Computer Voodoo

I got a new Toshiba laptop a couple of months ago. I suppose I should have learnt by now, but I thought maybe computer technology would be more reliable than in the days of my PhD when my PC case was never screwed down because taking it apart was such a regular occurrence. The battery packed up after a month and then last week it started freezing on start-up. When I tried it in safe mode it seemed to get stuck at mup.sys. It seems I’m not the only one with this problem. The suggested problem seems to vary from a window service pack 2 upgrade, CMOS problem, virus or keyboard failure. The solutions are equally varied.

During the whole saga I became aware of two things:

i) The emotional state the rational machine induces in us. I ranged between violent swearing, sobbing, ennui, despair and hysteria as I wrestled over the course of three days with various start-up techniques.

ii) The superstition and irrationality you bring to these problems. At one stage I managed to get it all the way through the start-up process by continually moving the mouse. This became the first of many actions that came to constitute a start-up ritual that any religion would be proud of. Further rites included holding the laptop at an angle (and in one extreme fundamentalist sect even holding over one’s head), closing and opening the lid three times and removing the power lead for ten minutes. I can’t say these had any objective measure of success, but they had enough promise of success to be worth doing. And computers have become so complex that although I know they were mostly ridiculous, I couldn’t be quite sure that they were redundant. They became the IT equivalent of sprinkling the dirt from a grave before midnight over the computer – sure it doesn’t work, but hey, it’s worth a try.

Heisenberg, FLOSS and education transfer

Another thing I have been pondering as a result of the Thessaloniki meeting of the FLOSScom project is the extent to which the informal learning that takes place in FLOSS communities is mutually exclusive with the demands of formal education. The assumption is that a good deal of learning takes place in FLOSS communities, and often it is the type of situated, social type learning many of us in higher education would love to develop in our practise.

Let us take a small example – one of the partners talked about a course where they had exposed computer students to FLOSS projects. They talked about some of the difficulties of mapping activity in the open source project on to formal assessment procedures within the university. They have toyed with the idea of using some of the metrics which can be seen as proxies or informal indicators within the FLOSS community for an individual’s worth or contribution. They gave number of views (in say sourceforge) as an example – one could think of many others, e.g. frequency of posting in a forum, number of times a piece of code is reused, number of accepted contributions to the source code, etc. But the problem is that as soon as you make these the formal criteria by which people are assessed then it influences behaviour. In the case of using something like number of views it might mean students simply keep hitting refresh, whereas with more robust indicators such as accepted bug fixes, what it might do is skew the whole community to fixing bugs (maybe even deliberately introducing bugs so they can be fixed) and away from many of the other tasks that are not formally accredited, e.g. coordination.

I remember watching a football programme once and Jimmy Hill (a well known football pundit in the UK) was discussing how penalties were no way to decide a game. He suggested going on the number of corners accrued in a game. This would benefit the attacking team he proposed and if a cup game was all square at the end the team who had won the most corners would be declared the winner. I was amazed that even as a child I could see the flaw in this argument and this (ahem) expert could not. As soon as you made corners the deciding factor then teams would play to win corners. This would lead to an even duller game than when a team plays for penalties It would give rise to the bizarre scenario of a team nearing the end of the game booting the ball upfield, whacking it against an opponent (making no attempt to score a goal of course) and then running wildly up the pitch celebrating because they have won a corner.

My point is, that like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, you cannot measure one thing without influencing another. And formal education is obsessed with measuring, scoring and testing so I feel that any attempt to bring informal learning methods into higher education will end up destroying what it was in those methods that made them worthwhile in the first place. Unless that is, higher education itself is changed by the process… 

Principles of FLOSS and education transfer

I’ve been in Thessaloniki for a couple of days, at a meeting of the FLOSScom project. The project is looking at the principles of open source communities and whether any of these can be found or transferred to education.

