Some thoughts on the future of universities (interview with me in The Voice Magazine)

Part 2 of a longer interview with me, the largest part of which is concerned with my thoughts on the future of universities. Because there has been a small stir lately around an Educause Review article on a similar topic (worth reading – a useful perspective that might make some conversations easier), I thought it might be worth sharing. There are some broadly similar ideas, albeit from a somewhat different angle, as well as a couple that are not there in the Educause article (notably related to the fact that institutions and teacher controlled activities are not the only fruit, and what that implies for universities), and my summary is much shorter!

The editor, Karl, disagreed with me in his editorial, I think because he misunderstood what I was calling for, and so I wrote a brief follow-up, again published by the Voice Magazine, on the letters page of the current issue, which presents it using a slightly different set of metaphors.

Disclaimer: this is far from my final, complete and considered view on the topic. It’s just a brief and spontaneous answer to a question that I might answer at least slightly differently on any given day of the week. There will be a chapter by me and Terry Anderson coming out in the forthcoming second edtion of the SAGE Handbook of E-learning Research that provides a more rigorous and careful prediction of the future of online learning, in which we attempt to explore not so much the digital wonders to come (though there is a bit of that) but the pedagogical character and organizational form it will possess. One of the central points we make in this is that a central characteristic of that future will be diversity. There are not only many possible futures. There will be many actual futures.

Address of the bookmark:

Google Launches Revamped Google Plus Around Interests, Streams

This deserves more than a brief analysis, but it is such an interesting development I feel compelled to comment on it now. If I can find time, I hope to return to it in more depth later when I’ve had a chance to think more carefully about it, and to play with the system some more. The interesting news is that, while there is still a binding role that links disparate Google services together, Google Plus’s focus is now Communities (basically, what we call groups on the Landing) and Collections (on the Landing, a mix of tags – especially in the form they will have in our forthcoming upgrade – and pinboards). In brief, it’s about connecting around what interests people, not about connecting with interesting people.

This new fork of Google Plus interests me most because it is very strongly focused on the social form that Terry Anderson and I describe as the set, as opposed to the network (like Facebook, LinkedIn and others). It is, like Pinterest, Reddit, Stack Exchange or SlashDot, much more about clusters of people around topics and areas of interest and, only as a side-effect, the networks or organized groups that might develop as a result. Some people talk of such things as networks of interest, but I think that is misleading as it implies a meaningful connection between people: as a social form, sets often involve little or no persistent social connection at all. This harks back to pre-web days, performing a technologically advanced version of the same kind of things Usenet newsgroups and bulletin boards used to do. That is still arguably the most interesting way the Internet changes things, because it benefits from the breakdown of physical boundaries and the presence of large, diverse crowds. This enables both crowd wisdom and the long tail and, as a learning tool, it is incredibly powerful. In a slightly different way, Wikipedia is also set-based, and so is YouTube. Apart from Google Search itself, these are probably the most successful examples of e-learning’s phenomenal success in the world today. What is particularly interesting about Google’s move is that, to a greater extent than has previously been possible, it offers a little bit of identity assurance, and controllable privacy, as well as in-built scalability, as well as the means to seamlessly shift into other social forms when needed or desired. There is some super-cool technology behind this, and some careful design. One of the biggest problems as well as an occasional benefit of sets has always been their relative anonymity. The worst flaming, trolling and griefing occurs in sets, rather than networks or closed, organized groups, because they are less intimate and people are less accountable to one another. I don’t think the revamped Google Plus will totally solve that, but it’s a step in the right direction. It also offers the opportunity for growth and evolution of other social forms, including networks. The fact that it offers communities, which can be as set-like or group-like as their owners wish (again, very like Elgg) helps with that a lot, and it seamlessly blends in to other group-oriented toolsets like (notably) Google Docs and Calendars. I hope that it picks up a few hints from Reddit, Stack Exchange or SlashDot (in increasing order of complexity and ingenuity) to help sustain those sets.

