Thursday, November 25, 2010

Which is better, visible or invisible technology?

According to folk like Donald Norman, 'things' should be designed to be as easy to use as possible. There should be no need for a manual, still less expertise, even when pushing the limits of what a 'thing' can do. Requiring basic IT skills or new/digital literacies is just obstructing an individual's ability to concentrate on their job in hand.
Some of you will have come across AOL-only users, who think that AOL IS the Internet. Some Apple users are also totally thrown by the seeming complexity of Microsoft's offerings. Why do they have to make it so complicated!!?! Ignoring the fact that there has been significant convergence in 'ease of use' of competing operating systems, Apple's touch-interfaced i-phone and i-pad have changed the usability cosmos (in the aorist tense). I hear compelling accounts of all manner of 'non-computer people' swooning with wonder at the simplicity and elegance of reading from an i-pad.
I know Apple fans, at least, are going to find this risible, but I just want to ask, are we breeding a new generation of people who do not know how to even hold a mouse (i.e. the pointing device which first appeared in the latter half of the 20th Century)?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

CEQ and group-based networked learners

Following my chat with Andrew again a week last Friday, I finally got around to looking at Community Equity (CEQ), which plugs into Confluence quite nicely. I wrote a bit about my ideal VLE before and this post is about thinking whether CEQ could fit some of those requirements.
I detect a growing consensus that group-based activity and the dialogue it promotes is gaining ground at many levels of education (I've been reading Littleton and Howe's book about educational dialogue).
When the group has divided up its work and separated, how can their activity be measured? Networked learning is about 'promoting connections' and this needs to happen in the minds and lives of people, not just by designing engaging learning materials, or even a highly relevant and stimulating learning activity. CEQ can incentivise social network activity by making that activity transparent. Contributions to a wiki in terms of edits, comments, bookmarks, ratings, etc., can paint a fine-grained picture of a person's online effort towards the group endeavour.
Perhaps that's enough. Perhaps awarding marks towards a degree classification may only distort the learner's focus, reducing them to a special case of myspace/facebook piracy. There's work to be done on defining performance levels, even if adopting the simple 'pass or fail' system, where a certain level of activity would get students over the finishing line. Hopefully, by then, they'd have become networked learners.
Of course, this is still very formative. I have no idea if we can bring CEQ together with automated 'space' creation/population, based on student information system data... but I'm warming to the idea of a pilot.
The other thing that slightly chills me is the whole development lifecycle of open source software.... but that's for another post...
Here's a video about CEQ...

See also

Monday, November 8, 2010

Contingency in use of Digital Tools

Once again, on the theme of implicit digital literacies...
I have been talking with students recently about reference management software. Amongst others, the students can choose between:
  1. Endnote
  2. Endnote Web
  3. Zotero
The first two are 'supported' at Cardiff University: there are 'styles' for both the School's in-house Harvard as well as Cardiff University's variant. Option 1 is expensive while Option 2 is quite clumsy to use (requires signup on-campus and 'nasty' passwords). Zotero is a dream to use and it's free, although the School's house style for Harvard is not available currently (another job for muggins perhaps).
However, with the recent demise of, it could be argued that recommending the open source, unsupported Zotero exposes students to an unacceptable risk. What happens when the student fails to submit coursework on time because Zotero failed? Of course, couching recommendations with cautionary remarks chill-off students from engaging with and benefiting from a tool that is unlikely to fail.
Expert use of tools like Zoterio and will have incurred a certain amount of investigation into the robustness/life expectancy of the tool. An expert will have a sense of whether it is necessary to devise a contingency plan in the event of the tool's unavailability, whether temporary (read a book for a bit) or permanent (start looking for an alternative that might be compatible with your archive).
Whether using email, online filestore, collaboration spaces, blog, mindmapping, bookmark sharing or reference management, all of them may suffer 'outages'. But this is something users have come to live with, it is implicitly part of working in these ways.
It is easy to demonstrate the benefits of Zotero. Communicating the 'small print' is far more tricky. But I am at a loss as to how to convey the 'tool appraisal' and 'back-up and rescue' skills mentioned above without completely losing my audience.

