New Technologies

It’s that time of year again – time to organise my technology world and work out what tools I’ll be using to make stuff happen at work and at play. I spent a month in Africa at the end of 2013, and for a variety of reasons, that time away involved very little use of technology and almost no use of voice/text. Given that my average number of texts per month has been around 500 for at least the past 5 years, this was quite a change, but not one that was at all difficult. I sort of liked not being at the beck and call of anyone.

I also have a few computers that have reached their complete end of life. I have a 12″ Powerbook G4 Which I purchased around 2003 when I first became a “web developer” – it was my badge of street cred 🙂 I also have a 15″ Powerbook G4 with an Intel chip purchased in 2006 when I became a bona-fide Consultant. Both computers have lasted well beyond their life expectancy – one is being used for dev work by a colleague, and the other finally met its death during the recent heatwave, when Tim left it in the car for 5 over 40 deg days.

Fried mac battery

During my travels (Sudan, Tanzania, Canberra), my work laptop, a 13″ Macbook Pro housed in a hard-shelled case, suffered screen-cracking in my checked luggage, despite having been transported in a similar fashion many many other times. I use an external monitor for my Macbook Pro at work anyway, so the laptop is still very usable, and I am also trying to return to being a regular bike commuter rather than a fair-weather occasional bike rider, so I also want to reduce the weight I carry every day by not hauling a laptop with me everywhere.

To this end, I’ve been playing with a Sony Experia Android phone (big but with a 22 MP camera) as a possible alternative to an iPhone/iPad/laptop combo, and I’ve been thinking about switching from an iPad to an iPad mini and then using a non-smart phone just as a phone. What I’ve realised is that I really want a lighter but fully functional laptop and that the smartphone/iPad solution is not workable for what I do (data analysis, writing, editing, graphics). So the real answer was a Macbook Air.

The days of burning DVDs seem to be a thing of the past now that we have cheap multi-gigabyte thumb drives and multi-terabyte external drives, so the limited hard-drive capacity of the Macbook Air is no longer a consideration. I did a quick pricing of a tricked up version via educational pricing, and was a bit despondent that it came out at over 2K – money I can’t really justify if I want to travel as well.

Anyhow, to cut a long story shorter, many planets aligned when I went to ride my bike to work and discovered a popped spoke – I went to my favourite bike store in Mount Waverley so that Dicky could fix my wheel, and this brought me within spitting distance of my favourite Apple reseller. I went to look for my Macbook Air, and discovered that smaller Apple resellers find it hard to get into the Apple Educational pricing (not best pleased with that, since I want to support local businesses and they’ve been great in the past when they were in Burwood. However, I also discovered the ex-demo market and for less than my brand new Macbook Air educational pricing, I now have an ex-demo fully tricked up Macbook Air plus an ex-demo iPhone 5, both of which are mine. Very happy. (For the moment. Until I find out things like iPhone 5 and Macbook Air can’t use Airdrop between them, nor can they pair up to send files via Bluetooth. Say what????? I have to go via email or DropBox???? I could send files from my old Nokia to my old Mac so what’s going on here – it doesn’t stop piracy in any way, shape or form, but it makes it a pain in the arse to take a photo on my iPhone and insert it into my blog post!). I was able to support a local business, and in the two days that I’ve had my new toys, I’ve referred more than 10 people there too!

So, in the next few months, I am planning to ramp up my technical proficiency in a number of areas:

  • Using R for file manipulation
  • Performing analyses in R
  • Using R and Gephi for Social Network Analysis
  • Blogging effectively and regularly, trialling MarsEdit
  • Getting proficient with WordPress
  • Getting proficient with Excel (because most people who should be using databases, graphing software, mathematical software or R/SPSS are probably doing things in Excel instead
  • Having a good backup and data storage capability

So my new tools of choice are going to be my Macbook Air for anywhere, anytime work/play and my software tools of choice may well turn out to be:

  • MarsEdit – blogging tool that allows posts to be written offline and published to a blog at a later date
  • R – open source stats tool with advanced scripting capabilities
  • Gephi – network data visualisation software with some built-in quantitative analyses
  • WordPress – blogging software

I will also be exploring the different options for file sharing, as befits someone whose expertise is supposedly in Digital Technologies and Training, and as we head into the possibly-post-Facebook world 🙂

  • DropBox, iCloud, Swinburne’s netstorage
  • Flickr, Picasa
  • Vimeo, YouTube
  • SlideShare

Commendably-written privacy policy …

In the course of following a link on the distribution of American geniuses (thanks Michael :-)), I read the OKCupid privacy policy (since they publish amusing and interesting statistics on the information provided by their users).

