference between the TV world of one-to-the-masses communication which scales to infinity, and many-to-many community communication, which in the form of forums and blog discussions at the time, had an upper limit to its potential success:

With such software, the obvious question is "Can we get the best of both worlds? Can we have a medium that spreads messages to a large audience, but also allows all the members of that audience to engage with one another like a single community?" The answer seems to be "No."

Communities are different than audiences in fundamental human ways, not merely technological ones. You cannot simply transform an audience into a community with technology, because they assume very different relationships between the sender and receiver of messages.

Though both are held together in some way by communication, an audience is typified by a one-way relationship between sender and receiver, and by the disconnection of its members from one another -- a one-to-many pattern. In a community, by contrast, people typically send and receive messages, and the members of a community are connected to one another, not just to some central outlet -- a many-to-many pattern. The extreme positions for the two patterns might be visualized as a broadcast star where all the interaction is one-way from center to edge, vs. a ring where everyone is directly connected to everyone else without requiring a central hub.

There are many communities still around today that struggle with this scale issue. Glow, the national schools intranet, while it has 650,000 registered users, cannot hope to facilitate meaningful discussion between them all - or even hundreds of them - with the groups-based discussion-board infrastructure on which it relies. The Scottish Governments' efforts at blogging a couple of years back were abandoned after the First Minister received over 4,500 comments - and was unable to answer or converse on any of them.

However, I'm wondering whether the advent of friendfeed and Twitter-type 'streams' of communication do really lend themselves better to scalable communities, as one might be tempted to believe (and as venture capitalists and creative technologists never stop implying).

Or as danah points out in her 'streams' paper, and as Blonde's Phil and I felt this morning discussing the joy of a Christmas lull in online communication, is there merely more skimming on the top of a wave of communication, rather than flow within it, and siding with voices and arguments that we find easy to hear, rather than getting down into the depth of what we're trying to say and challenging our preconceptions?

December 15, 2009

How Mobile Cell Phones Change Everything When We Do

Mac-filled lecture theatre
Will Richardson posts the above picture and asks
"how many educators look at that picture and think "OMG, puhleeeeese let me teach in that classroom!" (I suspect not many)".
He points out that with the mobile technologies already in our students' pockets we're probably not far off that level of ubiquitous kitting out in our schools already. He's right. But he's less right in implying that great teachers would want to teaching in that classroom.

Further on Will points out that often teachers and decision-makers can get hung up on the "what technology" question, rather than the "curriculum question". This might be a linguistic anomaly, but curriculum, to me, is deciding what we learn, when. It is important, but the most important peg on which we need to hang our thought is pedagogy, which is about how we learn. Teachers decide pedagogy, not administrators, authorities or Governments. That's why teachers discussing not tech, but teach, becomes ever more vital as technologies open up new ways to approach learning.

But linguistic anomalies are the stuff of learning, so I hope Will doesn't mind me challenging this one, and seeing what we really think it possible if we could encourage colleagues to move beyond "OMG puhleeeeese" statements.

The reason the picture presents a dubious message is that neither curriculum nor pedagogy have changed an iota in this learning space: it's about the same layout - with as many apples on laps - as a Victorian classroom would have appeared.

It's not an image to proud of, to smile at, to wonder at, or one I'd want to be in. It sums up the biggest challenge facing learning: too many educators look at that and think all of above.

What can we aspire to?

The other night Stephen Heppell pointed out the Education_2010 report that he, Graham Brown-Martin and other luminaries had pulled together in 1999, outlining what they thought technology would be doing for learning in 2010. The predictions and visions hinted at in that Garamond/Helvetica-shocker of a ClarisWorks document are not far off what we're close to as hurl towards the end of this decade. And that, in no short measure down to the work of the authors in promoting mobiles' inevitable conquest of learning spaces. The key message: learners will all have access to portable 'micros'. The micros, though, are maybe not the laptops or notebooks, even, that photos like the above one hint at.

Christmas Cracker Research

It's particularly apt as the decade ends with a supposedly "credit crunch Christmas" where iPhones and iPod touches, and cheaper but no-less effective smartphones with the major carriers, will be appearing under the trees of our youngsters (and, in what even I, a gadget fan, would consider a touch of spoiling, in their stockings).