Rudiger Glott from Merit gave a good overview of FLOSS communities, based on a survey they have conducted. The key question to me is whether some of these characteristics are fundamental to the success of FLOSS communities, or whether they are incidental. Here are some of the significant characteristics as I see them:

i) The communities are constituted mainly from young men – at around 2% the proportion of women in FLOSS communities is much lower than it is in IT generally (around 25%). There may be many reasons for this but  for our purpose the point to consider is whether this is a necessary characteristic for how these communities operate. If so, then they obviously don’t have much to offer higher education.

ii) Reuse is a vital characteristic. One of the key things members felt they learnt was how to write software that can be reused. Part of your status is determined by how often your code can be reused and also how easy it is to reuse. In some respects reuse is a proxy for writing clear, concise code, but it also demonstrates that reuse is seen as a good thing. In higher education we don’t hold reuse is the same regard – in fact we punish it and call it plagiarism usually. Again, the extent to which the high regard for reuse is fundamental is an interesting question, as it would necessitate some significant changes in higher education practice (although these would probably be worth making).

iii) There is a reasonably objective measure of quality. The dictum that the code decides isn’t quite absolute, as there are often aesthetic qualities to coding, but the final product does offer some degree of objectivity. If you fix a bug, then it can be demonstrated that you have contributed. This level of objective measure is not always present in discussions in higher education. The software also acts as a binding factor for the community, in a very clearly defined manner, which again might not be found in many subjects.   

Internet trends influencing education

I’m working on a report for the broadcast strategy group currently, with a focus on how broadcast (and whatever that means now) influences pedagogy. I tried to identify a number of internet-related trends that I thought would/are having an influence on education. Note these are restricted to technology type trends, there will be other cultural issues which might have a bigger impact (e.g. top up fees, the student as customer approach). I thought I’d share them anyway:

  • The Long Tail – the idea that the internet allows access to small numbers of users to a wide range of content, so for example Amazon’s sales are mostly from lots of small titles that sell to a few people rather than bestsellers. There is an analogy with broadcast here, increasingly what is significant are lots of small pieces of content (be they podcasts, multi media, AV clips, RSS feeds, etc) that appeal very directly to a few people, rather than large scale productions that appeal a little bit to many people. The trade-off people make is quality for applicability.
  • The liberation of content – with more and more online resources and large scale repositories coming on line two contradictory trends are being realised. Content is losing its economic value since an alternative, free version can usually be found. As the failure of subscription models to newspapers has demonstrated, people are generally unwilling to pay for content. However, with a wide range of content available which is variable in quantity, then the reputational value of producing good content is increased. This is particularly true in a very connected world – your worth is determined by the degree to which you are linked to, commented upon, networked with.
  • New types of content – increasingly users are accessing different types of content to meet their needs, such as RSS feeds, podcasts, vlogs, etc.
  • Convergence of tools and content – increasingly the distinction between a tool or service and content is becoming blurred. For example one could argue that Google is both a content provider and a tools provider. Wikipedia is both a technology and a resource. This has implications for how we conceive of broadcast and broadcast partners.
  • Decentralisation and democratisation – the traditional broadcast (and to an extent educational) model is built on a hierarchical, centralised relationship with one to many information. Much of internet activity is built around one to one, or one to some, interaction and is a more dynamic, interactive medium. In addition the web 2.0 developments have emphasised the democratisation of tools and content, with users adapting and creating their own resources.
  • Openness – this is realised in many different ways, for example open source software makes the code publicly available, while the freeing up of content makes resources more open, not just for people to access, but more importantly to adapt. The web 2.0 approach has openness at its core, for example, technology companies make their tools freely available for others to mix (or ‘mash up’) with other tools. Google Maps is a good example of this. Making openness central to technology and content is a profound shift in the way organisations operate, as it shifts the emphasis from controlling access to encouraging participation.
  • Personalisation – this is one of the real benefits that e-learning and internet provision can offer, since resources tailored to the user’s needs can be delivered. The development of portal sites which combine personalisation and customisation, for example Netvibes, and the creation of a MyUniversity space which provides a portal to both information feeds and useful tools.
  • Constructing narrative or meaning – in a resource-rich world the question of how people construct meaning from a range of resources becomes more pertinent. Providing pathways through material that construct a narrative which can be shared is one means of doing this.
  • Open content – there is a wide range of research to be done around the area of open content, such as what users do with it, what sort of user is attracted to it, what is the global uptake, what tools are useful in supporting it, is it sustainable, what business models might develop, etc.
  • The new learner – there has been much talk of internet natives, or net generation, learners who have a different relationship with the internet than the rest of us. It is still relatively unknown what impact these people will have on education or broadcast institutions, both as employers and customers.

The university monopoly and my barcelona talk

Rather late in the day, here is my Powerpoint file from the keynote at Barcelona. I’m putting the file up here as Slideshare struggles with the animation and some slide transitions. Incidentally the animation was created using Pivot – it took me an embarrassingly long time to create something so basic.