Google Plus has, from the start, had this kind of idea in mind. Its ‘Circles’ feature (that mirrors what Elgg and consequently the Landing had many years before) is about sets within networks – about recognizing that people are different in different contexts, wish to disclose different things to different people, and have many overlapping and/or separate spheres of interest at different times. This is fundamentally different from Facebook’s single-identity network model, and fundamentally stronger. Facebook’s model is focused solidly on building vast networks and driving adoption, which it does do incredibly efficiently, but it is a shallowing, smoothing model that devalues and ignores much of what makes us distinctively human. For all its addictive qualities it is also quite dull, and it leads to filter bubbles, echo chambers, narcissism, and a focus on breadth, not depth, of growth and knowledge. It’s a soft toolset that can do more than that, but its business model and basic shape are firmly centred on building the network at any cost. I suppose I should mention Twitter too, though that is a different kind of animal. Using both sets (hashtags) and networks (following), Twitter works because it connects people and other things. It is not a social network (though it has one) but is more of a hybrid between SMS and a social bookmarking service. If only it were not so intent on locking itself in and trying to embrace more than it should, it would be an excellent complement to Google+.

I think this is a minor reshaping of Google Plus, not a major overhaul. It is mostly about better marketing what it already does. I am surprised that anyone, least of all Google, ever imagined it was going head-to-head with Facebook. Google primarily wanted to know more about people so that it could integrate that knowledge into better search, not to build a vast social network. Though it might have liked the idea of stemming the flow of data into a closed system it could not access easily, it almost certainly knew that was a battle it could not win. But it was always attempting something much smarter, in the long term. Google Plus had (and has) a social networking toolset, sure, but that was not what gave it its primary character. It was always much more about stuff people shared, not people sharing stuff, which is of course what Google has done best for a long time and what really interests the company. Unfortunately, it was perceived as an unsuccessful Facebook competitor, and that has not helped its cause one bit. This new development is just a refinement of the system that makes that central differentiating aspect of it clearer and easier to understand.

I hope people get it, even though it is far from perfect. As a matter of principle I’m against any system that seeks to suck in and centralize what should be open and controlled by its users so this is far from the ideal way things should be. Unfortunately, none of the open initiatives that would give genuine ownership and control to users have gained market dominance yet, with the possible exception of Wordpress. So, of all the larger companies that occupy this user-farming space, Google is perhaps the least objectionable and the most forward-looking. For all its smart AI and glitz, it might be the most human and, perhaps, the most genuinely open. At least, it tries not to lock its users in so they cannot get out and it seldom breaks standards to lock people in. It also does have some incredibly smart technology that is genuinely useful. Though there are many ways that its famous ‘don’t be evil’ mantra has not worked out as well as it should, it is way too centralized, it does not give true ownership to its users, and it seems to be getting greedier as it grows up, at least it’s not Facebook.

Address of the bookmark:

When School Feels Like Jail

Thanks to Ben Werdmüller for drawing my attention to this.

This is a harrowing article, describing widespread Institutionalized child abuse, notably (but not exclusively) in a few Southern US states. It describes a brutal, broken, obscene system of education with consequences that are, as Ben puts it, jaw-dropping. I felt sick to my bones reading this. How could any society tolerate what is being done to these children? What kind of society will these children create?

The kids would be better off on the streets than imprisoned in these barbaric monstrosities. This is worse than no education at all – much, much worse. Worst of all, I can think of no more sure and certain way to cause a system like this than a system like this, so it is hard to see an end in sight for this blighted population.

It is worth noting that, though this is a very extreme abberation, it results from a set of attitudes and principles that drive most schools the world over. When teachers see it as their job to keep control, when they measure success through standardized tests and imposed targets, when control (of schools, teachers and students) is accomplished through punishment and reward, this is where it can ultimately lead. Loathsome in the extreme.

