Is everything an urban myth?

When I was doing the post yesterday about the wisdom of crowds, I was going to use the example of the mob that attacked a paediatrician, confusing them for a paedophile, as an example of the dumbness of crowds. I was sure that this actually happened on an estate in Portsmouth, and many well informed people have used it as an example of the dangers of hysterical crowds.

Turns out it is something of an urban myth, and the truth is more about the dumbness of an individual than a cautionary tale about mobs, as the BBC reports.

I always flattered myself for having a reasonably good nose for urban myths, but it goes to show that you can always get fooled. I mean, next they’ll be telling me the Kentucky fried rat isn’t real.

The Granularity of Ideas

I’ve finally got around to reading The Wisdom of Crowds. It’s enjoyable, and while I know lots of bloggers have retaliated with tales of the dumbness of crowds, but I think that misses the point. We know that crowds can be dumb, and become mobs, but what is interesting is when they become smarter than the smartest individual. Suriowecki claims that conditions need to be right for this to happen.

What had put me off reading it though was that the title, or maybe the introduction, kind of told you all you needed to know. This is true of many popular business books that cross over to a general audience – for example the Tipping Point or The Innovator’s Dilemma are both neat ideas that can be pretty much encapsulated in a paragraph, or at least an article. The popular writer is in a dilemma here – in order for their book to be popular it needs to promote one good idea that could be conveyed in the typical Hollywood/elevator pitch. But the currency for such ideas is the book, so the idea has to be stretched over 80,000 words.

It would be nice if the blog post became the granularity for ideas wouldn’t it and then we could save all that time reading and writing books which aren’t really required. Not sure how you’d get rich in this model though…

The book manuscript leaves home

Today I finally managed to get the manuscript for my VLE book in the post. Well when I say manuscript what I actually mean is:

  • 2 printed copies of manuscript
  • Author questionnaire
  • 2 compact discs containing files
  • Folder containing 2 copies of all artwork
  • Disc overview sheet
  • Manuscript checklist

It has probably taken me as long to do all the post-writing stuff as it did to write the thing in the first place. You appreciate that academic publishing operates on fine margins so a lot of the mundane work is pushed back to the author. I bet Dan Brown doesn’t have to do all this extra work.

There is a short Martin Amis story, Career Move, which is set in a parallel universe where poets command huge advances and are media celebrities, and screenplay writers are struggling, unrecognised artists. So ‘Offensive from Quasar 13’ is struggling to be published in a little known journal, while ‘Sonnet’ is being fought over by agents. I like to imagine there is a similar alternative world where academic text books are sold in airports and read on holiday, while trashy thrillers are read by a select, niche audience…

It’s a strangely anti-climactic feeling getting the book off. I guess it’s because you know it isn’t the end, so it doesn’t have a cathartic quality. There will be corrections and queries to come back, and then the cover to be determined, and then, finally a printed copy in my hand. I suppose that is the point at which you should feel the sense of achievment, but it is so far removed, both temporally and psychologically, from the process of writing that it doesn’t seem to have any bearing on what you did. And by that time you’re doing something else anyway.

Guardian Online

I was up in London yesterday to have a meeting with Emily Bell, editor of Guardian Online. This was part of the broadcast review we are conducting at the OU. She had lots of interesting things to say, but perhaps what most struck me were the similarities between our organisations. For reluctant academics read entrenched journalists. There are concerns about maintaining a traditional market while reaching out for a new one, and the different quality demands in an online and print world, and also different styles of writing and working online. The Guardian solved some of these by setting up their online division as a separate business. I don’t think this is an option for the OU though, and the differences between our situations are as illuminating as the similarities.

Why you should love Zidane

Watched the world cup final last night which was of course marred/made memorable by Zidane’s headbutt and red card. I’ve been puzzling about this. He was about ten minutes away from being remembered as the greatest French player ever, probably overtaking Platini. And I think that is the key to his action. He could see the endless smug after dinner speeches, the fawning chat show appearances, the publicity work with Blatter and Chirac. It was a frightening epiphany. So he committed reputation suicide. Now he can enjoy his retirement in peace. You’ve got to admire that. More people should do it I think and save themselves from a kind of self-congratulatory purgatory.

The A word

I was looking at the draft theses of two of my PhD students last week. One is in the area of theoretical artificial intelligence, and particularly non-conceptual content. The other is in the area of learner experience and decision making. Two very different fields, but both had made use of the concept of affordances. This  demonstrates one of two things:

i) Affordances are such a powerful concept that they have application in multiple domains.

ii) It has become so meaningless that you can apply them to any domain

I have used the term myself quite a bit, and it crops up in my new book. Personally I find it a useful way of thinking about how technologies influence behaviour. But it is a loaded term and you can blithely stick it on a PowerPoint slide and then find yourself spending your entire talk defining the term and justifying your use of it. I accept that its usage has become a bit slippery, and decidedly post-Gibsonian, but I think it does get at something which we instinctively feel about objects. Something about the way they suggest, or promote, a certain use. It becomes particularly tricky (but also particularly useful) when you talk about affordances of higher level cognitive functions. For instance you can say that instant messaging affords a certain type of communication. Now it can be argued that this is nothing to do with affordances and more to do with social norms. In some ways I don’t think the distinction is important. One could relabel it ‘technological compliance’ if you wanted (although affordance is a nicer term). Put simply it goes something like – if you put someone in a Ferrari, they drive faster. This could be an affordance of the car, or it could be that they have a social model of behaviour for people driving Ferrari’s. From a psychological perspective the underlying mechanism may be significant, but from an educational technology one, I suspect it is not.

