Social Computing


[Digital nations in the making: Update Pages 11 & 32 – Use of mobile phones]

When making grant applications for IT and web-based projects, I’ve always been a tad hesitant when it comes to answering the environmental benefits question. Can I really claim, hand on heart, that the intended activities will really bring benefits – for instance by reducing participants’ travel and thus lowering their carbon footprint?

Well, recent studies in Japan – where I have been this month – have come up with some fascinating findings. A survey of 1000 people for Gulliver International, a major used car dealership chain, comparing 2007 with 1997, found that their major areas of interest were now the Internet [74%] and the keitai (mobile phone) [56%].

Details are in an article “Interest wanes in cars” in the Asahi Shimbun (30 January) and include another survey by the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA), which showed the numbers of 20-25 year old young men, not owning a car had risen significantly in just four years from 1 in 5 in 2001 to 1 in 3 in 2005 (21% to 32%).

Costs of car ownership, congestion, more urban living and good public transport were all likely causes as well, but the findings show that the car is losing out as a ‘must-have’ status symbol with the young.

On the plane coming home, I did an informal survey myself on these results with two young women, Mikiko and Ayaka, who were in their first year at university studying nutrition. All twenty students in their group had keitai and some like Mikiko had two. No doubt there about the importance they attached to this communication tool for the social networking generation.

“What about the decline in car ownership?”, I asked them. They smiled and nodded in agreement. I could see them asking themselves, “When you’ve got a cool keitai, who needs a car?”

Maybe I can answer those environmental questions now with a clearer conscience!

NOTE: For more on the use of keitai in Japan, see my blog posting exactly a year ago, “Setting standards in the Land of the Rising Sun”

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[Digital nations in the making: Update Page 6 – Community Grid for Learning]

A couple of weeks ago I was at an event in Oxford evaluating a beta version of Phoebe, a learning design tool which could have substantial potential for adult and continuing education and FE. When there’s so much out there already, is there room for more? Yes I think so, but I’ll backtrack a bit to explain why.

When we set up a server and website in the WEA Manchester office in 1996 with a high speed JANET link, I was excited at the prospect of developing a distributed learning network. Our tutors were isolated, working in many separate centres. Our small staff team, spread thinly, was stretched to provide even limited support.

The potential was there to build a new kind of learning community – sharing resources, collaborating, swapping experiences, building on good practice. An early diagram showed how we intended to link up provision in unemployed centres, libraries and community venues.

Bringing life to this early adult education electronic network was stimulating but slow. It led however in 2002 to our setting up with partners the Community Grid for Learning (CGfL) to develop networked learning with a strong social inclusion focus.

The CGfL website (www.learners.org.uk) still has good interactive courses, games and activities to stimulate learners, but funding dried up; and although over 2000 people enrolled for this online learning, there’s been only limited use of the material by tutors.

Since then learning platforms like Moodle and Blackboard have been widely introduced across all sectors and these have started to make us think how best to use a distributed network, holding course modules, video clips, assignments, web links etc. But they still haven’t gone far enough to transform the way that most tutors plan, design and run their courses.

Which is where Phoebe comes in . The tool has been developed by Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education (DCE) in response to a JISC Design for Learning (DfL) funding programme,  where DfL was (2004) described as “an appropriate balance between  e-learning and other modes of delivery.”

Liz Masterman from the University’s Computer Services Department describes its intended use as being for “initial teacher training, staff development and as a productivity tool and source of inspiration”.

As Marion Manton, the Phoebe coordinator at DCE explained, the central focus of the tool is the Design Template area. One of three existing levels can be used – basic, medium and advanced – or these can be altered for individual needs. Users can save their design for themselves – or for public use, allowing others to build incrementally on what they have created. In short there’s a learning community in the making here.

It’s a simple idea, but this is its strength; and the different sections of the tool are supported by help and context material immediately available. There’s a link to a del.icio.us Phoebe site for educause updates; and there are sections like “What can I do with a particular tool?” with alphabetically listed answers and “What technology can I use for …?”. Examples in the latter list include ‘Receive information’, ‘Define problem’, ‘Research’, ‘Analyse information’ etc and then indicates the technologies to consider using for each instance.