Address of the bookmark:

A multi-institutional study of the impact of open textbook adoption on the learning outcomes of post-secondary students

To complement a bookmark to an article about this paper I posted yesterday, here’s a link to the paper itself, by Lane Fischer, John Hilton III, T. Jared Robinson, and David A. Wiley. I don’t have much to add to the comments I made previously, save that a very large amount of the focus and discussion of the paper itself is on the merits of the low (typically neglible) cost of OERs and consequent effects on access. The authors speculate that the occasional relative benefits seen for courses with OERs may relate to the fact that all students actually used those OERs, whereas some of those on courses with expensive textbooks may not have been willing or able to get hold of them. For somewhere like Athabasca, where textbooks are provided whether they are free or not, this would not be an issue (though it sure costs the university a lot of money to avoid OERs).

I’d really like to see a study of instances where OERs are not simple substitutes for textbooks but where the really big advantage – the ability to make changes – is made full use of. It is possible that there may be a systemic advantage in that which would mean OERs are generally better than paid-for textbooks. Of course, it would still not tell us very much, because textbooks are usually only a small part (and, in a fair number of courses, including all of my own, a non-existent part) of what makes for a good learning experience. In fact, I find it a bit worrying that, according to this study, they appear to matter as much as they do. It makes me wonder what all those expensive teachers are doing and worry about what kind of course design relies so heavily on textbooks that it should make such a significant difference.

Address of the bookmark:

Major Study Finds OER Students Do Just as Well — or Better

Like most such studies, this begs more questions than it asks, and the answers must always be ‘it depends on how you do it’, so it is more than a bit odd that the question even arises.  Of course some OERs are at least as good as some for-profit textbooks under some circumstances, and the converse is almost certainly true too. I have never heard a less-than-stupid argument that OERs are necessarily worse than paid-for resources, nor vice versa. It’s a ridiculous idea. The point about OERs is not that they are better or worse as educational resources per se but that they are open. This does make them much cheaper, which is no bad thing. The big advantage, though, is that they can be adapted more easily and freely for different contexts, without constraint. In principle, as a result, they can evolve to become better: though not all are used that way and only a few will improve in the process, that’s ultimately the most compelling advantage.

It is, though, good to see that OERs, as used at the moment, are at least as good as closed educational resources across a wide range of subject areas, and are sometimes better. I guess there might be someone somewhere who believes otherwise. If so, we can now give them a bit of empirical proof that they are wrong.

Address of the bookmark:

Three ways to save distance universities

TELUQ logoToday brings another bit of bad news for a distance education institution, with TELUQ’s future looking uncertain, though it is good to see that its importance and contribution is also recognized, and it is a long way from dead yet. Though rumours of Athabasca University’s own demise resulting mainly from our acting president’s message that has widely been construed as a suicide note to the world are greatly exaggerated, and repudiated by the acting president himself, similar issues are reflected here and in the Open University, UK, that has lost a quarter of its students over the past five years.  I have heard informal whispers from Europe that the OUNl is in similarly dire straits, though have no references to support that and it might just be hearsay – I’d welcome any news on that.

We are all institutions that were established within a very few years of one another (AU and OU-UK within months of each other) at a time that there were no viable higher education alternatives for students without formal qualifications, who were stuck in a location without a university, who were in full-time employment, or for whatever reason could not or would not attend a physical institution.

Moving on 40-50 years, times have changed dramatically but, fundamentally, we have not. Sure, we have mostly dropped the archaic technologies that we used when we were founded, but paper course packs and associated processes and pedagogies lurk deep within our organizational DNA even if the objects themselves are mostly a memory. Sure, we have, collectively, been leaders and prime movers in establishing the research, the pedagogies and the technologies of distance education that are now widespread in most physical universities, but it is notable that most of our innovative practices have been taken up more widely elsewhere than in our own institutions. And there are lots of alternatives elsewhere nowadays, from MOOCs to the massive growth of distance courses on face-to-face campuses, and much else besides.