In the UK the changes in equipment provision is already happening, and in the US it's going to follow really soon: the image of students locked to their laptops could change to a more human image of students talking to each other face-to-face, and using their mobile phones for research, reference and recording.

That change from the tech-oriented to the person-oriented could change, but it needs teachers, not tech, to make that change happen.

In the UK children have owned and used mobile phones at any kind of scale in schools (legitimately or otherwise) for about six years. I remember the Christmas when they all came back with them. The next year it was the mp3 player. This Christmas I bet it'll be the hyprid iPod Touch or iPhone (if they're lucky). What kids get for Christmas one year is nearly always the forerunner to what is really desirable in a few years' time. Where mp3 players were the hot item in 2003, the iPod shuffle and mini took until 2005 to hit the mainstream school audience. Where iPhones and iPod touches hit the Christmas pressie list in 2009, there will be something more profound and far more widespread in adoption in 2011.

If you want the real aficionados head to South Korea and Japan for a lesson in ubiquity, but still, I wouldn't bet on their curriculum or pedagogy having changed much as a result (and their relative educational success is more likely down to the insane hours students and their private tutors put in, compared to the average three weeks' per year absenteeism of Scottish students).

As the iPhone makes the mobile's northern American cousin, the 'cell', something more mainstream over the Pond, mobiles' learning potential is finally gaining more than a niche gadget audience's attention. It becomes even more palpable as the replacement cell phones are not of the simpler phone-text-image cariety, but, of course, the of smartphone stock. The pic below shows the scale of this: it's part of the half-a-million cells thrown out every day in the USA as people upgrade to the next, better model:

Some mobile phones

But the lessons learned about cell phone use (and handheld learning devices stuck in schoolbags) for learning in the UK, through trials, pilots and the generally higher adoption of mobile telephony here than over the Pond, risk being ignored. Most of the conversations being had in Will's monster 130-plus comment post are thinking through issues that have been thought through, put into action, analysed and researched in the UK as long as four years ago.

There's a monster post (or a book) in pointing to the work of the past decade and what it means for the next one. Many of those lessons are online, in places like the Wolverhampton Learning2Go project, whose initial work in mostly offline potential of PDAs was groundbreaking, or the Consolarium in Scotland which has pioneered games-based learning using devices often hidden away in school bags, not a pioneering effort in theory, I hasten to add, but in hard-to-initiate classroom practice.

Finally, though, it is heartening to see that the pedagogy of Higher Education institutions is changing. The above picture is still far from being out-of-date - for many campuses it's still light-years ahead. But iPhone-equipped students of Abilene university in the States have seen their lecturers change from information-transferal mode (that's what Google's for) to educator,  leader  and even developer roles in the lecture hall.

It’s like a mashup of a 1960s teach-in with smartphone technology from the 2000s.

Each participating Abilene instructor is incorporating the iPhone differently into their curriculum. In some classrooms, professors project discussion questions onscreen in a PowerPoint presentation. Then, using polling software that Abilene coded for the iPhone, students can answer the questions anonymously by sending responses electronically with their iPhones. The software can also quickly quiz students to gauge whether they’re understanding the lesson.

... And if students don’t understand a lesson, they can ask the teacher to repeat it by simply tapping a button on the iPhone.

This is the exception to the rule. Heck, it's in Wired. [Update: My good friend, former Pentagon man and superb Ireland-based educator Bernie Goldbach, blogs on what his students are doing with their Nokias, and the joy they have researching with them.] But a student in the story outlines why making these fundamental changes to access to technologies, whether that is giving it away for free (in Abilene) or just allowing students to bring out the panoply of kit from their Christmas 09 haul, is a no-brainer:

“They’re preparing us for the real world — not a place where you’re not allowed to use anything.”

December 09, 2009

BT & Google's Video Delivery Network for ISPs... and schools?

One more broken television
Media Guardian reports on a service due for launch in Spring 2010 from British Telecom (BT) and Google, allowing Internet Service Providers to host and stream video from their own networks, rather than using the network which is increasingly over-burdened by high quality streaming from BBC iPlayer, 40D, Hulu and, of course, Google's own YouTube and video services:

BT Wholesale is working with BT Retail and two other ISPs – understood to be Orange and Virgin Media – as well as the BBC, Channel 4 and Five, on a network called Content Connect. The idea behind the service is to store popular video content on an ISP's network, rather than relying on the internet, which is becoming increasingly congested, for the delivery of online video.