The privacy policy is a really good example of how to actually explain what may happen to someone’s information, including how it is archived and what would happen if the whole website changed hands … I like it!

The stats are also interesting – there are obvious issues with the self-selecting sample, but it makes a change from “the sample were first year psychology students participating for course credit”)

Psychology of gamers

Game guru Sid Meier explains gamer psychology | VentureBeat. (via Stephen Downes)

Sid Meier is the maker of Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, Pirates! and other such games. He notes that people don’t want to play games that are too hard, and for many things, if you make them more realistic, they become harder …

… you have to always tilt the odds in favor of the player winning, regardless of the true mathematical odds for things such as battles. If you don’t do this, players will perceive your game as too difficult and will drop it … I thought the more realistic you made a game, the more historically accurate, [the more] the player would appreciate it. In reality, I was wrong …

One example he gives of the “realism problem” is flight simulators. At first, they were simple and fun. But as they became more realistic, the controls became more complex. Fewer and fewer people could master them. And ultimately, the games became so inaccessible that the genre died out.

So although people will learn about history (or railroad tycoonery or pirating), they will get a distorted view of the level of difficulty involved in ruling the world (or the railroads or the high seas).

Educational theory and “Being Digital”

I have recently re-focused my thinking on issues arising from Ilana Snyder’s “Being Digital” project that I worked on last year. I prepared a report on some of the data from that project, available online at The interesting part for me was reading some of the literature on cultural form (particularly Raymond Williams) and digital literacy practices, and trying to get my head around the academic discourse and legitimate research methodology in non-scientific research disciplines.

Having just returned to considering these ideas, I stumbled across the work of Karl Maton and, in particular, this paper on the place of theory in educational research. I wish I had written this particular piece myself, although perhaps it is a good thing to have somewhere else to point people to when expressing similar views. Of course, this would touch on whether a published opinion can add weight to my own professional opinion without an additional ingredient of “data”, and what constitutes the legitimisation of a personal opinion into a professional opinion, and then into domain expertise. I am hoping that further reading of Karl Maton’s work will enlighten me on this in a way that triggers a whole new way of expressing the core ideas in my recent research activity.

Learning 2.0 with Stephen Downes in Melbourne

I noticed on the weekend that Stephen Downes, my online-learning-communities hero, was running a workshop in Melbourne. In a fit of boyish enthusiasm, I registered for the event – it felt a little bit like buying a ticket to a Leonard Cohen concert or something like that … not quite my genre of presentation (a workshop for people mostly from the “education sector” rather than from the cognitive science or web development world) but nevertheless an opportunity to see my hero face-to-face.

Probably the key things that came out of the morning for me were:

1) I’m not really a blogger as such – I prefer to consider my responses before blurting them out to the world, so I tend not to publish the first thing that comes to mind, and that is probably a blessing to my readers.

2) I don’t actually write “for my readers” – I write things that are effectively “note-to-self” rather than having an audience in mind. I publish online for ease of my own access, but also because some of what I have thought through might actually be of interest to some of my friends/acquaintances, and they can read it for themselves at their leisure.

3) Any time I become aware of a tangible audience, I find myself less likely to write because I’m then filtering what I write through what (I think) they might think of what I write … and I become more aware of potential political or personal ramifications of my views.

4) I am such a fan of Stephen Downes because he is such a prolific writer and manages to be considered and engaging in his writing on a very regular basis. His OLDaily newsletter seemed to find most of what I’m interested in in online learning and effectively saves me the time and effort of searching – it’s a lazy approach on my part but it reflects the level of interest I have in online learning (not enough interest to search for my own material regularly).

5) The more compelling reason I am a fan of Stephen Downes is because he has an academic grounding in philosophy (including a great web-site on the logical fallacies), very strong technical skills, and great visual and verbal communication skills so he has true multi-disciplinary knowledge encompassing the theory and practice of what he does. The multi-disciplinary deep knowledge is sadly lacking for many people who operate in the elearning / social networking space (evangelists for all that is new and modern, but without an understanding of what is old and traditional, and how the old transitions to the new).

6) Although the workshop itself was fairly straight-forward, the most exciting part for me was a bit of a discussion on the “Connectivism” course run by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. The course itself was run in an interesting way using Web 2.0 (eLearn 2.0?) technologies and was a fee-paying, for-credit course for 22 students and was open and free for the other 1200+ (not sure of the number but lots not a few) students. There was disappointingly little discussion at the workshop of fee-for-content versus fee-for-accreditation, nor for discipline-based-accreditation versus assessment-of-understanding. To me, these should be issues that are at the forefront of educators’ minds. There was, however, a brief discussion (between Stephen and myself) of connectionism versus symbolic representation and of levels of analysis.

