Academici.net

I guess it was a result of my post about an academic LinkedIn, I got invited to join Academici.net. It seems to be what I was talking about (I’m a bit embarrassed I didn’t know about it), so I created a profile. While it is definitely more academic focused than LinkedIn, I still felt that it was a bit oriented towards getting a new job, and not so much around creating joint research proposals, or collaborative articles, or visiting fellowships, say.

It has a good feature set – to quote from the email:

  • An on-line journal to publish abstracts, drafts, papers or upload any kind of documents and the option to share them with contacts or keep them private through your privacy settings.
  • The ability to add your own personal bookmarks and share them with your contacts!
  • The ability to participate on the message boards plus your own private message board.
  • A personalized central message board to follow your favorite conversations across the network.
  • A tribute section – a support for the next career move.
  • Easy search functionality to quickly find people with similar interests or backgrounds.
  • However I felt there could be a bit more 2.0 in there, it could be a bit, well, cooler. Take a look at the Nike+ site for instance (for creating a runner’s profile using the Nike+ iTunes combination). It has very good personal tools (you upload all your runs, it gives you analysis, playlists, so on). But it also has good community tools, for instance you can set a goal such as ‘Run 100 miles’ and others can join that goal, a la 43Things. Academici.net could do with a bit of this, e.g. ‘I’m interested in creating a Framework 7 proposal on web 2.0 technologies’. You can kind of do this in the forums, but I think it could be made more accessible – the forums approach feels a bit old school VLE.

    Limewire and iTunes talking behind my back

    I thought I’d have a play with Limewire (while respecting copyright laws naturally), so downloaded it onto one laptop. For those who haven’t played with it, Limewire creates a folder for shared files, which you download to and share with others (it also offers to search your hard disk for any media files to search, which is a bit of a security nightmare, so I declined).

    While I wait for my Toshiba to be mended, I have put iTunes and all my music on another old, laptop. When I started this up iTunes created a menu item for my shared Limewire folder, which was on a different computer. This puzzled, concerned and delighted me simultaneously. While not wanting to resort to computer anthropomorphism, I was left asking ‘how does it know?’ I didn’t give Limewire my itunes id, or vice versa.

    The answer is probably obvious to everyone else, but it took me a while to figure it out – it is because they are both on the same wireless network in my home, so iTunes searches for any other DAAP software and automatically integrates it. I thought this was neat, but it made me kind of nervous in two ways: i) what other info was being accessed and by who, and ii) it has kind of Forbin Project overtones with computers talking to each other without need for me. What else are they doing together?

    The pointlessness of plagiarism detection

    Today I was invited to sit on an e-cheating panel at the Web Based Education 2007 conference in Chamonix. Unfortunately I can’t make it, but it prompted me to consider the whole plagiarism issue. This was something I had to wrestle with a good deal when I chaired T171 You, your computer and the Net back in 1999. We had 12,000 students, so trying to find a plagiarism proof assessment method was a priority. This was back in the early days of e-learning and there were lots of people waiting to see it fail. Rather like distance education in its early days, e-learning suffered from a legitimacy deficit, so it had to work extra hard to prove its credentials.

    It was all a bit Lewis and Clark at the time so we took a joing approach of designing assessment that was less plagiarisable and also putting in place human detection systems (the plagiarism detection tools were just starting then). The latter was surprisingly effective – usually the writing style changes dramatically (I would just avoid saying ‘improves’) and putting a suspect phrase in to Google was usually sufficient to uncover the source.

    The plagiarism detection and provision services have since entered in to the kind of arms race we see with viruses and anti-virus software (indeed one could see plagiarism as an assessment virus). It isn’t really a field I have kept up with to a great extent, particularly as I now chair a postgrad course where the numbers are much lower, the assessment more varied and the likelihood of cheating much lower.

    My feeling though is that plagiarism is a symptom of old-fashioned assessment techniques, and to put effort in to plagiarism detection is to miss the point. What a plagiarism susceptible system reveals is an unhealthy emphasis on content and an old-fashioned worldview. If you assume that all content is freely available (not necessarily true, but let’s go with it as a starting point), then if you ask students to create content then of course they’re going to lift bits from various sources, whether intentionally or unintentionally. There is an argument that the assessment method is going contrary to the connectedness of the modern world here, although acknowledging others is always good practice. But my point is that if we took this as a base assumption we would devise different assessment methods. There is nothing about the conventional exam or essay that is an absolute measure of academic quality – in fact you can view these as administrative conveniences based on the face to face, physical constraints of education. Finding ways of perpetuating them by ‘catching’ plagiarism to me just demonstrates a lack of imagination.

    When internet shopping goes bad

    As I am normally an enthusiast for doing everything online, I ought to report when it doesn’t work out quite as planned. For Christmas I bought my wife a Nano (yes, despite the fact that the last one corrupted, and that I have all those DRM and performance issues with iTunes, it is still cool looking and good for running). I ordered online a week before Christmas, and paid for next day delivery via City-Link. Sadly these turned out to be something of a keystone cops delivery firm. It was despatched on Monday, for delivery on Tuesday. I checked the tracking website and it was loaded on to a van at 6.30am. The day passed and it didn’t arrive.