Competition is only one of many reasons for the peril distance institutions are now in. It is odd, at first glance, that we have reached this point because we were first past the post for decades and, thanks to our relative independence of physical infrastructure and our research leadership, should have been more agile in adapting to what, from the early 90s, has clearly been a rapidly changing educational and technological landscape to which we should have been perfectly adapted. But there are some critical structural flaws in our design that have held us back. All of the open universities of this era originally adopted an industrial design model, based heavily on the work of people like Otto Peters and Charles Wedermeyer, who talked of independent learning but actually meant anything but when it came to teaching. This was essential in pre-Internet times, because communication was too slow and cumbersome to do anything else, both pedagogically and in business processes. But it had systemic consequences.

We have been and to a large extent remain driven by process in all that we do. We were designed primarily as machines for higher education, not as communities of scholars. Just as we structured our teaching, so we structured our organizations and, as transactional distance theory suggests, the result was less dialogue, especially in places like AU that had a distributed workforce. We have inherited a culture of process and structure, and consequent sluggish change. This has been improving in places thanks to things like the Landing at AU and similar initiatives elsewhere, but not fast enough and, certainly at AU and I gather also in our sister institutions, there have been steps backwards as well as forwards. At AU we have, of late, made some very poor ICT choices and retrograde organizational restructuring that actually increases, rather than reduces the amount of structure and process, and that reduces the potential for the spread of knowledge and dialogue. Meanwhile, thanks to our traditional course model, with its lack of feedback loops, we have till now mainly designed our teaching around quality assurance, not quality control: courses can take years to prepare and tend to be pretty well written but, for the majority, their success is measured by meaningless proxies that tell us little or nothing about their true impact and effectiveness. Though there are plenty of exceptions, too few courses use pedagogies, processes and other technologies that allow us to know our students and gain deep understanding of their concerns and interests.

Three things that could save open and distance universities from irrelevance

Given the imminent peril that open and distance universities appear to be finding themselves in, the solution is not to tweak what we have or to seek even more efficiencies in processes that are no longer relevant. Now is the time for a little bit of reinvention: not much. All of what is needed already exists in pockets. We have learned a lot – far more than our physical counterparts – about the challenges of distance learning and many of us have discovered ways of doing it that work. And, for all the path dependencies that claw at us, we do have innate organizational agility, so change is not impossible. More to the point, it is worth doing: distance education has innate advantages that physically co-present education (there must be a better term!) cannot hope to match.

At least part of the solution lies firstly in capitalizing on and enhancing the natural benefits that distance learning brings, notably in terms of freedom. Secondly, it lies in reducing as many of its disadvantages as we can.

Distance learning is all about freedom, but we have inherited two things from our physical forebears that unnecessarily constrain that: fixed-length courses, and accreditation umbilically linked to teaching. We need to rid ourselves of fixed-length courses, and disaggregate learning from assessment, so that learners can choose to work on things that really matter to them and gain accreditation for what they know rather than what we choose to teach. Right now, a course is like one of those cable TV packages that contains one or two channels you actually want and a whole load that you do not. The tightly bound assessments force students to bow to our needs, not theirs, which is awful for motivation and retention. This means that those with prior knowledge are bored, those who find it difficult are over-pressured, and the point of learning becomes not skill acquisition but credit acquisition. This in turn reinforces an unhealthy power relationship that only ever had any point in the first place because of the constraints of teaching in physical classrooms, and that is ultimately demotivating (extrinsically motivating) for all concerned.

This is ridiculous when we do not have such constraints – lack of need for teacher control (unless students want it, of course – but that’s the point, students can choose) is one of the key ways that distance learning is inherently better than classroom learning. Classroom teachers need control. Indeed, it is almost impossible to do it effectively without it, notwithstanding a lot of tricks and techniques that can somewhat limit the damage for those that hate sticks and carrots. At the very least they need to get people in one place at one time, and organize behaviour once everyone is there. We do not.