Perplexed by 3 approaches to twitter

At last Friday's CU Social Media Cafe, we discussed twitter. It soon became apparent that three experts adopted three completely different ways of managing their digital identity.
  1. Have different accounts for different 'identities' (work, hobby, family/friends)
  2. Use twitter for only work and use facebook (or other) for family/friends
  3. Have just one twitter account for every aspect of life.
There were well grounded and rounded reasons for each individual's choice, which I will not enlarge on here. What I wanted to highlight was that these routes perplex new users, not least when in the presence of experts discussing the relative merits of their adopted position. This position is not necessarily fixed either, but could shift over the course of a year or years.
Being aware of and able to hold competing conceptions or approaches of use in tension, without it hindering activity is an implicit ability that undergirds the use of social media. I've been through my own digital identity soul searching, eventually deciding to stump for option 3 above. The hiatus was quite disconcerting for a while. Others will wonder what all the fuss was about, yet others will never get to the point of resolving these issues having been switched off by them completely.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Chocolate Computer Club rides again

It was Spring 2006 and, in frustration, at the lack of attendance at IT lab-based sessions, I asked the Undergraduate Student/Staff Panel, 'What then can motivate students to come to IT sessions'?
The immediate answer from some grinning wag was, 'Chocolate!'. Then, when approached by an enterprising librarian, wanting to start semi-formal drop-in information fluency sessions, I joined the two concepts together and came up with, 'The Chocolate Computer Club'.
The tag-lines were sure to flow freely, but I started with:
For those of us who need a reason
30 minutes of smooth luxurious IT (15 minutes tuition, 15 minutes practice)
Apart from being very corny, I was quite sure that the concept was half-baked from the kick-off. I mean, who was I kidding that IT could be 'smooth' and/or 'luxurious'?!
By the Autumn of 2007 I had to admit in my appraisal that...
'The Chocolate Computer Club was abandoned after poor attendances'. I was alarmed to hear later on that there had been rumours, spread by staff, that the chocolate would be present in name only. In any case, my choice of chocolate was probably amiss... On reflection, a bar of it may not be something you comfortably share amongst a group of poeple you dont know... I've gone for something more self-contained.
This time of year there are good offers on the tins, so I've been to the shops and got my chocs.
This is not going to be a 'drop-in' session though - it's firmly on the timetable, but students are not obliged to come... there'll be no register (our students have to show they've attended a number of theory hours to keep the bursery flowing).
The session is being run instead of en masse inductions, with a sign-up list in Blackboard for students to claim a place. This is somewhat counter-intuitive because the people who are likely to attend are perhaps less likely to use an electronic tool... However, a reasonable number seem to have managed it so far.
In the event, seven students, wide-eyed and avowedly IT-phobic came along. We had a merry time shaking heads about how aweful computers are and how slow the University systems are, etc. Apart from my brief skit about IT knowledge needing to be founded upon problem-solving, the students asked about their issues with accessing ECDL from home, navigating Blackboard and how to master online submission. We spent a while going through these but actually, of course, the students were as much a help to each other as anything I said.
Promoting connections... with chocolate ;-)