    I checked the website again the next day, and it had been loaded on at 5.30 this time. At 3pm I became nervous and spent half an hour queuing on the phone to be told ‘it’s on the van, it’ll definitely be with you by 5.30’. Naturally 5.30 came and went with no sign of my parcel. I began to get anxious about the approaching big day now. I rang again and was assured that it would be made a priority for the next day.

    Thursday was spent waiting, telephoning, waiting, but alas, no amount of pacing up and down or swearing could summon the God of parcel delivery to have mercy on me. I now had the most travelled parcel in Cardiff, as everyday I merrily tracked its progress around the city (I had an image of it sitting on an open top bus, being driven past the stadium). I began to worry about its carbon footprint. I was wondering if a picture of a nano would suffice for Christmas morning.

    The next day I resorted to repeated phone calls and was eventually rewarded with one of the operators promising to speak to her friend whose boyfriend was driving the van. Strangely, this unorthodox method of systems control worked and the package eventually arrived.

    What the whole fiasco reminded me of was the early days of e-commerce, when the logistics still needed to be worked through. This was particularly true in grocery shopping. I remember a number of online grocery start-ups who tried to fill the vacuum created by the sluggishness of the major supermarkets. Unfortunately these firms lacked the infrastructure of the big firms which was particularly problematic when it came to delivery times – you might be able to have a book delivered at any time, but you can’t have ice-cream sitting on your porch all day. This led to some convoluted solutions, for instance one firm provided customers with an external food locker where they could store the shopping. This was never going to catch on, let’s face it, and only when the Tescos and Sainsbury’s of the world moved in did the simplicity of choosing a delivery slot make sense.

    The moral is that it’s the boring, logistical stuff that makes a good idea succeed, I guess.

    An academic LinkedIn

    Typepad are promoting a LinkedIn widget, so I thought I’d check out the site and created a profile. If you haven’t seen it, then it’s kind of a business-oriented MySpace with a bit of FriendsReunited thrown in. They make a big play of the power of connectivity, and I can see how it would be useful for those headhunting (or likely to be headhunted), particularly in the IT industry, or those looking for venture capital. It was very US oriented obviously. I felt as though it was too business-oriented to be much use to me though (although I’m always up for a bit of consultancy if you want). But one could imagine an academic version of this – where the categories were focused around research, publications, teaching interests, grants, etc. It would be useful to find those interested in forming research consortia, sharing learning objects, collaborating on development, etc.

    I know there have been some projects looking at eportfolios or personal repositories to do this (the PROWE project I’m involved with is an example), but I’m not aware of such a site for academics. There are a number of networks associated with finding partners for EU projects also, but nothing that is as informal and individually focused as this – I’d be interested to hear of one if there is.

    Obviously it’s one of those critical mass things – it only works if the community is large enough to make the connections worthwhile. Inevitably this has been converted to a ‘law’ (in the business, not physics or legal sense) – Reid’s law (after Reid Hoffman the co-founder of LinkedIn), which says that "the usefulness of a business network grows exponentially as its ranks expand" (well, yes, I suppose it does is the obvious response to this). I do feel that this is a tool/service that is best developed by a business start-up rather than as the result of an academic research project. Not that I’m going to do it of course…

    What BB’s patent really tells you about them

    I gave the keynote at the BB users’ conference yesterday in Durham. As I have blogged before I had some reservations about this. I think it was worthwhile though – I talked about web 2.0 and some of the usual VLE topics I have covered (succession, metaphors, future directions, etc). From a BB audience perspective the key slide was one that focused on the patent where I played the YouTube movie on software patents, gave some of Michael Feldstein’s interpretations of the patent, and linked it back to the succession model. The Blackboard company representatives in the audience looked a little unhappy with this, although slightly battle weary too – I suspect they are getting tired of talking about it. In the questions someone asked me about other patents and I outlined some of their dangers and why I considered them an ‘educational menace’. So, it was a good audience to raise that topic in (in many ways better than preaching to the converted at an open source conference, say). I think it is also another example of why it is such a dumb move on BB’s part. Without the patent I wouldn’t have said anything bad about them, I had a lot of time for them. What the patent does is effectively polarise users, forcing them in to mutually opposing camps. It has made me much more of an advocate of open source for example, and that reaction manifested across many HE institutions will ultimately do a good deal of harm to BB. If I was an investor in BB I would be seriously questioning the wisdom of Michael Chasen, its CEO, in pursuing this strategy.

    The theme of the conference was the power of 2.0, and was all about web 2.0 implications. One can’t imagine a less 2.0 approach than BB’s patent (it hardly chimes with the principles of openness, freedom and respect for users does it), so the other thing is demonstrates is a complete lack of understanding about the current technological and social zeitgeist – and would you want to place so much of your institution’s strategy in the hands of a company that is so far from getting it?

