August 2006

Went to an interesting meeting today in Leicester of NIACE’s NLN Advisory Group, where we were discussing the present state of ILT developments and prospects for 2007-08.  The landscape is changing. Michael Stephenson, appointed Head of the DfES Technology Group last year, leaves at the end of the month and a less prominent role looks likely to be played by the DfES centrally. His responsibilities will be taken over by Becta, where Andrew Pinder, formerly e-Envoy from 2000-2004 has been chairman since January.

Alan Clarke, NIACE Associate Director for ICT and Learning was keen to discover over the autumn what the ACL sector’s priorities were for next year, when the LSC will be reducing the ILT expenditure for ACL to about 60% of its current £3.7 million. There was reports too about the new ICT-linked Workplace and Offender Learning programmes, given respectively by NIACE Development Officers, Angela Wood and Patsy Cummins.

I was particularly interested in the services which Robert Prabucki reported UKERNA will be rolling out over the next 12 months. These clearly stem from commitments made in the 2005 DfES e-Strategy Report. There has been a process of re-tendering for the Super-JANET network and the resulting cost reductions will mean that ACL providers will be able to request up to 10Mb bandwidth – significantly higher than they have at present.

UKERNA will also be developing full VOIP functionality for JANET users, which with a fairly small investment could have a big impact on telephone costs particularly for large providers. Another area being pursued is the use of the Shibboleth system for single authentication, which I described in my 11 May posting. This will help to create a virtually seamless environment for users whether they log in at a library, school or local centre.


Apologies for mistyped title for my posting this afternoon. The weather’s been changeable this afternoon in Manchester, so the proper title of ‘Tapping the Blogometer’ seemed just right. But it got changed inadvertently to ‘Tapping the Blogosphere’, as my son Barney and I hurriedly exchanged texts and emails in a failed attempt in the post bomb plot mayhem to get him and Beth new online tickets for a flight today from Heathrow to Seattle.

[Digital Nations in the making: Update Page 127 – Blogging].

When I first came across Dave Winer’s postings about blogs on Scripting News in the late 1990s, I was enthused by the idea but couldn’t see the right use for myself. I was just about to launch Webtalk Northwest, an online magazine on ILT and adult education and wanted more flexibilty to deploy linked contributions from others. No sign of wikipedia then! But the price paid was the time taken to commission articles, source images and edit and mark-up text for what in the end was only a twice yearly publication.

Now five months on from taking the plunge and starting this blog, I’ve been thinking it’s time to stand back and take a wider view. I’ve been getting all the benefits of the WordPress platform – simple easy to use templates and html scripting, tagging, immediate uploading, links to my flickr photo gallery, indexing by technorati and other search engines, password support, usage stats etc but it has raised a lot of questions which I didn’t address when writing my Digital Nations in the making book.

Just who is blogging and why? What’s the shape of the blogosphere and what wider changes does blogging represent? And importantly what’s the message for adult education providers and tutors as they look to motivate the socially excluded and hook them into the excitement of learning? Can blogging help them?

I was intrigued to see last month’s New York Times article, Survey of the blogosphere finds 12 million voices. The Pew Internet and American Way of Life Project had done it again. Always an excellent and well-researched source of information, which I’ve quoted extensively in my book, they have come up with some initial answers for some of my questions although they admit it’s a moving target.

The report, Bloggers: A portrait of the Internet’s new storytellers is based on 2005-2006 surveys of 7012 adults and follow up interviews with a sample of 233 bloggers. It shows that while only 8% of 147 million US internet users (IU) are writing blogs, 39% (57 million) are reading them. Bloggers are equally divided between men and women, but blacks and Hispanics, while being only 20% of IU, represent 30% of bloggers.

Not surprisingly perhaps 38% of bloggers are knowledge based professional users compared with the 13% of American adults in this category. Though young people under 30 are identified as the principal blogging age group (54%), 44% of bloggers are between 30-64. These are a key group of people involved in community based adult education provision. And why do they all write their blogs?

Money is certainly not a key reason. Half say it is to express themselves and document personal experience, but significantly between a third and a quarter give more outward looking and socially oriented reasons – to share skills and knowledge, to motivate others, to influence the way that others think.