Discussions at the meeting indicated that most participants could see a use for the tool. It was better than a Word document or spreadsheet because it had so much other support material available to draw on; and enabled users to build on others’ work. It could make more use of social networking tools to encourage more sharing and communication between tutors – similar to what I was describing in my last post about LiquidPlanner – but these features could be added at a later stage.

Phoebe will be available for institutions to download onto their own servers and customise according to their own needs, but a question arose here about how that would affect the availability and updating of the help and support material. This issue will need a resolution. Phoebe is still in its design phase and will require additional funding to support this in the short term; as well as a business model to ensure its sustainability in the long term.

If you want to take a look, contact Marion Manton (marion.manton@conted.ox.ac.uk) at DCE, who will be pleased to supply you with a password for reviewing Phoebe.

I’ve been offline for blogging for the last three months, but a visit to Seattle and the West coast over the New Year has got me moving again. Moving also between different online and offline communities – united by their close involvement with and use of the web to maintain their activities and lifestyles.

Seattle car drivers I know make good use of online road reports to avoid traffic jams; but in winter the skiers join in, piling into their cars as sites like the North West Avalanche Centre  provide detailed forecasts and hourly data about snowfall, temperatures and risks in the Cascade resorts of Snoqualmie, Stevens Pass and Crystal Mountain, all within reach even after a day’s work.

If you’re not so keen on snow-clad bare mountains, the continent’s West coast has warmer attractions too, as the photos below of sunrises for the first 6 days of 2008 show. (Taken in La Ventana, 30 miles south of La Paz). Day temperatures were up to 27° C.

Five separate sunrises in La Ventana, Baja Peninsula, Mexico in the first week of January 2008.

Visiting Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, a two hour flight from Los Angeles, I met up with members of two partly overlapping communities – the surfers and the windsurfers/kiteboarders. Critically reliant on the power of the waves and the winds, both groups are highly dependent on good advice on weather & wind patterns and accurate websites for up to date information.

 All you need is a laptop or a mobile internet device.  www.Iwindsurf.com for instance provides live windcams  and realtime wind speed and direction graphs for selected areas; while surfline.com carries crucial information on the arrival of swell trains travelling across the Pacific. Both sites have forums and gear sections.

Surfers it is said are a bit more cagey about where to find the best conditions as there is only one ‘sweet spot’ on a breaking wave and will go to great lengths to find uncrowded breaks. The world of windsurfers and kiteboarders seems more open. There’s a hard core of them, very relaxed, who are always meeting up according to Marie-Christine Leclerc, a kiteboard instructor, who winters down south in Baja and travels north for the summer to run her Elevation Kiteboarding School, at Nitinat Lake, north of Victoria on Vancouver Island.

Back in Seattle after the New Year break, the pace is much brisker, at least in the internet start up sector, as I found out when invited to a briefing event at LiquidPlanner.  They are building some innovative online project management and scheduling software with integrated collaborative and social networking tools and were meeting with potential investors. LiquidPlanner aims to capture the uncertainty inherent in projects through the use of ranged rather than point estimates – an idea explored in more detail by Bruce Henry, the company’s “Director of Rocket Science” in a recent blog posting.

“Project management is a social exercise.” Charles Seybold, LiquidPlanner’s CEO told us. “The key for our product is to help people manage uncertainty.” That sounded familiar and not so different from the world of education!  With a fair wind behind them, it will be interesting to see where Charles and his team have got to in 18 months’ time. In the meantime they are launching the product at the DEMO emerging technologies conference in California at the end of this month.
 
 

[Digital nations in the making: Update Page 132 – Search technology]

I’ve spent three days this last week at ALT 2007, the annual conference for learning technologists working primarily in higher education. With 196 papers, posters, presentations and workshops to attend, there were plenty of signs of ingenuity and creativity in the sector. The event was well planned and organised by the ALT team, though I was sorry they had not managed to attract more participants from further and adult education.