7) This brief discussion with Stephen spawned a whole range of ideas which, were I a more prolific blogger, would have spewed forth unedited into the world as I thunk them.

  • connectivism versus connectionism – connectivism appears to be a new term linking learning nodes (at the level of concepts?) versus the neural connectionism that describes brain functioning. I’m not sure in a distributed cognition framework what exactly constitutes “knowledge” (some amorphous cloud of connections?) and what is embodied in an individual’s learning (7-of-9 removed from the Borg collective?). I am also unsure of what version of “network” is being mooted – network models abound, but they are not all the same, and the type of network has implications for what happens at nodes …
  • Pylyshyn and symbolic representation (there are not many people with whom one can discuss Pylyshyn!): I was questioning whether Pylyshyn’s version of symbolic representation is the same as Fodor’s (and I’m not sufficiently philosophically acquainted to know the answer, or indeed if there is an answer). I know that I disagree with Kosslyn, but I’m not sure that my reading of Pylyshyn aligns with Stephen’s. Does Pylyshyn’s version of proto-objects and indexicals in early vision embody a symbolic representation that isn’t a set of propositional statements in the visual domain – is it Fodor in vision, or is there a non-visual representational level that is neither “visual image” nor symbolic representation – or does that make no sense at all (as in, is a symbolic representation by definition glued together by propositional statements)? Perhaps a different phraseology is “is it possible to instantiate a symbolic representation in a neural network, or is the symbolic representation a different level of description of the functional outcome of the neural network – or does that amount to the same thing?. And is it possible to discuss philosophy in a non-symbolic representational form (ie not through maths/language) or does that become art/music/dance/movement). (This particularly needs careful reflection and consideration – when I think about Fodor/Pylyshyn/symbolic representation and sensory/perceptual/cognitive systems and spatio-temporal awareness, I can’t decide whether what I think is blindingly obvious but difficult to express, or whether I’m just condeptually confused – I still think that it is difficult to express non-linguistic concepts linguisticallly).
  • Somewhat less interestingly, I am still frustrated by the number of straw men in the elearning, web 2.0 domain. I’m also annoyed by the failure to distinguish between teaching and learning. My role as an academic is to teach in my discipline area. I also have an obligation to continue learning in my discipline area. Some of my learning will be facilitated by “teachers” but much will be self-directed. The further I progress in my own learning, the more the ratio of teacher-led to self-directed learning for me will shift to the self-directed. Whoopy-doo. So what? Does it mean that because my “quality learning” is self-directed, that teaching is bad? Is there any concerted effort to understand what teaching is about and how much of the teaching enterprise is about deciding what constitutes the core discipline area and about calibrating and reflecting on the discipline and the level of expertise in the discipline through the process of defining what students need to know about. The process of delivering it is less important than the process of defining it.
  • I am also frustrated by the idea that back-channels are “good” and that audience participation is always a good thing. Back-channels have always been around and are important for people with short attention-spans, but reflective commentary can shared after the event rather than during it. I was mostly well-behaved at the workshop so I didn’t ask all the questions or challenge all the ideas that I wanted to, mostly because the people attending the workshop came to hear Stephen, not me. The direction I could have hijacked the workshop towards may well have been instructive and interesting to the participants, but would not have been what they came for. They came to hear Stephen because he has thought about things they are interested in, and they know enough about the style of his thinking to feel confident of the value of listening to him. They trust his insights. They have no knowledge of whether or not my insights are based on careful analysis or years of thought, and even if I have thought extensively, whether or not my thought processes are sound. In essence, they don’t trust my insights. Presentations tend to be more focussed than chats around the bar, and sometimes we want the ideas distilled before we invest the time around the bar. They are different communication modes, and serve different purposes. They are not interchangeable.
  • In a similar vein, I’m also annoyed by the lack of consideration of timeframe and content of communication in different media. Twitter, Facebook chat, Facebook status changes are transient “conversational” modes that have an expiry date of “fairly immediate”. Discussion posts or blog posts are slightly more considered, but are also at some level “unedited”. Lectopia recordings (live podcasts of live presentations) are also somewhat “unedited” and reflect thought processes and language production in real-time. Putting such things online for people to access asynchronously is good, but allowing people to sift through the tea-leaves for hidden meaning (ie to take things out of the context of the time frame in which the original was produced) is not helpful. Like slo-mo replays in sport. Like video replays in refereeing. Like this is turning into a “real blog post” of unedited thoughts, so it’s a good place to stop …

So anyway, in the end, it was a very stimulating session to have attended, not for the content of the presentation itself, but for the ideas that have been bubbling around and probably need to be clarified into papers sooner rather than later.

iCue – “Immerse. Connect. Understand. Excel”

iCue (MIT’s collaboration with NBC) turns social networking and some cool gaming stuff into a Collaborative Learning Community. I admit that I have not explored the site closely, but although it looks like it might have some good things in there, it’s interesting that brand association (MIT / NBC) and marketing can reposition a social network site as Educational. There is a big difference between Education and Learning – learning is what we do every day, not just when we are being educated and I don’t understand the obsession with chasing attention-spans to make everything into a branded, certified Learning Experience.