Monday, September 20, 2010

The ideal VLE

Reluctantly, I was tried to form an answer to the question of what would make up the ideal Virtual Learning Environment... I usually maintain that point 1 is the most important in the following list:
  1. Do a good job of handling programme/cohort/group affiliations and keep those affiliations while handing students over into groups within 3rd party tools like Grademark and Questionmark Perception.
  2. Integrate with GradeMark and QuestionmarkPerception
  3. Allow easy and quick organisation of content (I spend half my day waiting for the browser to refresh)
  4. Allow easy dissemination of information - via announcements and bulk email
  5. Allow interaction, perhaps via discussion list, blog, wiki-type activity, with reasonably fine-grained permissions
  6. Allow embedding video, and various other media... like this (cue attractive picture to liven things up a bit):
    Well - some of that sounds a bit like what we have already... But it might be worth thinking, no, lets not do the VLE thing (toolbox of generic technologies for organising learning and assessment). Let's think how something like an enterprise wiki could play to it's strengths and work powerfully for promoting connections and networked learning...
    1. Where collaborative authoring is required as part of the activity, the wiki could show me, and other readers, what a person has done very easilly and transparently on a page. One of the things that happens with wikis is that people lose ownership of what they've done in the wiki which is a dissincentive for them to engage with it. In our present wiki tool (campuspack), clicking on the person's name in the list of page authors just takes me to their profile. I want to click on it and see their contribution highlighted, and possibly even award them marks for that there and then... see next point...
    2. I would like to be able to allow easy, on the fly, recording and reporting of my and others' assessment of what they've done, indicating their opinion, along a series of criteria and levels of performance - perhaps a pop-up box that I could define. This would break with the notion of single points of assessment, and therefore learning for that assessment alone, as students would be contributing and being rewarded for their ongoing activity.
    3. Assessment of networked learning activity. Whether we like it or not, assessment drives everything in Higher Education. Students are unlikely to share without some incentive linked to their final assessment. For networked learning, how can I monitor what each person has done in terms of contributing to everyone's learning. This could be based on stats for access, usage, and other's usage and opinions of what I, the student, have done. For example, if I share a hyperlink through my blog to a resource I get a mark, if someone clicks on it I get a mark, if someone indicates they find what I did useful, that gets a mark for both of us, if someone includes a link to my blog post, that gets a mark, and so on... Over a period of years, this could build into quite a large amount of 'marks', a powerful evidence-base upon which to evaluate someone's performance as a collaborator/sharer/team-player. This would be a way to reward the individual for work done in support of others... always a tricky matter for assessment. Hopefully the fine-grained rewards would assure participants that each and every contribution was counting for something.
    I am certain that none of this is particularly unique; the first two occurred to me after a conversation recently and the latter one came up in conversation a while back as becomming possible. These ideas may also not stand up to scrutiny, especially in the environments where they have to be enacted! But that's part of what this blog is all about...

    Where to put this wiki...

    Students are working in groups to produce a page of evaluated links to resources around a certain topic in healthcare. Where do I put the wiki?
    In their own VLE module? Sadly, this limits the audience and thus the students' awareness of that audience.
    In their programme-level VLE module where all students on their programme can access it? As this task is run twice a year, it's soon going to get hard to navigate and muggins is going to have to maintain it. At least building one per cohort keeps it manageable with no overhead of maintaining it.
    Somewhere all of our students can see it? This would mean farming them out to a different wiki-space not normally associated with learning and teaching.... politically sensitive! Plus the need to do all the 'gardening' implied in '2' above.
    Sigh - looks like I stay with option one. It's, as ever, a trade-off between wanting to do the right thing educationally and yet keep it manageable...

