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.

I’m an academic, disintermediate me now

In the past week I have used the word ‘disintermediation’ twice, almost without embarrassment. It may be an ugly term but it is an important concept. Admittedly these two occurrences were in academic conversations, I didn’t use it down the pub or anything, but they were in different contexts which demonstrates that it is one of those ideas that has some currency.

(If you’re not sure what it means – it is the removal of intermediaries and it’s often the result of technology e.g. the word processor disintermediated typing pools).

In education terms the easy to use VLE has (to an extent) disintermediated a lot instructional designers – the educator can create their course, upload content, arrange forums and synchronous sessions without going cap in hand to their IT unit (or in theory they can anyway, lots of institutions put intermediaries back in place through policy – yes, it is called reintermediation).

It is one of the standard claims of the anti-elearning fundamentalists (Noble and the like) that elearning disintermediates academics since content is freely available. The response to this has always been obvious, bordering on the incredulous – you mean to say that the only thing you offer as an academic is content? There should be an awful lot more to education than that. The claim itself seems to reveal something fundamentally flawed in their view of the learning process.

But as I mentioned before the provision of content, tools and really informed discussion – ie all the ingredients for a good quality learning experience – on the wider internet does threaten the monopoly of universities. Previously my response to this has been similar to the one above ‘ah yes, but universities do more than this.’ This is an appeasement – it roughly translates as ‘don’t worry academics, there’s nothing to see here, move on please’.

But perhaps this is the wrong response – maybe we should be saying ‘you know what – universities will be disintermediated by the internet. Let’s accept that and see what happens’. After all newspapers, broadcasting and retail have all been massively changed over recent years by the internet. In general this has been a good thing for the individual costumer (as I appreciated when I did all my Christmas shopping from my dining room while watching the Ashes). But, except in the numbers and demographics of students, higher education hasn’t really changed in the past forty years. An academic from 1966 would fit quite comfortably in to the practises of a modern university. They might begrudge the extra admin, the additional teaching load, the apolitical students, but they’d still be happy giving a lecture (perhaps using the same notes). The same would not be true for a TV broadcaster from 1966.

I don’t know what a disintermediated educational sector would be like, but I feel that we shouldn’t pretend it can’t happen, and maintaining the comfort of academics (such as myself) is not reason enough to prevent it.

publishers not getting it

I asked my publisher if I could make some chapters of my forthcoming book freely available on line. After a month of deliberation they have come back with a ‘no’ from the rights department (but I could link to their contents page if I wanted – gee, thanks). I sighed with the inevitability of it. They just don’t get it do they, publishers? On a purely capitalist  note putting out a few chapters is a very effective marketing ploy. People will read a couple but are unlikely to find all they want and so, my guess, will be more likely to buy the book.

A slightly less direct effect is that releasing some chapters generates discussion around the ideas, which in itself creates the context for the book. Okay, my book is not exactly The Tipping Point or The Wisdom of Crowds, but within its readership this environmental massage is probably still worthwhile.

But the point is a bigger one – I understand publishers need to make money, but they haven’t recognised the fundamental shift that has happened in value. It is no longer about what you keep protected that counts, but the extent to which you, are connected, linked to, commented upon, shared with. If you can’t be connected to you don’t exist.

Gift finder

This is quite neat – a gift finder, presumably based on some data mining principles. I did it for myself and my wife – it came up with some good suggestions. I must have indicated some rather whimsical, tree-hugging options at some point as some of them were a bit along the magic crystal line for my liking, but generally they were okay.

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