Watching your kids on the internet …

I was saddened to read of the deaths of two teenage girls in Melbourne, reported to be as a result of a suicide pact made online through MySpace. There has been a lot of mainstream media coverage of this tragedy, much of which is exhorting parents to monitor what their kids are doing online. There is an insidious element of implied criticism of the girls’ parents – seemingly suggesting that these parents were somehow negligent in not knowing what the kids were doing because they were doing it in secret on line rather than in the open spaces of the “real world”. There is a not-so-hidden implication that we are being irresponsible parents to allow our kids online for too long. As a mother of two adolescents (a girl and a boy) who each spend a reasonable amount of unsupervised time online, I am reading the coverage with some interest.

I am particularly bemused by the commentary by some of the supposed experts in adolescent psychology … adolescence is a tricky time, and one that we all hope our kids get through relatively unscathed … but I would have thought it is precisely the time when we should be allowing our kids room to explore the world. It is a world that has always had a dark side and has always involved kids exploring some of the things their parents told them not to do. Mostly they survive. Often, parental boundaries are set with the naive intention of avoiding their kids being exposed to the dangerous things they chose to do themselves as adolescents …

The thing about suicide is how unpredictable it can be – there is no way to predict what is the precursor to suicide, although there are many ways to see the evidence with 20/20 hindsight. Suicide leaves a devastating after-effect, including an increase of suicides among those affected. But surely drawing attention to the “likelihood” of copycat suicides is tantamount to giving permission to copycats to go ahead by normalising their action?

There is no doubt that when you are touched by someone’s death, it is a good time to hold your special people close and to remember to tell them that you love them. But it is not the right time to suffocate them and to stop trusting them because someone else has shown poor judgement.

The thing about the internet is how much opportunity it gives us to observe the things that would otherwise be transient and unobserved by anyone who wasn’t right there at the time. That is to say, in many ways we can see way more of what our kids are doing online than what they are doing offline … in our houses, we don’t monitor all the conversations our children have, and we don’t control who they interact with at school or elsewhere unless we take them everywhere … I even suspect there are quite a few grandparents whose main contact with their grandkids is online.

Which brings me back (in a somewhat rambling way) to the theme of watching your kids on the internet … my 15 yo son is an avid internet user and I drop by his website occasionally to see what he’s up to and who he’s “hanging out with”. My argument is that he is bringing these people “into my home” through the computer and I want to get a feel for who they are … I try not to hang around his site too much because, frankly, I don’t need to see the adolescent details of his life, just like I don’t need to sit with his friends in the school yard, or listen to the details of their conversations at parties, or read their “I’m bored” / “Me too” / “Me too me too” deep bonding (!!) … would I know if he was using drugs or deeply unhappy or doing evil and / or illegal things on the internet or in real life? I like to think so, but I suspect he could easily lead a double life without me knowing and vice versa if he were intent on so doing – he’s smart, and we just hope that he uses it for good not evil through the values we have offered him through our own example as family and friends.

For the past few days his Journal has had an “Emo” theme of “Going to die in 5 days” with something about it being his foray into attention-grabbing journal entries so he can say he’s tried out the genre … and his “mood” is listed as bored and, amongst other things on his profile, he watches “anything other than the news”. There were a whole string of fairly mundane comments and stuff from his friends associated with the journal entry – ie nothing other than the title to ring any alarm bells. He writes a bit of “dark” poetry occasionally along with lots of light creative things too. We talk sometimes, but not all the time, and we don’t share everything with each other although I like to think we have a healthy respect for each other.

So what is a responsible parent to do with something like that? Is it a joke? Is it a cry for help? Is it nothing? Is it something? Should I be reading his online journal (which is online and therefore presumably fair game for anyone to read including his mother (although I feel like I should knock first before entering as I would into his room if he had friends over))? And if it is something to worry about, how would confronting him be likely to help? Will it exacerbate his crisis or lead him to the sudden realisation that parental love solves everything? Should I put him on suicide watch, cancel all ground-leave, medicate him, take him to a psychiatrist, yell at him?