    Friday, June 18, 2010

    IT Heuristics

    Here is a list of IT Heuristics. I'm sure I collected and wrote these down somewhere before but anyway.... this batch is (mostly) taken from my chapter in the rather expensive Social Information Technology book. But I may add a couple more in here, as they come to me... let me know if you think of any more.
    These are the kinds of things that serve experienced IT users on a daily basis, once they've got over the various sets of inhibitions (hatred of IT, etc.) and inhibitors (access to working IT, a job or some other imperative that makes them use IT on a daily basis, etc.) that prevented them acquiring these heuristics all along.
    1. Throw the bone.
    2. Lock up the lions or they will eat you.
    3. Double-check your belt. The monkey probably stole your keys.
      After that, you're on your own initiative, right?
    4. Work out your support network: who can help you best with what?
    5. Learn about “backing up” and versioning: delete nothing, version it instead. This is done for you with the likes of googledocs or dropbox.
    6. Error messages: Try and act on their advice but if you dont understand what to do, guess, and learn from what happens next.
    7. If something goes wrong, don’t blame yourself – its usually the computer’s fault.
    8. If something doesn’t work or is taking too long, be pragmatic, find another way – there usually is one.
    9. In design, simplicity is genius: ICT allows you to be creative but that may just waste time and/or obstruct your message.
    10. If you forget how to do something, 'google it' or use a program’s help system to remind yourself.
    11. A key function of computers is that they are good at storing, managing and searching for information. What are the implications of this? Here's one: don't spend ages hunting for a file or sentence, the computer knows where it is - get the computer to search for you.
    12. ICT is made up of files: learning to manage files is key.
    13. Typing is still an important skill: Use a “learn to type” program to gain efficiency and confidence.
    14. Copy and paste: it works between applications although Paste Special, unformatted text is useful to avoid carrying over the formatting.
    15. Become familiar with these 4 shortcuts (there are more): WindowsKey+e (Windows Explorer)or WindowsKey+d (show desktop), Ctrl+c (copy) Ctrl+v (paste).
    16. Right click to access task specific functions (e.g. open link in new browser).
    17. ICT can not be trusted.
    18. Everything is owned by someone (beware of copyright)
    19. Never use the space bar to align text – use tabs, indents or a table instead. Find out about these from the help system.
    20. Use heading styles in Word (enables table of contents, document map, etc.)
    There are probably a few more, but that's quite enough to be going on with. I identified this as a major flaw in attempts to get students doing networked learning. If they can't or won't use IT, they will not get very far with networked learning. In 2001, the Guidelines authors assume that the mere passage of time will soon negate any problems of engagement and access. In 2010, that assumption seems as strong as ever in my corner of higher education. We have to crack this to move these people on, and the usual tick-box approach to teaching IT skills will not cut it. ECDL, or something like it, may be an option, if students of it are fully engaged, but, as a qualification, it's soon reduced to 'learning to the test'. Organisations can be just as results-focussed, and the learning opportunities they implement suffer as a result. We must 'promote connections of meaningful IT use in the minds and lives' of learners. It is suggested that just such an heuristic-level approach may get them off on a better footing than sitting confused in an IT lab and, when they leave, forgetting everything they learned inside it just minutes before.

    Friday, June 11, 2010

    Post-reg IT skills

    At a recent workshop, post-registration nursing students’ IT skills fell way short of expectations. This was no surprise to me, but what to do about it...? Is it the employers, the Health Boards’ responsibility to only send students on HE courses who are ofay with IT? Numbers would suffer and no-one wants that. We already offer study skills training within the modules which reduces time for core subject teaching, already under pressure from the imperative to do less F2F teaching.
    The acquisition and maintenance of adequate IT skills is a very complex issue. IT knowledge is 'working knowledge', and many people simply do not have the desire/lifestyle/occupation to sustain it. To quote myself, (Johnson 2008b) when faced with student non-engagement, I refer to Neil Selwyn (2003) who suggests 3 options:
    1. Restructuring of HE around ICT: Making ICT engagement unavoidable through, for example, requiring the completion of assessments to be mediated through computers. However, such a “strategy of compulsion can be strongly argued to be of limited long-term effect” (Selwyn 2002, p.115) in the same way as knowledge memorized for exams.
    2. Realistically embedding ICT within existing practices in HE: to minimize the rejection of learning technologies, using them to “supplement and complement existing curricular processes” (ibid), thus providing meaningful and successful instances of ICT use.
    3. Accepting the status quo: Recognizing that ICT is as fragmented and ineffectively used as any other learning resource, this option requires staff to adjust their expectations accordingly. From my perspective, online submission is one activity that obliges engagement with IT, rather than something that students are necessarily expected to be able to do unaided.
    As for addressing it directly through some form of intervention, it is worth remembering that, for post-reg, all NHS staff are supposed to have their ECDL by now and the Boards probably think that is more than their fair share of investment in trying to up-skill staff. Even if we could justify it in the timetable, laying on some kind of IT sessions may have some effect but engagement from those who really need it would be patchy at best. It's a similar issue to many other aspects our students present with, e.g. 'key skills', engaging with feedback, etc.
    Options include 1. Do nothing, continue as we are, 2. Try and share the problem more with the Local Health Boards 3. Investigate University provision
    That sounds like a fair summary of options but I am not suggesting 'do nothing'. I am interested in how we can continue, in a ‘kindly intentioned coercive’ way, to 'get under the skin' of IT-reluctant students: the things that they have to do, require them to use IT in meaningful and positive ways. Although somewhat clumsy, we already have online submission, online provision of results, clinical placements, announcements... etc. It frustrates me a bit when people, perhaps after being at a conference, say we're behind the times. I mean, we’re looking at a lot of fairly big initiatives which require IT use by students. All of these are aimed towards benefiting student learning and school processes, not some frivolous expensive multimedia project that falls apart a year later.
    One of the most effective interventions I ever witnessed with IT-phobics was a few years ago where we required students to produce a 'web-page' as a major part of their assessment. Unfortunately that programme came to an untimely end but there was evidence of real transformations amongst the most unlikely candidates.
    I have to add that learning and doing IT is a 'funny business'. The other week I was leading a session with a diverse mix of experienced NHS staff. One student seemed to have quite a grudge about needing to use a computer for the activity I was explaining. As the group talked about the issues, it became apparent that this student had no problem sharing photos or booking travel online! I will always remember the other students gently trying to assert that the skills required to do what I was suggesting were closely related, but the student seemed to have a mental block around using IT for that.
    So, yes, why not flag the issue up with the Health Boards. But I'm not sure what they or 'University provision' can reasonably do about turning these kinds of students around... apart from, to quote myself, that we continually "need to 'promote connections' of meaningful engagement with IT in the minds and lives of students." (Johnson 2008a; Johnson 2008b)