A logical extension for those in education who can turn the vision into reality, is that schools and education authorities are or can be Internet Service Providers to their institutions. In the same way as Scotland national intranet, Glow, hosts content on a network of cache servers throughout Scottish schools, a Local Authority or small country could ramp up the potential for downloading and sharing high quality video 'online' by not going online at all. Use overnight downtime to download prime learning content overnight to a local area network, and then deliver it quickly at the point of need during the day.

Previously, only large-scale enterprise could envisage this way of borrowing content on the cheap to serve it later at faster speeds. As a service provided by a larger scale programme such as that proposed by BT and Google, the economies of scale they will earn let the rest of us enjoy fast video at a reasonably priced premium.

Could it really change anything?

But, given that television was promised (wrongly) to be the saviour of learning in the 60s, how would you change things in your learning and your students' learning to take advantage of such an opportunity? Are classrooms full of plugged in kids, akin to the average open-plan office of iPod-entangled drones poking at Outlook, what we're after? Or would fast-streaming video be a significant enough innovation to change pedagogy, curriculum and school spaces beyond recognition?

Photo CC Kevin Steele

October 07, 2009

On wanting to see more daring institutions challenge their users

Taking risks
We invest millions in "technologies for learning" and often bypass those which are not explicitly designed for that "learning market", especially if this general purpose technology also happens to be free. iTunes U exists not because the iTunes Store itself is so terrible at attracting and sharing learning content - it's actually more successful - but because traditional institutions and those working in them want educational stuff to be labeled educational. Give us a tin that says it'll be good for us and we'll eat it, even if the contents are as sugary as the stuff sold in the other tins.

No, we prefer in eduland to use technologies which are slow-moving (the slower the better), costly and not interoperable with the 'realworld' technologies we use outside the institution (I'm still looking for the Virtual Learning Environment that bites the bullet and allows cross-postings to and from a kid's Bebo or Facebook profile).

Martin Weller sums up what we have settled for with most Virtual Learning Environments: they are to learning what PowerPoint has been to presention. In the hands of a (rare) maestro either tool adds value. In the hands of the rest of us, they tend to bore young people, relative to the other technological wonders to which they are used. Moreover,when an educator starts using either technology they stand a real risk of getting hooked on this low-grade drug of connectivity, without ever finding the high quality, more complex and engaging stuff that lies beyond:

I think what the VLE and Powerpoint have in common is that they are in the first wave of digital democratization tools.

Such tools can’t be too far removed from traditional practice, otherwise people simple won’t use them. So they provide a useful stepping stone onto a more digitally enhanced future (where it’s always sunny and everyone loves each other).

The danger with both of them is that they represent not a potential stage on a journey for many, but the endpoint. Their ease of use and similarity to existing practice is seductive in this sense, you don’t really have to change what you do much.

"We're boring the kids" is, unfortunately, an argument which, despite its powerful and valid reasoning, is too easily dismissed by beancounters and risk-averse compliance-obsessed decision-makers as something for which we can strive but never quite attain given the multitude of other, far more important concerns (two of which will always be the security and safety scapegoats, arguments for which they also strive, believe to have attained but actually never can).

Most Virtual Learning Environments would, in a consumer-led market (i.e. student-led market) not make it past the beta, and wouldn't interest any Angel or VC investor in further support - the market wouldn't bite when there are so many other ways of engaging with content and people online which are fun in so many other ways. They succeed largely down to, at worst, a laziness on the part of institutions, at best a reluctance to challenge their 'customers' or users to see the world differently.

Brian Kelly presents a compelling argument for not sticking to this Microsoft- and institution-led status quo in which we find ourselves. Brian is nervous about a world of institutionalised users using institutional equipment, software and services which are operated, developed, run and molded by faceless corporations, themselves happy with the ignorance of the user base in what lies beyond the current offerings from technology.