We need better tailored learning, and to support many different ways of doing it. Smaller chunks would help a lot – the equivalent of unbundling channels on a cable TV package – but, really, courses should be no bigger or smaller than they need to be for the purpose. Only rarely is that 15 weeks/100 hours, or whatever standard size universities choose to use. We do it for reasons that are solely related to organizational convenience and that emerged only because of the need to schedule students, teachers, and classrooms in physical spaces. Some students may need no tuition at all – all adult learners come with some knowledge, and some bring a lot. Some may need more than we currently give. We need to recognize and accommodate all that diversity. One of the most effective ways to handle our accreditation role under such circumstances is to have separate assessment of learning, unrelated to the course in any direct way. Our challenge and PLAR processes at AU are almost ready for that already, so it’s not an impossible shift. The other effective way to handle accreditation when we no longer control the inputs and outputs is to negotiate learning outcomes with the students through personalized learning contracts. There are plenty of models for such competency-based, andragogic ways of doing things: we would not be the first, by any means, and already run quite a few courses and processes that allow for it.

The second part of the solution lies in reducing or even removing the relative disadvantages of distance education. The largest of these by far is social isolation and its side-effects, notably on motivation. We need to build a richer, more connected community, to employ pedagogies that take advantage of the fact that we actually have about 40,000 students passing through every year at AU (OU-UK has many more, despite its losses), and to better support our teachers and researchers in engaging with one another and/or learning from one another. In too many of our courses and programs, students may never even be aware of others, let alone benefit from learning with them. This does not imply that we should always force our students to collaborate (or force them to do anything) and it certainly doesn’t mean we should do truly stupid things like give marks for discussion contributions, but it does mean creating ubiquitous opportunities to engage, and making others (and their learning) more visible in the process. This matters as much to staff as it does to students. The Landing is a partial technological solution (or support for a solution) to that problem but it does not go nearly far enough and is not deeply embedded as it should be. Such opportunities to engage and to be aware of others should be everywhere in our virtual space, not on a separate site that only about a quarter of staff and students visit. And, of course, it only really makes sense if we adapt the ways we support learning to match, not just in our deliberate teaching but in our attitudes to sharing, engaging and connecting.

There are lots of other things that could be done – whole books can be and have been written about that – but these three simple changes would be sufficient, I think, to bring about profound positive change throughout the entire system:

  1. valorizing and enabling the social,
  2. variable length courses and lessons, and
  3. disaggregating assessment from learning

Physical universities would equally benefit from all of these but, apart from in their social affordances (that are certainly great, if sometimes under-utilized), have far less innate ability to support them. I think that means that distance universities still have a place at the vanguard of change.

It has long annoyed me that distance education is seen by many as a poor cousin to face-to-face learning. In some cases and in some ways, sure, physical co-presence gives an edge. But, in others, especially in terms of freedom – pedagogical and personal freedom, not just in terms of space, pace and place – distance education can be notably superior. To achieve its potential, it just needs to throw off the final shackles it inherited from its ancestor.

Pastor Sells ‘Holy Pens’ That Make Students Pass Exams Without Studying, Claims The More You Pay The More You Pass

This could save a lot of angst and effort for students and greatly reduce the cost of education. It’s an absolute steal: for between $1 and $20 you can get a prophet-anointed 15 cent pen that, as long as you have faith, will assure that you will pass your exams, no study needed. It’s better to go for the more expensive super-anointed version because the more you pay, the greater your chances of success. I guess there must be more God per Bic in $20 pens. Some might call this cheating, but who is going to accuse God of exam fraud?

The vendor and anointer of the pens, the wonderfully-named Prophet Sham Hungwe of House of Grace International Church, who operates at Machipisa Shopping Centre in Harare, allegedly performed a number of miracles before his thousands of worshippers at the service where the pens were sold. I am pretty sure that none of these miracles was greater than the fact that he actually managed to sell hundreds of them to parents of (I quote) ‘not very bright’ children. Apparently some things can run in families.


