Social social software

My friend and colleague John Naughton gave his inaugural lecture yesterday. Afterwards a few of us were invited to the Vice Chancellor’s house for dinner. There I met some people who I hadn’t seen for a while (such as Quentin Stafford-Fraser), and some I hadn’t met before. What struck me was that because I subscribe to John’s Blog I feel that I know a lot of these people already, or have maintained contact with them through their blogs or Flickr photostreams.

This reminded me that when I was in Como last week, I often found myself thinking about the situation in terms of a prospective blog post, or taking photos with Flickr in mind. I think this social life of social software, ie the social impact it has in actuall face to face situations, as opposed to the more obvious online community, is less appreciated. It is also an antidote to the grumpy old men/women who claim that the internet is ruining real social skills. On the contrary, I had an interesting conversation last night based on having viewed someone’s Flickr photostream, which wouldn’t have been possible had it not been public. Similarly, I think that many people take up, or increase their interest in photography because of the presence of Flickr, far more than any photographic exhibition. There is a direct push back in to the real world from the virtual one that makes people more engaged with it, not less.

The constraint of choice (and a dodgy football analogy)

Watching England play on Saturday made me think about VLEs (that is not a sentence many people will write I expect). Whether that was an indication of my current VLE monomania as I complete the book, or an indictment of the quality of the game, I’m not sure. All football fans suffer from the ‘football as a metaphor for anything’ complaint, and here is another. I appreciate that to actually understand the analogy you need to have a good grasp of both VLEs and football, so it fails the first test of being a useful means of explaining one topic by mapping to another, but hey, how often do you get to talk about service oriented architectures and Steven Gerrard in the same post?

One of England’s problems has been an embarrassment of riches in midfield (VLE people stick with me for a bit). They have both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, both of who are attacking midfielders. But when they are placed together they curb their natural appetite to go forward with the result that neither plays as well as they do for their clubs. Eriksson has been paralysed by his options here and always plays both (one feels that if he had been the England manager in the early 80s he would have played Shilton in goal and Clemence at right back to avoid choosing between the two). The tough decision would be to play a holding midfielder, who isn’t as good as either, and allow the remaining one full scope. The argument being that it’s better to have 100% of either than 50% of both. It would probably be a blessing for England if one of them got injured and thus forced this change.

And now, onto the VLE bit. Well, not just VLEs, but any software, and maybe even strategic decision. What the England situation demonstrates is that choice is not always liberating. When we were considering VLE options for the OU, we knew that a full service oriented architecture was the most appropriate, but were concerned that such an implementation would get mired in debate as to the best way to achieve it. Choosing an open source option, in our case Moodle, is a good compromise here, since it overcomes much of that debate – you have to do things the Moodle way. One loses some choice, because you are constrained to doing things the Moodle way, but that actually saves you a lot of time. It is akin to one of Gerrard/Lampard being injured but the balance of the team benefiting as a result.

There, I’m glad I’ve got that out of my system. Tomorrow – the link between Ronaldinho and social bookmarking….

Notte Bianca

Tonight was the Notte Bianca (white night) festival in Como. Let it not be said that they don’t know how to party. Unfortunately I had to be up at 6 to get my flight home. I managed to get some sleep around 2.30 but was awoken by bed-rattling fireworks half an hour later. Still it was a lot of fun, and I have enjoyed Como – I think I’ll come back with my family when I don’t have any of that work stuff to do (although maybe I won’t stay on the main square during festival night next time).

Houses in Como

Houses in Como remind me of children trying to peak over each others shoulders in order to gain a better view of a playground fight.

Watching england abroad

Today England play their first game in the world cup. I was determined to find a bar in Como to watch the game. Being a footballing country I thought this would be easy, but after an hour of trudging round Como I began to suspect their passion in this region. I asked in every bar if they would be showing the football and they greeted the request politely, but with an element of confusion, as if I’d gone into a hairdressers and asked for a bacon sandwich.

It’s interesting how you take so many things for granted. Yesterday I was thinking Como represented some type of apogee of civilisation – quiet, sedate, polite and cultured. As my search today grew more frantic as kick-off approached I could be heard muttering indignantly as if watching football on TV were some kind of right that no person should be denied.

Eventually I found one bar that was showing the game. I was ushered upstairs to watch it. Initially I only had an edgy alcoholic of indeterminate origins for company, but gradually a few English supporters made their way upstairs, blinking as they too stumbled across this oasis in the desert of sporting television. We shared experiences and for the coming two hours were bonded together, our enjoyment increased by the struggle that had preceded it – well, we nodded politely to each other, but I like to think that’s what we conveyed.

As it turned out the game was rubbish, England dull, and the whole thing forgettable.

A reluctant traveller

Travelling to Como made me reflect that as I have got older, and particularly since becoming a father, I have become more reluctant to travel alone. I have begun to resemble Anne Tyler’s Accidental Tourist – I want to fly direct, get a taxi from the airport to the hotel, conduct business and get home. I also have the monoglots slight anxiety about travel in foreign countries. So having to get two planes and two trains to get to to Como was akin to a New world expedition for me. It all went smoothly, and like all Brits abroad, I sighed with admiration at the clinical operation of their train system.