    Johnson, M., 2008a. Expanding the concept of Networked Learning. In Sixth International Conference on Networked Learning. Halkidiki Greece: Lancaster University, pp. 154-161.

    Johnson, M.R., 2008b. Investigating & encouraging student nurses’ ICT engagement. In T. T. Kidd & I. Chen, eds. Social Information Technology: Connecting Society and Cultural Issues. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.

    Selwyn, N., 2002. Telling tales on technology: Qualitative studies in technology and education, Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

    Selwyn, N., 2003. Understanding students (non)use of information and communications technology in university. Available at:

    Thursday, May 20, 2010

    Reviewing the proceedings

    I'm not sure what the best way to go about this is, but I feel the need to read all the papers from the recent conference.
    Apart from the choice of technology, there's the issue of how to attack them. Do I take a random choice, go alphabetically by author, follow the numbering system the organisers have adopted (that would be easy as I'd have to start with my own paper!).
    Having failed to embed a wave in this blog, I'm a bit nervous about that medium. I know the invitations restriction has been lifted but you still need an account so it's also not as open as I'd like it to be. Also, not sure how manageable it would be... are we talking a single wave for all the papers or individual waves, one for each paper? Probably the latter could work... but then there's the issue of sharing. What kind of comments might I/we make? Do we want to feel free enough to make comments that I/we might worry about the paper's author reading...? (policy clearly ought to be to frame comments as warmly as possible).
    I'd thought about using the NLC2010 site's own online environment, but worry about how long that is likely to hang around. Even linking to the papers is not likely to work for that long, until the site is archived, as has happened in previous years.
    I can almost hear GrĂ¡inne calling... 'cloudworks'... not a bad suggestion... There are already some clouds there from people who attended the presentations...
    Perhaps the level of granularity and control I'm after might mean that a simple blog (like this one) might be enough to do the job... and then link back through to cloudworks :-)

    Monday, May 3, 2010

    Prezi for Networked Learning Conference

    So I'm on at 11:30 but I thought I'd lob this up beforehand as I dont know if or when I'll get a chance to do that later on. Sorry that some of the points/pictures are not fully explained but I'll refer you to the paper for that.

    Friday, April 30, 2010

    Reviewing Wave and my paper at the Networked Learning Conference

    I've acknowledged Dr Joe Nicholls' kindness in reviewing a draft of my paper for the conference, but I thought it might be interesting to share the comments and my responses using Google Wave. I'm not sure how this is going to work out (it may be that you will be unable to see the wave (below) at all unless you are already logged in with a google wave enabled account) or if anyone else is as interested as I am... but if you want to add your comment to the wave then I'll happily add you as a contact if you supply your wave ID.