There were compelling keynote speeches from Michelle Selinger, Cisco’s Global Education Strategist and from Dylan Wiliam, Deputy Director of the Institute of Education on Assessment, but the one that had caught my eye before arrival was the concluding one, “Learning in an Open World” by Peter Norvig, an acknowledged expert in Artificial Intelligence and Director of Research at Google, where he oversees a range of their cutting edge research initiatives. [Update16/9/07: There’s some comment on the details of these keynotes by ALT’s CEO Seb Schmoller in his fortnightly mailing – together with a link to an upcoming interview with Peter Norvig.]

I was interested to hear Peter’s views on current developments in search strategy and algorithm generation, as there’s been quiet beating on the tom-toms on this theme over these last three months. Google claims that it ‘stands alone in its focus on developing the “perfect search engine”‘, but in a New York Times article, ‘The Human Touch that may loosen Google’s Grip’ (June 24th), Randall Stross reported a host of small start ups were kicking at Google’s heels.

He highlighted in detail the case of Mahalo, which is developing a search technique with human editing for improved and more focused results. This was picked up by Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team who indicated that changes were in the air at Google and was himself reflecting comments earlier in the week from Marissa Meyer, Google’s Vice President (Search Products and User Experience) [Guardian blogs].

In the event the point wasn’t covered in Peter’s speech, so I asked him at the conclusion if he thought user generated content could help to improve and refine their search algorithms, the key instruments of this $160 billion company, now the largest media company in the world. His answer, interesting for its rationale and conclusion is below.

“I think the problem that there is too much information is that there really is that much information. It’s not just a problem of overloading people with the presentations …… No one really cares that there’s a million resolved and they’re not going to go to the end and look at that.

“So the results are up there and really the question is how much time do they have to investigate this area and how much time are they willing to put in; and can we find the good stuff for them in that allocated amount of time.

“And given that, I think there is room for user generated commentary to help that process. To an extent Google has always been driven by user generated content – so there are users who happen to be web masters who publish material, there are other users who are web masters who link between the materials; and that provides sort of codes, that we go on, to judge appropriateness.

“We also go by looking at our users’ address activity to judge what is important and so on. So it’s done by algorithms but all these algorithms have, after inputs, actions that offset the punts of the user.

“Now I think we can use additions to those sources that we’re already using. We can use some more explicit ones – people loading ‘Yes – This is a good site for this topic, or for this keyword, or for this area’; and getting more people than just people who traditionally have had access, network access to try to open up that form to democratise it more, so that other people can put in their voices as well. So that’s an area we are certainly looking at”.

The Economist’s recent article, ‘Inside the Googleplex’ (1 September) chose to use “The Simpsons” TV programme portrayal of Marge Simpson typing her own name into a Google search engine as a sign of the company entering mainstream US culture, but her amazement to find 629,000 results doesn’t quite hit the right note now. Companies like Amazon, epinions and Trip Advisor have been using UGC with marked success for a good few years, so it will be fascinating to see how quickly Google follows the trend and moves in this new direction.

[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 11 – Mobile phones]

It’s interesting to see that last week’s cover story in the Economist (17 Feb), “The end of the cash era” has a follow-up to my last blog posting on the use of mobile phones in Japan. I noted there how the keitai is being used widely as a ‘cash wallet’ to buy tickets, coffee and much else.

The Economist briefing report on The future of money (Pages 75-78) has an excellent survey on what’s happening with smart cards and and how the Japanese ‘bitWallet’ Edy system – owned by Sony and DoCoMo (the country’s biggest mobile operator) – has already been migrated to over 4.5 million mobile phones for making payments.

Based on “near-field communication” (NFC) technology [See video below], the inserted chip allows paperless transactions to be completed at 43,000 stores – all in under a second by a swipe of the handset. No more wating then in the till queue for your fruit bar or quick fix snack!

Studies by Visa in the US have shown that Americans generally are two times as likely to carry a mobile as cash  and four times as likely if they’re aged 18-24. So in the technology convergence stakes, the coming of e-cash could put mobiles still higher up the list of devices available  in everyone’s pocket, handbag or briefcase.

Isn’t it time we put some more effort into thinking just how best we could use them for attracting and supporting adults back into learning?

[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.

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