Address of the bookmark:

On the value of awards

The week before last was a bit of a gold-star week for me. Firstly, I received Athabasca University’s Craig Cunningham Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.  Secondly, Jisc named me one of the 50 top social media influencers in UK higher education (I was eligible because, though I don’t live in the UK any more, I still maintain strong informal and formal ties). It’s always nice to have one’s ego stroked, and mine was purring like a satisfied kitten for some time:  the accompanying photo of one of my kittens gives a rough rendition of my state of mind. Also, I am very Kittenthankful to those that nominated and supported me: thank you all! None-the-less, I have somewhat mixed feelings about both of these. Partly, it’s just because of embarrassment and a general sense of lack of worthiness. I know from intimate personal experience that I am at the very least as awful as I am great.  Equally, I am acutely aware that there are very many people who do things far better than me in many significant ways in both areas, and who did not receive an award for it. But there’s more to my discomfort than that. In this post I am mostly going to focus on the teaching award, but some of these issues relate to being on the list of UK social media influencers too.

The teaching crowd vs the teaching star

The teaching award bothers me, mainly, because no teacher is or should be a stand-alone prima donna or primo uomo, least of all in a highly distributed teaching environment like that at Athabasca. At AU, and to an only slightly lesser extent elsewhere, teaching is always the work of a team, always the result of a much larger community than just that team, and never, ever, the sole domain of one individual. Students (especially), administrators, technicians, learning designers, editors, graphic artists, fellow academics, tutors, textbook authors, Wikipedia editors, Facebook friends and the collectively generated processes and culture that make the university what it is, are at the very least as significant as any one person. To give one person an award for what we all do together therefore just doesn’t make much sense. It’s particularly ironic that I should get a teaching award in the light of a great deal of my work, which for more than 15 years has been about just that – how crowds and systems teach. The individual we label as a ‘teacher’ is just a part of a much larger teaching gestalt and need not be its star. It is true that the charismatic inspirers and/or visible innovators and/or empathetic carers do tend to be the teachers we most remember and are the ones that we tend to nominate for awards. But they also tend to be, for much the same reasons,  the worst teachers for some people: love ’em or hate ’em, there’s not much in between. Truly great teachers, including all those that make up the gestalt, often disappear into the background. My friend and mentor Richard Mitchell wanted a t-shirt slogan for education conferences that summed it up nicely: ‘shut up and let them learn’ (I don’t know if he ever had it made). The point is that it should never be about teachers teaching: it’s always about learners learning, and there are many ways to support that, most of the best of which are driven by the learners, not the teachers. Teachers that do that well are not always the ones that get the awards.

Competition vs caring

I was a bit disconcerted to learn on the day of the award ceremony that my faculty has been competitively pushing its staff for these awards over a period of years so, for some, this was less about celebrating excellence than winning. I don’t think academia needs to be nor should it be gamified: it has far more than enough of that already. If these contests were simple games with clear rules that made winning and losing unequivocal and fair, I would be fine with it. But, outside such a clearly game-like context, competition is not good for motivation – whether you are a winner or a loser – and it is often destructive to communities. Like performance-related pay and grades (deeply flawed ideas), it can all too easily make the award into the goal, which takes away the love of the activity itself as well as shaping how we perform it. This can very easily turn into a bit of behaviourist nonsense that can drive action in the short term but weaken interest in the long term. It is fundamentally unfair, too, which can cause unnecessary tension and divisions in a community that, by its nature, needs to work together to a common goal that everyone plays an important part in reaching. Giving an award is also an expression of power: a bit of behavioural shaping done to us, not with us, the use of award committees and panels notwithstanding. At the AU awards ceremony our leaders told us how proud they were of us. They meant this very kindly, and were simply following a traditional pattern and doing the right thing for the ritual purposes of the event, but it’s not a good idea. Sure, feel pride to be part of a great learning community, show interest in what we do, care about what we do together. Yes, by all means, celebrate the good things we have done, all of us, but not that we, as individuals, are therefore good. That’s too much like patting a dog on the head for behaving the way we want him to behave.

A better way?