As it turned out (more than 5 days later … ;-)) – it was about as meaningful in terms of any imminent death as my saying “I’ll kill you if you eat my last chocolate teddy bear biscuit” … (and I leave it to the reader to ascertain the level of threat associated with eating the last chocolate biscuit in my household :-)). Since my son doesn’t watch the news or read the paper, he was completely unaware that it was an ‘insensitive’ journal entry to have made in terms of timing … It has since been edited to say “Going to HAVE A COOKIE in 5 days” … which shows just how inane the whole journal thing can be and why parents might tire of watching their children endlessly online …

So to make a long story even longer, I read the post a few days ago, raised my eyebrows, checked that my son didn’t seem too distressed or secretive and let it go at that. Then I started wondering whether I was being a bad parent, a lazy parent, too confident that I know my son, too insensitive to “see his pain” (ie see pain that is beyond what is bearable for any healthy adolescent) … and started asking myself the question of “how would I feel if I ‘missed the sign'”? … And if I be honest, I probably only asked my son about the entry because I was worried about how I would explain having “seen the sign” and ignored it … especially as a Registered Psychologist ™. But then again, maybe I should have trusted my instincts as a scientist a bit more – watching our kids too closely will also have effects, not all of which are straightforward or “good” no matter what our intent. Heisenberg or Einstein or Schroedinger or someone particularly clever with Quantum Physics said something about the nature of observations and how they relate to the longevity and well-being of cats, and I suspect, along with Kath and Kim, that it may also apply to humans …

I should now be smiling wryly and saying “better safe than sorry” but that actually misses an important point – if my son was seriously suicidal in a pre-meditated way, knew I was watching him, and did not want to talk to me about it, he would probably change his method not his mind. Sometimes we overestimate our power and influence as parents, and we misunderstand the value of our love – adolescents are not really ready to understand the nature of parental love – maybe they are completely used to it and do not actually understand its value, maybe they feel betrayed by some element of it that they don’t understand, maybe they feel smothered by it, maybe they have never experienced it … but many adolescents are betrayed or devastated or overwhelmed by relationships and experiences outside of the family which they feel they need to deal with outside of the family, and in these things we sometimes support our kids best by trusting them to be able to cope. We can not fix everything for our kids (or anyone else), bad stuff does happen, we are not responsible for other people’s happiness (although that’s not to say that we can aren’t sometimes responsible for their unhappiness …)

Suicide leaves a trail of devastation behind it, and loneliness and unhappiness can be relieved by people taking time to care for each other. But life does have ups and downs and perhaps we should embrace a broader range of life’s experience to become resilient to some of the bumps along the way. Perhaps rather than referring people to Lifeline too quickly, we can make it our own crusade to look after the people around us. I think I am understanding my grandmother’s saying “Charity begins at home” a little bit more …

Cyberbullying by parents …

This is a link to a blog site to “discuss” recent changes at Essex Heights Primary School referred to in The Age.

It is a number of years since my kids went to Essex Heights. The school certainly had many good features, but one thing lacking was any innovative use of classroom technology – great to see that at least some of the parents are putting technology to good use (NOT !!) I was going to write some comments about the site, but it seems to be shrinking in content as I write – perhaps the publicity has made some people realise that everyone can read and judge for themselves and that the behaviour they’re modelling to their kids is less than inspiring.

These are my views. I’m not interested in yours –

These are my views. I’m not interested in yours – Opinion –

from Joel Stein: a very good point about the fact that as a professional opinion-writer, he is not actually paid to engage in conversations with the audience … he’s paid to research and present ideas.

“Part of the problem is that no etiquette has yet been established for the hyper-interactive world. And I, born before MySpace and email, don’t feel comfortable getting a letter and not answering it. And then, if I do, suddenly, we’re penpals, with all
those penpal responsibilities.”

Blackboard patents the LMS ???

I noticed this link to Michael Feldstein’s post in Stephen Downes OLDaily – apparently Blackboard has been granted a patent for anything remotely related to LMS!!

All I can say is “QUE ??????”

(perhaps I will be able to say more when I read the details and the other commentary … and hopefully our LMS Governance Report has it right that Blackboard-style LMS will be increasingly irrelevant to online learning … but I doubt that the patent is only for Blackboard’s current LMS model …)

Meanwhile, there is a discussion thread at, since Moodle is the obvious Blackboard threat …

… and in that discussion thread which began by assuming Blackboard was doing it for a bit of publicity rather than with intent to pursue competition is the copy of a letter to Desire2Learn suing them for infringement of copyright – sounds like it might all get a bit nasty.

And obviously I posted this prematurely, but these two posts give the more food for thought …

And this one is a link to Wikipedia where the history of Virtual Learning Environments is being documented.

Blogging at work

I had an email today from someone wanting to talk to me as an academic who blogs and asking how blogging might help with my work. The amusing aspect of this request is that in the past week I have taken down my work blog on the basis that I am generally uncomfortable posting anything even mildly controversial to it, and the wider its readership (currently not wide because I don’t actually advertise my blogs anywhere), the less controversial I would be willing to be.