Mind you, I do have some sympathy with those who bemoan its over-use. Hutto for example argues that "Affordance at its best is explanatorily superfluous and metaphysically extravagant".

As an aside, look at that quote – don’t you just love arguments between philosophers? Personally I think the next reality TV show should be ‘Get me out of here, I’m an intellectual’. Lots of bearded white men in a jungle strutting around saying ‘My dear man, you’re just being metaphysically extravagant".

Death of broadcast?

I am part of the Broadcast Strategy Review group at the OU at the moment. This is currently realised through our relationship with the BBC, with the general audience programmes and the excellent open2.net stuff. But in an e-learning, internet age the very definition of broadcast needs to be re-examined.  The OU needs to reexamine what it means from pedagogic value and return on investment perspectives. To put it crudely, is it better to have 10 high quality programmes or 10,000 lower quality podcasts/feeds. There are a number of issues here:

Quality – generally people are prepared lower quality on a lot of internet media, e.g. podcasts, video clips, etc because they are getting material closer to their needs. There is a trade off here between appropriateness and production quality.

Integration with courses – the traditional OU model was to make programmes for specific courses (you get minus ten points if you mention kipper ties here). The last agreement was focused around more general interest programmes, fulfilling an outreach function. An internet focused model has the potential to be course, or subject area specific.

New models of outreach – TV is the broadcast medium par excellence, and much has been made of the difficult to market things on the net. However, there are effective models, and also initiatives like the Open Content project have the possibility of fulfilling the outreach function.

Range of providers – put bluntly, if you want to make TV programmes then the BBC are your best bet of partner, and there is a pretty limited pool to choose from. If you want internet content (be it regular feeds, multimedia, podcasts, articles, etc) then the choice of providers is much broader (although BBC online is probably amongst the best here too).

This will be a consultative review, and I don’t know what the conclusions will be, but it strikes me as one of those zeitgeist projects, so I’m quite excited about it.

Academic publishing – a rant

As I mentioned I had an article (The Distance from Isolation) accepted for publication in Computers and Education. It has now been ‘in press’ for over a year now, with no indication as to when it will actually be published. By the time it is, it will be out of date. I’m sure it’s not the case but it reminds me of Chelsea FC – they buy the best players not with an intention of playing them but simply to stop other teams having them.

This is but one example of the very strange world of academic publishing. For those who don’t engage in it, the deal goes something like this:

  • Academics provide the content
  • Academics do the reviewing
  • Academics often do the editing
  • Publishers print it and sell it back to academics
  • Authors are often restricted from making their own work publicly available
  • Authors receive no payment for the published work

Not an entirely fair system one would have thought, but because journal publication is tied up with academic esteem, promotion and the rather pernicious RAE, it is a process many of us feel compelled to go along with.

Thankfully the tide is turning and there are a number of different models for publishing now, including online journals, open content and err, blogs I guess.

Decentralisation of Higher Ed

John Naughton’s inaugural lecture last week reminded me of a paper I wrote about online communities Download distance_ho.doc (this is not a coincidence as some of the ideas in the paper were informed by a conversation I had with John once about the differences between broadcast media and the Net, and much of the knowledge of the net’s technical structure is derived from John’s book A Brief History of the Future). In it I argue that the key technological features of the internet are openness, decentralisation and robustness. These in turn became the social values of the internet also. If you want to know what technologies or approaches will succeed on the net then compare how well they score against these three features.

I go on to argue that online communities are therefore a natural end point in education. This part is maybe less so well argued, but I think the technology/social features part does carry some truth. The key point for higher education is in decentralisation. Higher education is all about centralisation. Universities acted as an information store, which students needed to come to in order to gain that knowledge. Now that information is decentralised this role is undermined. Of course it reveals what is in fact a more substantial role, and that is sensemaking of information. But in essence I think universities are based on a centralisation model and the next generation of students are accustomed to decentralisation. This raises big issues for universities which impact upon the content they provide, the technologies they use, the support they offer, the type of accreditation they approve and their partnerships with other institutions.

I also like this paper because its title (the distance from isolation) is from a Larkin poem, Talking in Bed. I like to think there aren’t that many Larkin/e-learning cross-overs. The paper itself was accepted for the journal Computers and Education (see next posting for a rant on this).

The enthusiasm of the new convert

I was at the University of West England yesterday for a validation event. They are creating an online software engineering course. I was struck by the enthusiasm they had for e-learning in general. I forget that it can strike people this way. Back in 1999 I came across like some e-learning Billy Graham, but now I tend to think everyone knows it, or am wary of over-hyping it. But it was nice to be reminded of this. They were excited about how e-learning allowed them to do things they had always wanted to do, but the lecture format didn’t allow, for example getting students to do an activity immediately after giving them the knowledge or an example, or staggering lots of smaller assessments throughout a course.

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