What really made my ego purr was not the award itself but reading the generous things kind colleagues and students wrote about me in support of the nomination. Those brought tears to my eyes, and that’s what I am really grateful for.  So, rather than giving one person an award, which seems a bit arbitrary and divisive, I think it would make far more sense that we should all regularly nominate at least one other person for acclaim, but that we should scrap giving an actual award or, if we must, should give it to everyone or a large group. The really valuable part, from a personal perspective, is not the award as such but the kindness and affirmation from friends, students and colleagues. It’s also really nice to give such acclaim. Everyone’s a winner.

The value of awards

For all my misgivings, I think that awards do have real value, especially to those that are not in the competition themselves. Awards are good ways to make concrete the values that we (or, at least, the givers of the awards) deem to be significant. By giving an award for teaching, AU is signalling the importance of teaching to its employees and to the rest of the world, and that’s a message worth sending. Similarly for Jisc, its influential position means that it got a lot of attention for not just the contest but, more significantly, the criteria for success in that contest.  That is really valuable. Social media activities are seldom given much weight when deciding on promotions or research excellence in academia, but they should be. By far the most significant measure of success in academia is whether our work increases the knowledge in the world, whether through research or teaching or dialogue, and social media are a great means of doing that. The most popular of my papers and books have been read by a few thousand people, and most have been read by far fewer than that. My biggest keynotes have addressed less than a thousand people, and some conference papers have reached no more than a few dozen readers and attendees. Some of my blog posts and shared bookmarks have had tens of thousands of readers, and most are read by thousands. There are different measures of quality for such things, for sure: most of my posts are far more like presentations intended to spark ideas than rigorous papers and books and I doubt that any have ever been cited in academic literature. But, though not rivaling peer-reviewed papers, that is still useful, I think, for exactly the reasons it is useful to attend conference presentations and, in the same way, each one is an opportunity to interact directly. Blog posts themselves may not always have much academic clout compared with peer reviewed papers but, sometimes, the dialogue that develops around them can become an incredibly significant artefact in itself, much like the glosses on mediaeval manuscripts, entering depths that can put most peer review to shame. Perhaps the Jisc list will catalyze further social media activity among those who feel that their time is better spent publishing work in journals with high impact factors and low readership. Perhaps it will encourage those outsiders to investigate what those of us who care about such things are sharing. Perhaps it will act as a pre-filter to help them to find stuff worth reading. Perhaps it will inspire innovative uses of the tools and spread good practices. Perhaps it is a good thing to simply assert that there is a community that we are part of. Awards can be catalysts for change, builders of community, and organizers of values. That’s good.

There is, too, some value in recognizing the value of people and what they do for whatever reason. I find it odd that, as well as awards for specific activities, AU gives long service awards. That rather implies that staying here might have been an achievement in itself, which further implies that it might have been a chore to stick it out for so long. That’s not a good message – I’m here because I want to be here, not because I feel I must – and it is made worse by adding a reward for it. To be fair it is, quite literally, a token reward, of a few dollars to spend in the AU store and a pin. But, as carrots go, that’s likely worse than no carrot at all: it sends both a message that it is an extrinsic reward – akin to a payment – and that we are not worth very much. I reckon a bit of applause and a hand-shake is more than enough acknowledgement without muddying the waters with cold hard cash. As a ritual, though, celebrating the simple fact of our continuing community is very worthwhile. Not only is it an opportunity to meet and eat with colleagues in person – a rare thing at AU – it’s an affirmation of the value of the community itself. We need such rituals and celebrations of togetherness.

And that is, I think, the most profound value of awards in general. They are, arguably, counter-productive as ways to drive good practice or encourage better behaviour in those that compete for them. But the ceremonies associated with them and the shared values that they represent bind all of us. They symbolize what we endeavour to be, they signal the values that we cherish, they exclude those outside the community and thus contribute to the community’s internal cohesion, albeit at a potential cost of competition. On balance, for all the complexities and risks, that’s not a bad thing.