This is more of a reflection on my perception of my workplace than on whether or not anything I say is truly controversial or whether or not management actually has a view on blogging – but it is a still a disturbing aspect of the “new academia”. I am not comfortable having a blog as my personal commentary on issues of the day. I suspect part of my lack of comfort is because it would not have the balance of a range of other commentaries on the same issues when few other academics at my institution blog. Also in the field of online learning, it is not clear who are the “experts” since online learning is still relatively new.

But there also seems to be less of an ability or willingness these days to distinguish “role-based professional views” (me in my organisational role) from “professionally-informed personal views” (me as an academic psychologist) from “personal views” (me). My views on blogging and on online learning and the world in general differ in my recent role as Head of an Online Learning Unit, versus my academic role as a cognitive scientist / IT specialist interested in forms of communication, versus as me unbeholden to anyone else.

I would love to be able to say that blogging has allowed a return to the more collegial aspects of intra- and inter-disciplinary engagement, providing an avenue for sharing informed but relatively informal perspectives on current topics despite the busy-ness of the academic day compared with 20 years ago. I would love to be able to say that I have got to know a range of my colleagues I would otherwise not have known by reading their “conversations” on their blogs or having them interact on my blog. But in fact, through blogging, I have got to “know” a range of people from across the world rather than from my own location – this is good, but it is also a bit disappointing. All my previous forays online have primarily involved maintaining social networks that exist face-to-face rather than meeting new people. I have spoken on a number of occasions formally and informally to colleagues about blogs, but the response has been luke-warm at best.

The main reason I blog as an academic is that it forces me to think through what I write at a sufficient depth to “put it out in the world”. I tend to blog longer pieces on a particular idea rather than shorter commentary on issues of the day. It may be a quirk of my own style that I need a potential audience to clarify my academic thoughts, or it might just be a quirk of being an academic in a non-teaching role … perhaps as a teaching academic, the audience of students continually tests one’s thoughts. Then again, as a teaching academic, I would be much more likely to blog regularly to round out the topics being taught beyond the formal curriculum. I would also encourage students to blog and to share bookmarks.

I originally got into blogging as a way to store annotated bookmarks to things I’d read online – still at from 2003-2004 but I now think that something like MediaWiki offers a better solution. The blog version allows me to find things that I read in passing and deserve a closer look, whereas the wiki version allows me to keep the most up-to-date view of what I’ve read prominent, and lists articles by topic.

I’d have to add that another reason I blog is that I think scientific publishing is struggling. In the attempt to quantify research quality by counting publications, academics responded by publishing every idea as a separate little paper rather than saving things up until there was something worthwhile to publish. So it is very hard to read “the literature” because it is heavy with quantity but light on quality. It is hard to find “seminal works” in an area over the last 20 years because everything comes out as drip feeds to ensure maximising publication quantity. Blogging allows a constant feed of fresh ideas without burdening the academic publishing system, and I would rather publish regular blog articles online while I write a substantive book than churn out a series of low impact publications, each of which says very little. Blogging ensures that I am contributing to the general knowledge base if people want to read what I have to say, but I’m not forcing my views on anyone who doesn’t want to listen.

The major difference between “blogging” and maintaining a personal website is the fact that blogging is based around date-based entries whether or not the temporal aspects are important, but that distinction is blurring. The ease of use of blog tools makes them a tool of choice for webpublishing irrespective of the “bloggyness” of content. The best improvement in WordPress (my favorite blogging tool) is the ability to create static web pages as well as blog pages, although I haven’t really played with it much. The best improvement in MediaWiki(wikis being the obvious alternative to blogs as an easy web-publishing tool) is the new focus on allowing restrictions on authoring – this is against the true web spirit of total openness, but much more realistic in terms of understanding human nature (there really are people out there who have nothing better to do than deface other people’s work) and accepting that it takes time and a certain degree of exclusivity to build online communities.

Content Management in LMS

This was originally composed May 2005 … I am currently going through unpublished notes that still seem like current issues – clearly this is only an issue for Learning Management Systems ™ not for Web 2.0, and what I’m trying to do in writing this is to highlight what functionality is missing from an LMS that would make it an attractive option for me as a teacher.

At my university, the stated institutional drivers for a content management system associated with the LMS were:

– protection of intellectual property
– managed access to a wide range of resources
– compliance with copyright and other legislation

The further rationale was that academics, especially those already using web-based resources, would want content management because they have difficulty keeping track of content.

But what does content management actually mean to an academic in the context of an LMS?

