Blogs


[Digital nations in the making: Update Page 98 – Web 2.0 & adult education].

“We have an old Slovak saying”, my interpreter once told me, “’The dogs are still barking, but the caravan’s moved on’”. She was explaining an intricacy of the old communist bureaucracy in Bratislava, but I’ve found myself recently wondering if the same saw applies to the concept of Web 2.0. Is it just a bit of clever marketing by people with an interest in pushing their own product or services?

Tim Berners Lee, founder of the web, has been saying for a while that he never thought it was a useful concept and that the next serious development was the semantic web, which would enable far more powerful manipulation and classification of data on the web – and help usher in the development of a new ‘web science’.

He has a point of course. Anyone with some basic html skills has been able to publish on the web for years, so the likes of blogs, wikis, flickr.com photo galleries etc – which facilitate web publication and contributions by individuals – are not technically major advances.

But for the non-technical and for adult learners they are major developments. They have moreover great potential for tutors working with adults on improving literacy and numeracy skills and for democratizing the web.

Powerful resources and exciting tools are available from a wide range of web sites but surprisingly they have not yet been very actively taken up by tutors and adult education providers – although there are early adopters, who have been keen to innovate. A simple but effective example is the class blog set up last year for Entry Level 3 ESOL students at Dewsbury College.

A good start in opening up debate on this whole area in the world of education has come this year from JISC. In February Theresa Beattie and Chris Barber from JISC’s Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Support Centre led a well-attended Excellence in e-Learning event in Wakefield – backed up by some good online documentation on their Moodle platform – on Web 2.0 technologies and social learning; and in the same month JISC published Paul Anderson’s excellent paper, What is Web 2.0? Ideas, technologies and implications for education“, which is well worth reading.

JISC has also supported the innovative work – discussed at the Wakefield event – which Rose Papworth has been doing at Hull College using the open source e-learning tool http://elgg.org/  The web site for this work at Hull is currently being developed; and further information about the RSC’s Web 2.0 course can be obtained from Theresa Beattie (T.Beattie@leeds.ac.uk).

Like the phrase ‘The Industrial Revolution’, the term Web 2.0 is very broad and generalized but it does encompass one very important notion of opening and broadening the web to far more active engagement of citizens and learners through networking and the use of social software. It may not be a perfect term, but for my money it retains some traction and explanatory worth.

You may wonder though what exactly that other term “web science” is all about, which Tim Berners Lee (TBL) has been pursuing with others at MIT and Southampton University. It’s an interesting idea, but is there really a new discipline emerging here or is it rather a bid to set up some new academic courses? For a report of an interview with TBL on this subject, see The Register (23 March 2007).

[Digital nations in the making: Update Page 98 – Web 2.0 & adult education].

The mid November Economist had an interesting article on ‘blogging professionals’ (Going Pro, p. 67, 16 November 2006). These are people whose blog readership generates sufficient income from click-through advertising to enable them to concentrate solely on blog production to the exclusion of other work. They represent a small percentage of bloggers, but are by no means restricted to the technical.

dooce.com is a good example from a disillusioned Mormon woman – who has suffered from depression and chats away about home, kids, husband and the world – and shows the kind of advertising she has attracted to the site. She shares high popularity rankings with the author of You-Tube’s geriatric1927, whose wartime memories, recorded on simple home video, have found a seam which absorbs the interest of thousands of people.

One blog mentioned in the Economist article was that of Om Malik, which I was particularly interested to see, as I had used his excellent material in Digital nations in the making when writing about developments in Web 2.0

Another sign of the times for blogging is the attention paid by the mainstream press. Most have links on some day of the week. The Wall Street Journal (27 November 2006) for instance had Jessica Marmor’s Blog Watch on the highly topical issue of Weather and Climate. Two caught my eye as being of particular interest to tutors and learners studying environmental topics. 

Jeff Masters, an expert in air pollution meteorology, who has literally flown into the eye of many storms to collect data, has  a wunderblog, full of informed views and data, including a good review of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. Another site realclimate.org has expert contributors from many countries and significantly looks at the politics as well as the science relating to climate change. Both are well worth looking at.

For the last (and best) word on the subject of climate change, Jeff Masters recommends “for every citizen of the globe” the website of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of over 2000 scientists from 100 countries, mandated by the UN.

What factors induce us to change and embrace the new, to let go of the comfortable known? Is it different country by country? International projects are good for exploring these questions, but my experience for bidding for grants to do this has been patchy.

One of my first attempts was an ‘arms into ploughshares’ workforce development project in 1991. I was doing a scoping consultancy in Czechoslovakia for the British Council after the fall of the Berlin Wall and met the Managing Director of the tank factory in Marten in Slovakia.

We spent a Sunday morning on site discussing the future for the 10,000 workforce and came up with the outline of an exchange programme with the hi-tec arms manufacturer Lucas Aerospace in Burnley.

The project got lost in the bureaucracy, but I learnt that when the priority items (tanks) you are producing become valueless overnight, you’re highly motivated to look for change. The known is no longer a comfort zone.

The experience was at the back of my mind this year when I wrote a Grundtvig bid for an innovative learning platform project, involving a rare mix of adult and vocational education partners from five other countries – Finland, Lithuania, Greece. Portugal and Northern Ireland.

Exactly the same proposal was submitted to each of the Governments and this time I had a bit more luck, as two of the bids were successful. Sadly though the British Council rejected ours (“unclear aims” and “not enough details of learner involvement”), so the project lapsed without the required three EU partners.

The Ministry of Education in Greece – one of the less internet advanced countries in the EU – was however a backer, so this last week I’ve been in Chios in the Eastern Aegean to see if there’s been a post Olympics technology mood change in the country.