...If the initial evidence reflects a more general trend, we seem to be living in a world in which most users use an MS Windows platform to access institutional resources – they’re not interested in Linux, for example, despite many years of evangelism from the open source community. A computer’s a computer, just like a fax machine is a fax machine – only nerds care about what goes on underneath the bonnet.

But if this is true, what are the implications for accepting that we are in a postdigital age?  Don’t we then accept that our IT environment will be owned by the mega-corporations – Google and Microsoft. And let’s forget debates about device independence and interoperability – unless the mega-corporations feel such issues may provide a competitive edge.

It strikes me that the postdigital agenda is a conservative one, in which we are asked to accept that we (in our institutions and in our working environment) cannot shape our digital environment. And for me that is a worrying point of view which I don’t accept.

Update: There's another interesting, pedagogical aside, which shows not only that there might be 'postdigital' reasons like Brian's not to let Learning Management Systems or Course Management Systems (CMS) run over us willynilly, but that there are teaching and learning reasons, too. New research shows that by accepting the defaults of a CMS educators can find their pedagogy affected negatively, too, moving towards a more administrative bent:

The defaults of the CMS therefore tend to determine the way Web–novice faculty teach online, encouraging methods based on posting of material and engendering usage that focuses on administrative tasks.

Quite literally, teaching by checkbox?

Pic by James Jordan

January 20, 2009

Lack of broadband for all, an implicit denial of full citizenship to some

Andy Duncan My big boss at Channel 4 (spot the new website), Chief Executive Andy Duncan, gave a speech last week in anticipation of the Digital Britain report, the first part of which is released next week. In it he makes some key points about the importance of the public service intervention we are making on the web, mobile and gaming with 4iP, but also stresses why Government needs to act rather than talk about broadband access for all.

I still hear about the digital divide as a legitimate excuse for not embracing technologies and equally a reason for blocking and banning sites with which the Establishment of our education institutions don't agree or don't understand. It's the main reason for a propagation of 'safe' social networking sites and school intranets destined for tweens and teens who spend up to six hours a night unleashed in the 'real' online world, reaping the benefits this untempered activity has to offer. Making sure all citizens have access is a key "must-change" in 2009:

...We must have universal access to broadband services.  At the moment we rank fifth of the OECD countries for access, but in terms of speed we are some considerable way behind countries like Korea and Japan.   If we are to be a fully digital society, then every citizen must be able to participate.  Anything less would be an implicit denial of full citizenship to some.   For a household to be online is becoming as essential to participation in the life of society as having a TV and a phone.   And TV and phone are probably most important to those who are most disadvantaged.   The same should be true of broadband access.   In any case, the more universal a network, the greater its value.  Google, Yahoo, You Tube, Facebook, Bebo – they know that very well.  It’s even more true in a wider social sense as a common unifying element of citizenship.  And while many people - perhaps most people - will want to top up any basic provision by paying more for hi-speed or specialist equipment or content and services, just as they do with television today, access itself should be a basic right for everyone.
Full speech (pdf)   |   Listen to the speech online   |   Pic: Informitv

December 02, 2008

Clay Shirky in London: Group action just got easier

Clay Shirky and Belarus Flashmobbers

People sometimes ask why one might 'waste' one's time sitting on Advisory Boards, especially those of conferences. One reason I like it is that you can suggest that you'd like to hear someone like, say, Clay Shirky and, six months later, you've got him. Clay speaks today at Online Information Conference in London.

As well as formal groups around certain types of photography on Flickr (like this HDR group for beginners) there are the more impromptu adhoc communities that form around just one photo. It means that whereas destination sites' half-lives were relatively short, the half-life of a "insta-community" photograph like this becomes very much longer. Flickr, in this case, is an organisation that has created more by doing less - less intervention, less 'management' of community, less structure around debate.

How much does the individual have to give up to get to the action. Sharing is easiest, collaboration is harder and collective action hardest.


Bronze Beta is the bulletin board for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's an old skool site/forum based around Buffy. It has one page, and a form in which you put your latest views on Buffy. When the TV co wanted to disband it, or rebrand it the community cried out. "No! Don't give us features. Don't make it different. Above all, don't close it down." The conversations there continue today, well beyond the last episode of Buffy was made.