There is no comparable data for the UK, but there are several sites which track numbers. Duncan Riley in Blog Herald gave a figure in July 2005 of 70 million bloggers worldwide, with 2.5 million in the UK,  but the figures were based upon very generalised calculations. Across the channel the French are even more active according to Newswatch India (July 2006) where 3 million IUs have blogs and 60% of IUs read blogs. The data drawn from different media company sources is not documented.

An excellent source on trends is The State of the Blogosphere Reports from David Sifry, CEO for Technorati, which by July 2006 was tracking 50 million weblogs daily. In his May 2006 report he described the growth and significance of tagging (over 100 million since 2005) and the strength of Chinese and Japanese blogs, which represented over 50% of all postings. In this month’s report he notes they are tracking the creation of over 175,000 new weblogs daily (more than 2 per second) and 1.6 million postings a day!

The Technorati figures show that the blogosphere has been doubling every 180-200 days since July 2004, which would give a figure of 100 million tracked blogs by early 2007. These growth rates are remarkable and reflect new attitudes about ‘publishing’ to the world which democratically oriented technology has made possible and for which there is no precedent.

Blogging is a new cultural phenomenon. It’s impacting too upon mainstream media. Sifry has a list of the top 90 media websites, as measured by bloggers linking to them, which is headed by the New York Times. Eleven of these 90 are blogs, with the fascinating (‘A Directory of Wonderful Things’) the top English language one, clocked in at No 24. Generalising from all this mass of data is not easy, but should still be attempted!

Blogging involves engagement and activity. Bloggers and blog readers are no ‘couch potatoes’. The Google survey (Guardian, 8 March 2006) showing the average Briton spends 164 minutes online every day compared with 148 minutes watching TV was not based upon a representative sample, but the findings certainly reflect a significant trend, which parallels what is happening with blogs.

We need also to look at the context in which blogging takes place. Many individuals may see their blogs as being written primarily for friends and family, but this doesn’t contradict Suw Charman’s statement in her  article The 12 reasons why UK businesses don’t blog that “blogging is about increasing search engine visibility”.

In a web enabled world increasingly people obtain information not via a telephone call, a directory or a CAB visit, but through a search engine because this is quickest. So if you have something to say and want an audience, blogging has become an efficient, cheap and flexible tool for the job. The first movers, those with most to say or who can cross communicate via existing media (journalists, TV presenters, politicians) and bloggers knowledgeable about search technology can turn the tool into a mighty megaphone.

‘The invisible hand on the keyboard’ article in last week’s Economist (5 August 2006, page 67) describes how academic economists have taken to blogging with a vengeance. Newspapers are full of footballers’ blogs, consultants use them to promote their services and untested bands like the Arctic Monkeys can rapidly accumulate support through viral marketing.

All these factors can be applied with equal force for corporate and organisational purposes. but UK companies have not followed the US, where established companies like Microsoft have over 2000 present and former employees blogging and a start up like Zillow builds corporate blogging into its strategy from Day 1. Through its zillowblog, it plans to spread the word, show its human face and involve its readers in the development of its product.

There’s no reason the same principles should not be applied to the post-16 and adult & community education sector, particularly where there are large numbers of staff and tutors. Once started there’s a huge potential here for tutors to encourage their adult learners to publish their work from an ESOL, skills for life, R2L, creative writing or art class etc on their own individual blogs.

I’m all for the comment of Shel Israel, joint author of Naked Conversations (about US corporate blogging): “The revolution is not in the blog, it is in the two-way conversations that empower communities of users more and monolithic organisations less”. We’re still though a long way in the UK from his vision of where people starting new jobs will “get their desks, computers, telephone, email and blog accounts” and be trusted and expected to use these tools for the job. But the informal and post 16 sector could be a great place to start pushing the blogging revolution forwards. It’s ideally positioned so why shouldn’t it be a first mover?

There was a nice piece this last week on a BBC radio programme, saying you can tell a lot about a person by the book they’re reading and inviting comments from listeners.

It struck a bell with me as the idea is linked to the whole concept of social computing and networking sites like MySpace. When a I buy a book, Amazon tells me that people selecting the same title, have bought other books I might be interested in – and usually I am. If I was told their names too, I’d probably like them and share a lot in common.

Yesterday there was a response to the original BBC piece – a real life story from a woman who was accosted by a man sitting down beside her on the train with the words: “My mother drew the illustration for the cover of the book you’re reading”. It was true and two years later they were married! Could there be a new formula here for dating sites?