Why Chios? Well it’s remote from Athens (6 hours by boat) and a bit like some of the rural areas in Canada and the UK, which I wrote about in Digital Nations in the making, where internet penetration was low. A large and varied island, close to mainland Turkey, it has good infrastructure, substantial shipping interests and a large mastic growing industry.

Tourism knows its place – only 5,000 beds are available compared with 180,000 in nearby Samos, but there are good quality developments, like at Pyrgos Village, Volissos in the north west of the island. Here traditional hill top houses in disrepair have been sensitively restored with no expense spared.

View of Volissos with ruined Byzantine fortress above.

They are linked to a stunning new conference centre – all with broadband ADSL connectivity – which I discussed in a conference call with Spilios Vlachoulis, the Athens-based manager. There’s local gossip about the source of all this investment and doubts if it ever could become the ‘Davos of the Aegean’ (as some claim), so I’ll be listening for news – as well as looking out for some adult education conference possibilities.

There’s plenty of good web based information available in Greece for the traveller – for example Greek Travel Pages (www.gtp.gr) has details of ferry schedules, the Ministry of Culture’s website (www.culture.gr) lists sites and monuments and there’s a digest of Eastern Aegean News, covering Greece, Turkey and Cyprus news. The Rough Guide can provide more.

The mobile telecommunications revolution has hit Greece as well. I wasn’t phased by the woman cleaner taking her call in the Athens gents toilet, but was a bit surprised in Chios to see the 8 year old girl happily texting in a rural village and the fisherman juggling his mobile and the tiller as he steered his way back to the quayside at the end of the day.

Landing from the Athens ferry, I booked in to Chios Rooms, where Don Rodgers originally from New Zealand, runs a simple and friendly set up on the waterfront. He’s well-connected and a barometer too for changing attitudes to technology. He now has his own website, built by an Italian student doing a course locally at the University of the Aegean and plans shortly to take up an ADSL broadband connection.

Another incentive to promote connectivity has come from a Ministry of Tourism (EOT) offer of a free new computer to small businesses, in a scheme similar to ones we have seen here in the UK.

Don’s been a great source of information and is a good ambassador for Chios. He enjoys a good crack and makes connections. “What’s the first thing every visitor asks me?” he chuckles and quickly answers, ‘Where’s the internet cafe, Don?’.

His website works as it brings new bookings, so he’s planning to promote the Bridgehead to Turkey idea and local festivals via the web to extend the season and make a more viable business. I’ve sold him the idea of his own blog about events and people passing through. He’s just got to find the time, say 10-15 minutes once or twice a week!

Chios Rooms is a magnet for travellers who use guide books and the web for information and the hotel for swapping stories and meeting others like Greek American families, Italians, Australians, French, Dutch, Canadians – and a few Brits like Mike Carter, one of the Observer’s freelance Eurobloggers, with whom I spent a couple of hours discussing media trends over some coffee.

Mike had just crossed from Izmir after doing 20,000 kilometres on his BMW bike through Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Turkey and was emailing back to the UK a weekly report of his adventures.

He’d plenty of good stories but what struck me most was how easy he had found it in so many places to pick up an unsecured wi-fi connection and post his report and photos straight from his Mac computer. The weirdest place? In his tent in the middle of a Swedish field!

The message was clear. Central Europe and the expanding EU is fast embracing new technologies and the web. Like the Greeks in Chios and my tank manufacturer in Slovakia, people are willing to experiment and adopt when they can see advantages. Tourism is an obvious example, but there is much scope for educational use as with the University of the Aegean, with its broadband links between different departments scattered across the islands.

The Greek Ministry of Education must have liked our Grundtvig project for just this reason – promoting educational innovation. Pity about those other Governments not seeing the potential.

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 boingboing.net (‘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?

Technorati Profile

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

I need to experiment more with blogs – who doesn’t? – to see how they are best optimised. Today I have been looking at technorati and setting up a link (see above). Earlier in the month I saw that Charlene Li in her blog Calculating the ROI of blogs (5 June) was saying that she did not know how much of a return there was on her efforts from blogging and the following week Roy Greenslade from the Guardian was writing about blogging being a big experiment for him. But both of them have got effective ways of independently promoting the blogs, which I haven’t.

Mine seems to be averaging about 10-12 viewings a day over the last month, though I had 120 on one day, thanks to a mention by Chris Swaine from Becta in their Apollo listing. I also want to know how many organisations are using a blog as a way of communicating with the users and members instead of a website, like the Connaught Adult and Community Learning Centre in Hove. Charlene Li from Forrester Research Group, which has just recently carried out an evaluation of 9 blogging platforms, comments that “The general take of the report is that blogging is quickly moving beyond simply managing posts into a lightweight content management system.” Its use is certainly being widely encouraged in the US in the corporate sector, as a way of engaging with customers and clients. The WordPress platform used for this blog comes out in the report as a leader in terms of functionality in a group with two others, iUpload and SixApart.

What is the potential for blogging for adult learners and how are they being used at present? There is some useful background material about blogs on the aclearn.net staff development e-learning centre (SDELC) site. An interesting weblog pilot, supported by NIACE, has been run between October 2005 and March 2006 in several ACL bodies in England. Experience differed and depended substantially on the subject matter, group members, PC skill levels and the enthusiasm of the tutor. But Sarah Sweetman’s conclusions about the experience of Bromley Adult Education College were clear: “An unexpected benefit (although perhaps it should have been anticipated) was that the weblogs catered for a different learning style….. [With some caveats] I would definitely recommend weblogs to other tutors and will be promoting them within our college.”

Comments and advice from other people on this range of issues about blogging would be welcome! Is it easier to get the tutor to write and get the learners to respond? Who has used it to encourage their students to link with a photo gallery on flickr.com or similar site? What tips are there for using technorati to widen your readership?