10 years ago, as Clay helped newspapers move out of Wapping into the new glitz of Canary Wharf, he was concerned with which content management system to get them. Had he told them (had he known) that weblogs being written by geeks in the Valley were going to be harbouring more content than any newspaper could manage, no-one would have believed him.

What makes Bronze Beta work is that it's got a featureless front end, but a very highly developed and complex set of rules of engagement. Fewer features make it easier for the users to share.

The Wikipedia page on Doctor Who has been edited almost 9000 times by over 3000 people. It would be logical (but wrong) to assume that the average is 2.67 edits per person. However, 2200 people only made one edit once, and then moved on. They are not "part of" a community. User Khaosworks, on the other hand, has edited that page nearly 1000 times all on his own. In fact, every article that this user has touched has been on Doctor Who.

This blows up the assumption of an 'average user'. Trying to plan this kind of interaction and collaboration in advance is near impossible to sell to a boss: there's going to be this tiny, unscalable group of users who'll just come to it, unpaid, who you don't know yet, who'll create the product. It really is a case of "in collaboration we trust". We trust it because the long tail type graph of collaboration that Clay refers to is more or less a signature of online collaboration.

Collective action
Getting people to do something is the most difficult thing to do. People tend to do it themselves, of their own accord, when the motivation to do so is more tangible. Cue the HSBC fiasco of last year, when a bank changed its mind on giving students free overdraft and thought instead of charging them £140 for the priviledge. HSBC were banking on the fact that it is tricky to move money from one account to another. They were also banking on the fact that it's hard for students, during a summer holiday, to coordinate action.

Cue Facebook.

When one student set up his Facebook group to campaign against this change, when one student made that effort, it became much easier for people to become activists, just by clicking "Join Group". 4500 members later, with a threat of the whole bunch marching onto the Canary Wharf headquarters, the bank relented.

Thinking is for Doing
Brains are not there to think in abstracts, but to help us do something. Publishing is for acting. Publishing is for doing. It's not just a source of information or a destination site. It's a place where action begins. It's not the Daily Telegraph telling people that HSBC changed the deal. It's Facebook offering a platform to provide that information and then do something about it.

Flashmobs, whose means of collective action I discussed in my recent Cisco paper, are yet another example of technology acting as an enabler to bring people together to act - against dictatorship, for example.

KnarlyKitty Broadcasters' challenge is technological and economical
The technology that allows us to broadcast has been limited in allowing us to create groups and community. Networks have been limited at doing what broadcasters have done, which is separate out the producer and viewer and participant of content. The internet has given birth to this many-to-many communication, but broadcasters have perhaps been stuck in the mentality of Guttenburg economics: we have to lay out some cash up front before we know if something is going to be successful, therefore the publisher only picks the things that (s)he thinks will make back that upfront. The costs are high and upfront so the risk is mitigated by the filter being placed on the side of the publisher.

When you're not a publisher relying on cash to sell your product or your news, then you can afford to report on what you want, and the readership can simply "put up or shut up". So when a young blogger in Thailand reports on the military coup, before going back to the trivia that she enjoys normally writing about, she receives, as if she were a broadcaster, complaints that her coverage is not in depth enough. She retorts; she's not a pubisher, she doesn't need to please the audience, the audience can come or go and get what they're given. This is a liberation from the shackles of Guttenburg economics that new technologies afford us. It's why blogging is not journalism; a journalist is professionally obliged to stick with the story.

Pro-active protest
Social media has now allowed people to take the initiative in saving their favourite TV shows before the TV show even airs. They have, in fact, created their own crowdsourced marketing department, emailing and advising the TV show on what they have to do to get more people to watch it and make the show such a success it can't be dropped.

The old separations are dead
I got this one quite quickly when I started working for Channel 4 and had to engage with taxi drivers who picked me up on account:

Taxi Driver: So you work for Channel 4?

Me: Yes

TD: What programmes do you make then?

Me: We don't actually make programmes. Other people do that. We just pay them to. But actually, I don't make TV anyway.

TD: What do you do then?

Me: I make websites and cool stuff for mobile phones and games consoles.

TD: Like the ones I see advertised on the TV shows?

Me: No, they're just going to be out there. You'll find them if they're meant for you.