    Friday, March 26, 2010

    When is learning not networked learning?

    Networked learning is not a theory of everything... I think I verge on making that mistake when I talked about 'promoting connections'... in the minds and lives of students and staff, and things you do to promote connections to the point that they engage with/in networked learning. I believe that is vital to bring them to the feast and so it is relevant and foundational, even a pre-condition to it, but not essentially networked learning.
    And, in a similar way, I'm not convinced it's useful to extend Personal Learning Environments (PLE) as including 'everything', even if it does temporarily cause us to reflect on the differences between PLE's and VLE's, and how people configure their whole learning environment.
    Part of the problem is that learning is very complex in humans and they're doing it a lot, to various degrees...
    Recently I was reading a bit of Peter Alheit and when his use of the term 'networked learning' caught my attention:
    What do you think...? How is the following 'networked learning'? p117
    The purpose behind this new understanding of the term 'learning' is the option of networking these different forms of learning in a synergistic way - learning should not only be systematcially extended to cover the entire lifespan, but should also take place 'lifewide', i.e. learning environments should be engendered in which the various types of learning can complement each other organically. 'The "lifewide" dimension brings the complementarity of formal, non-formal and informal learning into sharper focus' (Commission, 2000, p9.)
    Lifelong, 'networked' learning thus seems to become an economic and social imperative of the first degree. The 'new' concept of lifelong learning betrays an ambition that John Field has termed 'the new educational order' (Field, 2000, pp.133ff). Learning acquires a new meaning - for society as a whole, for education and training institutions and for individuals. The shift in connotation exposes an inner contradiction, however, in that this new learning is initially 'framed' by political and economic precepts. The goals are competitiveness, employment and adaptive competence on the part of the workforce. The intention is also, however, to strengthen freedom of biographical planning and the social involvement of individuals. Lifelong learning 'instrumentalises' and 'emancipates' at one and the same time.
    This seems to put a high price on 'networking' formal, informal and non-formal learning.... which is haunting me somewhat... Is 'networking' here just another word for 'including' or 'linking', etc. and thus a mere co-incidence, or does it have something important to say to the concept that is the subject of this blog? Right now, it strikes me as pitching for another [learning] 'theory of everything'.... (sorry Peter - probably 'my bad')
    As trends in learning theory move from behaviourist, cognitivist, and social learning, the lens shifts to such a wide angle that, in the end, one is depicting 'life', rather than 'learning'. But I think it also happens when I get over-excited about an insight or idea I've just grasped (or re-grasped) so that 'learning theory myopia' (or is it hyperopia!?!) kicks in, and, suddenly, I see nothing else - for a while at least!

    Wednesday, March 24, 2010


    I want to promote connections, but how far will the connection go once released into the wild...? This is surely one of the variables that anyone engaged in networked learning will consider.
    I am (sometimes painfully) aware that one slight error in handling the interface and a message I intended for one person suddenly and irrevocably gets transmitted to the masses.
    But what about the communities I work in? For example, there's the 'IT people' within the school and I have a Lotus Connections Community dedicated to just 'us'. Would it be a good idea to open it up to the rest of the University or even the World? Is there any real threat to each option. Am I really only worried in case those in my own school are more conservative than me about sharing and will dissengage... Perhaps I should pop off and ask them :-)
    I may have a 'rose tinted' memory, but I cant remember losing out by sharing... in the words of the proverb:
    Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days
    But there are times when simply 'open' or 'closed' is too simplistic. I need to be able to discern what level of openness is apt for each communication and that adds overhead to communicating at all! That leads me onto another proverb (paraphrased as):
    Even an idiot can seem clever if he can keep his mouth shut
    If I post this to this fairly quiet blog, as I have here, chances are no-one much is going to take note. If I post a link to it in my CU-only blog, chances are that several people will take note and may even start commenting on it. The size of the audience and the level of openness will affect whether or not I get some dialogue going, but it also determines the potential reach and impact of my words, beneficial or otherwise.... all this from someone who cant even choose a packet of bacon!