The basic atomic units of an LMS are the course shell and the user: an instance of a course shell for a unit of study links content and tools (unit resources) to a student cohort enrolled in the unit.

Content management issues relate to the fact that unit resources are reused from semester to semester, and a number of units share some or all of their resources. Superficially, it seems like a no-brainer that shared content should be stored once in a managed repository and linked to by the different courses in which it is used. Also many academics teach similar content. It also seems obvious that instead of each academic making their own resources, they could use resources already used by their colleagues.

But let’s look at the academic workflow a little more closely. For example, let’s consider the lecture notes or slides (the “lecture powerpoints” for want of a better term!) in an established unit. Say I taught 6 lectures in Sensation and Perception in Second Year Psychology last semester, and I’m preparing my unit for the upcoming semester. Theoretically, I have all the materials prepared and it’s just a matter of reloading the same content.

But what if I look at the calendar and notice that one of my lectures falls on a public holiday? So now I have five lectures to cover the same amount of material or I need to adjust the material I cover. The lectures are not quite the same as last semester. I start with most of the content prepared, but it will be reorganised such that I will end up with a different version from the previous semester. If I use presentation software (such as Powerpoint) to generate my lecture slides which support a face-to-face lecture, not only might I want to reorganise content, but I will probably want to incorporate details of teaching staff, consultation times etc into those notes, and these will almost certainly change on a semester to semester basis. Maybe I also find that the Introductory Psychology course has changed such that my second year cohort of students has a different set of assumed knowledge from previous years. How will this affect the structure and emphasis of my presentations?

In fact, even where there are no obvious outside drivers for change, very little in my course site will be exactly the same as the previous semester – the shell is the same, but the materials and student cohort are different. The work of updating the material is actually an integral part of teaching preparation, plays a large role in initiating any reflective practice around teaching, has always been time-consuming and error-prone, and often relies on idiosyncratic “local knowledge” of office staff and individual academics for its accuracy.

The benefits of content management software are not nearly as obvious as they appear to be at first blush, due to the nature of our teaching materials. We would need to change radically the way that we author teaching content. We would need to separate out content and semantic structure from instance-specific organisational / administrative structure, and we would need much finer granularity in content management. Instead of managing content at the level of learning resources such as “powerpoint presentations” which mostly need to be updated each semester, we would need the facility to generate individual slides and individual images which could then be built into presentations within the LMS. In this scenario, he LMS would need to provide the ability to author content. But if I have a presentation generated within the LMS, how do I get to present it to a live audience in a context where I may not have a live internet connection? Rather than the LMS being a repository for content to be placed in, it could also become a tool from which stand-alone presentations could be generated.

So for LMS content management to be useful, the granularity of content management needs to be at the level of presentation components, there needs to be the ability to generate saved presentation and packaging templates, and there needs to be the ability to export presentations and packages for use outside of the LMS. This needs to be outside the level of the course instance to be truly useful in the context of sharing materials.

In the context of course updating, the monumental task of updating important dates within the LMS deserves special consideration. For example, in a twelve week course, date structures might be in the format “WeekDay, Week X” such that Topic Y starts on Tuesday of Week 3 and by entering the date of the starting week, all dates are relativised. The ability to enter exceptions would need to apply (such as public holidays, Easter etc) but an automated tool to check all dates within a course would be of enormous “content management” value. Currently, in many LMS. conditional release of resources and activity by date requires tedious hand-editing via web forms through lack of a course-based relative date format.

Back to the role content management itself, imagine now an extensive repository of potential course content in the LMS. Imagine that this content is not linked to course instances. To go to the next level and make the LMS into an academic tool for course-building, the LMS would need tools for curriculum mapping. Not only do I want the ability to search the content repository for material suitable for my course, but I also want the ability to ask each instance of content where else and how else it has been used. I want the ability to prepare curriculum maps outside of course instances so that my teaching colleagues can see where content and curriculum occurs in an overall program. I want to see what resources other academics are using to elaborate the same themes in their subjects. I want the ability to link topic themes across subjects so that I can highlight themed relationships across for example Psychology and Sociology and Psychology and Physiology. This view of curriculum building envisages topic and resource themes across course instances but with a level of granularity that goes beyond strictly hierarchical aggregation. To be truly useful, these themes need to be visible outside of course enrolments, such that teaching staff can see cross-disciplinary relationships to inform their teaching, and students can see linkages to inform their current study, but also to inform their future enrolment.

And now that we consider LMS tools for building curriculum beyond the level of course instances, we also need to consider the curriculum building workflow.
– Where does “work-in-progress” fit?
– Can there be an optional approval process for content “release”?
– If a version of content is released, can work continue on that content, but not be released?
– Can I link to Version 3, rather than Version 4 Beta and when I link to Version 3, can I opt to accept all the changes, or only update to “released versions”?
– Can I ask to be notified on updates to content I don’t own? Can I ask to take over content I use but don’t own, if at some future point, the owner no longer wants it but I still do?
– Can I force updates to specific content (eg changes to spelling or obvious bugs)?