Como is a lovely place. One aspect of travel I do enjoy is running in a new setting. It’s a good way to see a place – five or six miles actually covers quite a bit of a tourist area. And what better place to run than alongside the lake? Maybe I could take to this travelling lark again…

Open Source conference

I am in Como for a conference on open source learning environments (FOSLET). The paper I am giving tries to set out three things: (Download wellerd2.pdf)

i) The process of technology succession, which is analagous to plant succession. I argue that far from being detrimental many commercial VLEs have been beneficial because they have acted as primary colonizers, and have thus changed the environment so that other e-learning systems can now move in, e.g. portals and open source VLEs.

ii) That open source VLEs represent a good compromise for the two groups of educators who are forced to co-exist in VLEs, what von Hippel terms lead and conventional users and I have called revolutionaries and democrats. These groups want different things from their software, but an OS VLE can probably satisfy both now.

iii) The future direction of VLEs, based around the web 2.0 principles which I have dubbed VLE 2.0. I thought I was all smart coming up with this term only to discover that Stephen Downes had already coined e-learning 2.0. Never mind, I’ll carry on using it with regards to VLEs as I think it represents a useful way of thinking about both the technical construction of VLEs and how they will be used.

Stephen Downes’ visit

Stephen Downes came to the OU today and gave a talk on PLEs. We had a chance to chat beforehand, and his talk was, as ever interesting and thought provoking. I felt that his vision of a PLE, although it steered clear of the client based talk I have seen in other ones, was very much based around an individual and their collection of resources. I didn’t see much room for collaboration in it. I queried him on this and he responded that the resources should include community and peer resources and tools such as Skype would be included. I can see how this would be neat (and as I have blogged before, I like the netvibes personal portal approach to collecting tools) – however it still makes collaboration difficult if we all have different tools. If you have Skype and I have Trillian, how do we conduct a collaborative activity?

VLEs are often criticised because they provide a blanket provision, but the benefit of this is that you can get on with doing the task in hand, safe in the knowledge that everyone is using the same system. This is part of my problem with PLEs – the problem they report to solve is not so great as to require the massive technological and cultural change it would require. For instance in order for a PLE to be most effective we need interoperability between all tools, and for universities to become a thing of the past, or at least how we think of education to alter radically. I’m not sure either of these is likely to happen in the near future. What I do like about PLEs is that they force us to think about learners as being in the technology world, and not technological tabula rasa. I don’t think higher education has even begun to grasp what it means to have the net generation entering their ranks. But I still have my doubts about PLEs – I think I may just be lacking that visionary thing.

VLE architecture and open source

We had a meeting today to discuss the architecture of the OU VLE. I was the project director during phase 1, and we made the recommendation that we should adopt a service oriented architecture. This was partly a pragmatic decision because although we didn’t have a VLE as such, we had over the years developed, or bought in, a number of the components, including conferencing, assignment handling, authentication, etc. It was also partly a recognition that this was where the world was moving to. I made the analogy today that it is like the claim that many sociologists and economists make (I think Castells is amongst them), that many developing countries can now skip the industrial revolution and go straight to a knowledge economy (not sure how true this is, but for the sake of the analogy we’ll go with it). The OU could effectively skip the ‘monolith’ stage of VLE deployment and go straight to SOA.

However, we did end up opting for Moodle. I think this was an entirely reasonable compromise – it gained us time in that it already had some functionality we needed, it gained us a technological method (instead of arguing how to do things, we knew we had to do them the moodle way – this ‘hard target’ for integration is important) and it gained us some kudos (not to be underestimated). And at the same time we still had access to, and some control over the code. However, it did represent a slight compromise on the pure SOA vision. So today’s meeting was to discuss the extent to which that has happened, and where we want to head in the longer term.

Overall I came away happy that we were moving in the right direction, and that Moodle remained the sensible option. As long as we develop with this in mind, and don’t take too many shortcuts, the overall service approach is not compromised too much. It is also an issue that lots of people are grappling with I think. Joel Greenberg and Jason Cole, who were at the meeting today, will be discussing these issues at Alt-i-lab this year.

The social values of software

At the PROWE meeting yesterday I was once again struck by the social values that are associated with different pieces of software. The project is looking at wikis as a tool for tutor support and also personal repositories/e-portfolio. They have selected ELGG as it seems to straddle both of these camps. While that is true technically, there are process issues that reflect the different values of these two approaches. This was brought in to focus when we started discussing lurkers. Some members wanted to discourage lurking. I was coming from a wiki mindset and thought this strange – after all most of us are ‘lurkers’ on wikipedia. But viewed from an eportfolio perspective it makes sense, since there you select who you wish to share your portfolio with and you may not want access to your personal repository to be completely open.

When I missed the wiki bus

I am on the steering committee for the PROWE project, and attended a meeting today. The project seems to be going well, but all this recent obsession with wikifying everything gave me cause to reflect on how I had rather missed the opportunity to get in early with this technology. In 1997 I attended a conference and heard Mark Guzdial talking about them. I could see how useful they’d be in distance education and when I came back to the OU I evangelised about them briefly. Then other things got in the way and I let them drop, and it was only last year that I finally introduced one on a course. I regret not having stuck at it a bit more in the early days – I could have become a wiki guru! Sadly my suggestion that we just put up a whole course in a wiki and let students update and modify it is always rebuffed on the grounds of quality assurance. Even the Open Content team baulked at it. Come on guys, go with the flow.