TD: Oh... What's Channel 4 doing that for?

Me: Well, the boundaries matter less nowadays... (at this point, I gain 20 minutes of peace in the taxi.)

All the walls have fallen around the world of information. There are horizons but no barriers. What's the next good thing to do? The answer is likely to be: explore. Try several things at once. If someone has a million pound idea for exploiting the social web, then send them out for a long walk and lock the door behind them. Get them to come up with ten of £100,000 ideas or 100s of £10,000 ideas. 

4iP The convening power of traditional media

That, my dears, is a big part of what 4iP is about. 4iP has the potential to be the convener of great ideas, and convene groups that ought to be talking to one another.

With 38minutes we're starting to do just that, having convened a space but given it over entirely to those who want to meet to talk about where they take their design, gaming, coding or new media business in this new(ish) age of t'interweb. Where previously these groups didn't talk, in less than two months we've convened nearly 500 of Scotland and Northern Ireland's top talent from four large sectors who until now rarely spoke about collaborating on projects. But it's happening thanks to the love, sweat, tears and effort of those 500 people, not really 4iP. Just having that shared situational awareness of who's doing what and how you might be able to help make it better is worth its weight in gold.

Cross-posted at 38minutes

June 16, 2008

20 Ideas For Local Authorities To Engage With Web 2.0

La_maps A week ago I spent a whole day leading a session on behalf of Socitm, the Society of Information Technology Management, where we were exploring the impact new media could have in Local Authorities and other public bodies. Most of those present were from the world of corporate IT and, as someone presenting a variety of tools they were likely to be blocking on their home patch, I was a tad nervous about taking them on this particular learning journey.

I needn't have been. Having explained in broad terms the main drivers of change thanks to this technology, I was able to explore some more specific examples of public sector engagement with the social web, from eduBuzz in the domain of education, to several health-related initiatives of the NHS. We saw how technology is taking politics towards the realm of direct democracy, and explored the potential for some of the mobile, ambient and participative media that citizens are increasingly using in their day-to-day (social) lives.

We worked through the afternoon seeking practical, do-able actions that these IT managers could take forward, without the need for engagement of the senior management teams or specialist outsourced expertise. They relished the task, and came up with some superb ideas they could implement in days, rather than months or years. Some of them have even put them into action already: take a peek at Stratford's homepage, complete with Twitter updates. Here are the rest, coming to a local council near you:
What are the biggest challenges in your organisation?

  1. Competitions for art work on Flickr
  2. Mental health blog
    1. Teachmeet-style therapy group
    2. Video diary of experiences
  3. Flickr/Google Earth mashups
    1. Things to do in the area, events, locations for recycling etc...
    2. Online estate agency for social housing
    3. Statistics in a glance mashup
    4. Graffiti tracking, crowdsourcing for finding the source of the 'tag'
    5. Mashups to reveal extent of disruption during strikes, accidents
  4. Crowdsourcing FAQs on a wiki
  5. Homeworkers can have real-time advice between 'virtual desks' (RSS feed to mobile)
  6. Twitter for mass-collaboration during crises and a blog to quickly publish information and provide an instant feedback loop
  7. Longitudinal e-consultation on complex issues
  8. Using Flickr to provide stock photography to local press and council workers (like this)
  9. Providing digital cameras to council gardeners to share the process and final result with enthusiasts and ciizens.
  10. Twitter private groups for quick intranet publishing
  11. Watchlist introduction for the PO, PR, Comms team
  12. Culture change through a "from-the-top" blog by the CEO
  13. Suggestion box for cost-effectiveness

About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is a teacher, speaker and investor, regarded as one of Europe’s foremost experts in digital media for public services.

His company, NoTosh Limited, invests in tech startups and film on behalf of public and private investors, works with those companies to build their creative businesses, and takes the lessons learnt from the way these people work back into schools and universities across the world.

Ewan’s education keynotes & MasterClasses

Module Masterclass

Do you worry that your school or district could better harness its people, digital technology or physical space? Do you want some actionable inspiration, a mentor for a learning journey with your staff?

In a keynote or masterclass we can give them concrete ideas based on experience, enthusiasm fired by a vision of what can be, and backup before and after to make it happen for them.

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