The talk went well, afterwards Stephen Downes asked a question about what would happen if universities lost their accreditation monopoly. I suggested the analogy of newspapers (mainly because I was reading Michael Frayn’s excellent Towards the End of Morning) and I said it would make higher education a less pleasant place to work in, since the margins become so narrow, but it would probably push innovation. Stephen argued, quite rightly, that while the change in culture for newspapers may have been bad for employees, it has been good for readers (the Guardian online being an excellent example). I didn’t answer this particularly well, mainly because it is a big issue with no simple answer.

Sometimes it does feel that because universities do the accreditation, and this is the recognised stamp in society, then there is no need to change For example teaching practices can carry on being the same old lecture because universities have the monopoly. If other bodies performed accreditation, then perhaps it would encourage greater innovation. But universities perform a greater role in society than just accreditation, and perhaps some of the subtler benefits would be swept away in a radical reform (or am I just thinking my life would become less comfortable?).

Anyway, here is the presentation, it contains bits from some previous ones, so probably no big surprises for those I’ve spoken to recently – Download barcelona_presentation2.ppt 

Bottom-up quality metrics

I’m at the EDEN research workshop in Barcelona at the moment, where I’m giving a keynote (on VLEs you won’t be surprised to hear). In the sessions so far the issue of quality has come up a lot. Without intending to I have rather found myself cast in the role of sceptic for the formal, hierarchical models such as benchmarking and advocate for a more bottom-up web 2.0 approach.

In this world quality is measured by a number of emergent metrics – for example the popularity of a resource, the number of times it is referenced or quoted, the number of times it is linked to, and for dynamic resources (e.g. blogs) the number of repeat visitors. These will be quite different from the formal benchmarks of quality and esteem indicators that are predetermined in academia.

Put simply – are blogs, wikis, etc as valuable resources as formal articles that have been through the rigorous academic process? My feeling is that if they meet the need then yes. There seems to be some resistance, snobbery, even towards these types of resources. I think this is partly rooted in defence, a kind of job preservation – many academics want to be the holders of content and feel threatened by this more open approach, and thus wave the quality flag to try and hold back the development.

The tricky issue of book covers

I have been asked by my publisher for some suggestions for images for my VLE book. I really struggle with this because a) I’m not a very visual kind of person and b) the IT/Educational Technology area doesn’t really lend itself to photographs very easily.

I wrote a piece for the Times Higher once and they sent a photographer to my house to take a picture to accompany the piece. He was very disappointed when he turned up. ‘Do you have a bank of computers?’ he asked hopefully. I shook my head, indicating my sole laptop. We tried various poses – me grinning over the top of the screen, me looking pensive as I type, me cuddling up to the keyboard… well you get the idea. Needless to say none of them would have been candidates for the National Portrait Gallery, so in the end they just went with a (rather scary) close-up of my face. Which I think demonstrates the problem, even with a professional, experienced photographer, the best we could come up with was my mug.

Here is the cover of my last book – not bad, but there are only so many keyboard close-ups you can get away with. In the end I sent them a list of key words and concepts in the hope that someone there will be more adept at finding such images. Watch this space for the results.


One day matters

I posted an entry at the HistoryMatters site today which is trying to record one normal day in history (today), by creating a mass blog. I’ve always been a fan of those books that record the minutiae of life, over one day (e.g. Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Ian McEwan’s Saturday), so I like the idea of this social history of just an ordinary day. I think my entry ended up with too many big points, and not enough of the mundane (what did I have for breakfast?* What clothes am I wearing? Who did I talk to?, What was on the radio?). It’ll be interesting to review this in even a year’s time.

* Crumpets, since you ask.

OpenLearn launch – a mild regret

The OpenLearn project was launched internally today – the official launch is October 25th. It looks very impressive, particularly when you know the problems of taking legacy material and getting it in suitable chunks and up online. I also think they’ve done some good things with the tools in the labspace area (I like the non-client based messenger particularly – I always wanted a tool like this where I could join in an informal real-time chat around a piece of content).

I was part of the team that worked on the bid last year to the Hewlett Foundation to get the project. In January I had a choice – either go full time on the project, or write my VLE book. I’m not particularly good at multitasking so couldn’t do both. I felt that the VLE book wouldn’t really wait – like many educational technology books, it feels as though it’s obsolescing as you type. So my literary pretensions won out and I opted to spend four months writing the book. But sitting there today I would have to admit to a mild sense of regret at not being part of such an exciting project. One of those ‘I need a parallel life’ moments, when both routes are pretty good. Still, having said that, it probably wouldn’t have been so successful if I’d been on board…