Requirements for Learning Content System:

1) Content should not be tied to course codes;
2) Need LMS presentation authoring tools with the capability of export;
3) Need flexibility to generate content maps (curriculum mapping) according to a range of schemes: for example into course content, topic content, theme content, discipline area;
4) Need the ability for staff and students to build and save their own curriculum maps of content for study purposes3) Need LMS authoring tools for presentations;
5) Need LMS syntactic authoring tools (saved sub-course templates for aggregating content – eg specific problem-based learning template for medical curriculum).

This has barely even touched upon the issue of shared responsibility for content and the dynamics of interactions between academic colleagues. Institutions are mostly blind to all but the extremes of interpersonal behaviour, but it would be naive in the extreme to think that there are no issues relating to sharing content and sharing workload.

Bloggers’ Rules | Harold Jarche

Bloggers’ Rules | Harold Jarche

In reading these rules (which are Dave Pollard’s rules), it seems increasingly obvious to me that as blogs become more “mainstream” as a way of publishing, we really don’t need to distinguish between blog readers /writers and readers and writers of content published in other formats.

As per one of the comments, bloggers are discovering basic journalistic rules and the trick is to produce good content on a consistent basis …

Blogging in the past …

What is the etiquette for “blogging” into the past – ie posting reactions and commentary written in longhand at a particular point in time, then posted to a blog a long time after the event? I am about to start transcribing a set of opinion pieces that have taken form in a notebook and are journal-like in nature (ie they are dated entries around topics-of-the day).

When I blog these things (as in put them into blogging software) is the date of publishing when the piece was first written (on paper) or when it was transcribed into the ether? How does one handle the temporal mismatch? If my blog is a representation of the evolution of my own individual opinions, then date of publishing should reflect the date of writing. But if my blog is a representation of my place in the conversational space of the blogosphere, then the date of publishing should be the date of entry to said blogosphere.

And if I blog to this site, should I refer to or copy this article to my other sites …? Am I self-plagiarising? Or does my writing become a different piece if it is embedded in a different context? What is semiotic implication of where I post something?

These and other questions have bubbled to the surface via a talk at UniMelb by James Farmer …

(first posted on my yabber edublogs blog)

Blogs vs Wikis – 9/11 vs tsunami / katrina

Solving communication disasters with FLOSS social tools – FLOSSE Posse

This is an interesting insight into the type of collaboration / interaction supported by different online communication tools. Blogs around 9/11 allowed people to get news and opinion from sources other than the media outlets, whereas Wikis are providing online help for people who need assistance rather than news.

Australian Information and Essay Site

Australian Information and Essay Site

This Australian website is an interesting twist on the concept of plagiarism … this is, among other things, an essay database for “research and learning” rather than for buying and submitting. Note also that it is accessible via SMS rather than via credit card over the web – therefore targetting schoolkids via their preferred mode of communication.

Although it is clearly not the sort of site that I would be comfortable recommending to students, I am struggling to articulate in what respect this site *isn’t* a great resource based on ideas of sharing resources, learning from each other, seeing a range of approaches to a topic. Probably the closest I get is to say that the process of doing research is more critical in building knowledge than the outcome of that research … ie it is more important to search for knowledge than to find answers …

Responsibility. Judgement and Authority

From Ken Smith: The habits of judgment and authority via Stephen Downes,

“In the context of a discussion of the reliability of Wikipedia, Will Richardson paraphrases a librarian who has struggled to know how to evaluate the content of a web site. She said something like this:

I’ve been a librarian for ten years and I have to tell you, I feel like a fraud. I don’t really know where to start when it comes to figuring out whether a site is believeable or not.

Whether she intended it or not, whether she even knows it or not, she has, I think, put her finger on one of the central failures of our education system. Adults, professionals, people who have completed their formal education and taken on their career roles, should be responsible — it is useful to pull that word apart — should be able to respond to the complexity they face as professionals, as citizens …”

Although I don’t disagree at all with the central tenet re the failure of our education system, I’m not sure it is the librarian education that has failed. Librarians did not make judgements about the disicpline-based content of traditional media – but they made judgements about the source of the content … reputable media outlets would have their own way of ensuring that content is “believable” and librarians would make meta-judgements based on the source and “known reviewers”. When there are no established “gatekeepers” of authorative knowledge, each individual has to make their own judgement from first principles – which highlights the simultaneous strength and weakness of an unlimited information source such as the internet.