Why One Social Network Just Turned Off Followers And Hashtags

Storehouse, a sharing app for photo-driven stories, has reversed its decision to embrace social networking of the coarser kind and has created a more intimate and intentional focus on real circles of friends – no feeds, no followers, no hashtags: basically, almost none of the trappings of network-oriented or, especially, set-oriented social media. It has done this in an attempt to diminish the Matthew Effects, echo chambers and filter bubbles of  typical social media sites, where a single individual shouts out what they had for breakfast to thousands or even millions of followers without differentiation, pandering to the perceived interests of the crowd rather than engaging in a more human and intentionally focused exchange. As the founder, Kawano puts it:

“The reality is, you look at your camera roll, and the things that are in there [prove] people are multidimensional, and you don’t have a single set of frames that match up with [everyone else’s tastes],” Kawano says. Storehouse 2.0 wants to support these aspects of your personality across your social sphere. “I’ll share the food photos with friends I know will appreciate the food stuff, and photos with my kids, I’ll share that with family and friends who care about my kids.”

It’s an obvious thing to try to do. This is exactly what we have tried to do with the Landing, with its fine-grained per-post permissions and circles (thanks to its use of Elgg, which normally calls such things ‘collections’), and our own additions of context switching tabs, pinboards and customizable widgets that allow individuals and groups to present not just differently filtered content but differently presented content to different people. The posts you see of mine on the Landing are different from those seen by others and, if you visit my profile, you will see a different facade depending on who you are.  Elgg collections came long before others of their ilk, but they are very similar indeed to what Google has tried to do with its circles and Diaspora tried to do with its aspects. It’s not unrelated to the less embedded and less flexible lists used by Twitter and Facebook. Kawano’s use of the word ‘frames’ suggests a similar inspiration to what has informed our own work, grounded in the work of Erwing Goffman.

The notion that we are all single-dimensional self-publicists all the time is embedded deeply into the business model of Facebook, most of its competitors and most of its predecessors: they feed on narcissism. In fact, they rely on that to make money and drive it relentlessly. But they are exploiting some very limited aspects of what makes human relationships special, to the exclusion of richer, more personal engagement. There are plenty of things that can and should be shared with a large crowd, there is value in self-organized networks where popular things bubble up and memes spread, and there is a huge amount of value to be had from things like tags, that make it easy to discover and learn from one another in lots of different ways. Such networks are rich in learning and great for sustaining weak connections. But these are far from the only communications that matter and they tend to be the least meaningful and salient. It all depends on context and nuance is very important.

The big trouble with our system on the Landing, and others like it (including Storehouse and Google Plus) is that, unless you are logged into the system, it doesn’t know you from Adam. We need open, distributed protocols for this, not centralized vaults that lock us in to the whims and capabilities of companies that are in the business of making money from their role as connectors or that are simply constrained by the toolsets they rely on. On the Landing we actively try to avoid lock-in and have less than no interest in exploiting our users – it’s all about openness and control – but you still need to have an account to use it or see anything apart from public posts like this one. It’s a very serious constraint.

There are solutions that do not rely on everyone having a Facebook account (subject to the whims and invasions of Facebook), but their future is currently looking very bleak. I’m sad that OpenID, OAuth and OpenSocial are struggling to survive, mainly thanks to the onslaught from Facebook and its peers, because these were really hopeful standards that promised a lot, especially in conjunction with smart open architectures like Backplane or applications like OneSocialWeb or Diaspora. The Landing would be so much more useful if anyone – at least among its users – could selectively share anything with anyone, not just either the whole public or subsets of other Landing users.

Even if we can fix these issues, there remain some big complexities. The Landing is very capable of highly nuanced ways of presenting different facades but, the more choices we give, the harder it becomes to make them – soft technologies are hard to use, hard technologies are easy. Our most flexible tool – the Pinboard – takes a huge amount of effort and a learning curve to even produce the simplest of pages. The more rigid we make it the less nuanced it can be, but the simpler it is to understand and use. Managing circles and permissions is not a trivial task. Even Google Plus – a great design – fails to solve this problem. I will be interested to see how StoreHouse copes with this.

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