    A dash of 2.0

    I was up in London yesterday visiting Diana Laurillard to talk about their Pedagogic Planner project (which is part of the JISC D4L programme along with our own D4LD project). I was quite impressed with what they’ve done. They’ve taken a pragmatic approach which allows users to define a course using some of the standard data (e.g. learning outcomes, number of hours, etc), and then added a layer of pedagogic planning to this that builds on Diana’s conversational framework (although it could be any approach and is likely to be extended). They have framed it around a number of questions learners want answers for and then matched these with exemplars. The next step is to represent these as LAMS sequences.

    I could see how we in the OU might take such a tool and rebadge it, so the labels were much more specific (and thus meaningful) to our practice.

    But all the way through I kept seeing opportunities for a bit more "2.0" in there. I think this will come, and they are seeding the database at the moment, but it struck me that I have become something of a monomaniac about this now. I remember someone saying they were a fan of Tabasco and they found it impossible to eat any meal without thinking what it would be like with a dash of the hot stuff. I find the same with 2.0 – and not just to do with technology. I have recently suggested an open, 2.0 solution to managerial styles, an evening out and children’s entertainment. I now admit that web 2.0 doesn’t have anything to do with these really. But even so, I can’t stop looking at something and thinking, ‘what would a dash of 2.0 do to it?’

    I patent it

    Scott Wilson points to another ludicrous patent – this time someone’s trying to do a landgrab on community based learning. The fact that it is laughable is what’s so worrying – being blatantly stupid is no guarantee against something being accepted. I want to get these potential patents in now, so if anyone does try and patent them I can claim prior exposure:

    Gaming – any computer based system where the user manipulates a virtual character through a simulated world, according to rules determined by the system. The world is divided into different stages of levels which the user must demonstrate increased proficiency to gain access to. The user gains entertainment through the completion of the game.

    Help systems – any computer based system that offers advice, tips or help to a user engaging with a piece of software or a computer based activity. The system is based around a knowledge base of queries and can offer just in time advice.

    E-learning – any system that provides content and tools that facilitate a cognitive change in the user and promote learning.

    Oh, that last one has been done already. These may seem ludicrous but software patents don’t operate much beyond this level, and if they get to this stage we may as well forget any form of innovation. This is why I disagree with some of the open source response to the BB patent which is that it doesn’t matter, because monolithic VLEs are crap anyway. That may, or may not, be true (in my succession model I argue that the monolithic VLEs have played an important colonization role), but even if it is, that isn’t the point – if this patent succeeds then you can bet that someone will patent something you do care about, just because securing a software patent becomes part of the normal process.

    If there wasn’t big money involved then this practice would be reminiscent of playground behaviour. We used to use the term ‘bagsy’ to lay claim to something – s in "I bagsy I go in goal first" or "I bagsy the chair by the window." This was remarkably robust at settling disputes "No, I bagsied it." I can imagine educational software companies sitting around a table "I bagsy e-learning!" "Damn! Well then I bagsy resource based learning".

    It may work in the playground but it’s no way to run an industry.

    LAMS conference

    I had submitted a paper to the first LAMS conference in Sydney. However, it clashed with the date of my daughter’s school concert, so in an attempt to win a good dad prize I prioritised the concert. They still wanted the paper however, so I came in via Skype with James Dalziel working the powerpoint that end. At 12.15am then last night I was giving a talk while the wind howled outside in Cardiff to an audience immersed in the heat of a Sydney summer. It went quite well (I think) – I should do all my talks like this, sitting in my back room with a cup of tea and a box of biscuits.

    The podcast of my talk should be available soon.

    RSS as universal acid

    My colleague Tony Hirst has been exploring the use of RSS to deliver regular (academic) content, using FeedCycle. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about this, but Tony has been exploring these issues for a while, and it seems like the content and the technology side are converging to give him what he wants.

    I’m always impressed when something relatively simple like RSS that was developed for one purpose begins to have new found applications. There are some quite subtle implications to Tony’s delivery of content – for a start it allows the user to control the pace. It also provides an easy means of syndicating content, which rather reduces the concept of content coming from your university. One could imagine the same content being delivered to students at different universities, and on different courses. While this may not lead to full scale disintermediation (there I go again), it is another erosion (whether you view that as good or bad) in the direct link between student A and University B.

    At the EDEN conference I showed netvibes as an example of web 2.0 stuff and Stephen Downes said it looked like the Netscape portal of 10 years ago. He asked why this would be any different. I mumbled a reply which didn’t answer the question, but on reflection perhaps what I should have said was ‘RSS’, or maybe ‘RSS and AJAX’. It isn’t that the concept is different, but the environment it is operating in is – now there is a wealth of content and tools that can be pulled in easily, which makes the point of a portal worthwhile.

    There – it’s only taken me 6 weeks to come up with that response. Tomorrow: a witty putdown to a bloke I met on London underground in 1997…

    PS – apologies for borrowing Dan Dennett’s Universal acid metaphor yet again. I have previously suggested that service oriented architectures were a universal acid, and now RSS. None of these come close to the penetration of Dennett’s acid though – evolution.

    css.php