Two conferences in two days

I’ve just got back from a flying visit to the UK. The first thing I saw on arriving at the new and not at all unpleasant Heathrow Terminal 2 was Stephen Downes. Small world. We were getting luggage from different areas and lost each other in the rush to get to different places, but it was nice to see him, however briefly.

The main reasons I was in the UK were two conferences, The First European Conference on Social Media and the umpteenth Learning & Teaching Conference at the University of Brighton.  Sadly, they overlapped, which meant I only got to attend a day of each, but I managed to give two quite different sessions at both conferences. The first, at ECSM, was a traditional slide-based presentation about the Landing, why and how we built it, and what we might do differently if we started again. As an experiment, rather than my usual handful of images that sit behind most of my presentations, I threw nearly 50 slides (some with multiple build stages) at the stunned audience in 20 minutes. Quite fun. The second, at the L&T conference, was a much more discursive hour-long session  that questioned the fundamental notion of courses, which involved a few thought experiments and a lot of conversation among a very engaged crowd. 

ECSM was a very well-organized affair (disclaimer – the chairs were my friends Sue Greener and Asher Rospigliosi) which provided what I have hoped to see in a social media for some years but have previously been disappointed: diversity. When I put together my first social computing course a few years ago I tried to offer much the same kind of range as this conference provided, but have since been a bit worried that I was defining a discipline too early in its lifecycle. This is because most social media/social computing conferences I have been involved with over the past few years have fallen heavily into computer algorithm territory, which my course touches on but doesn’t make a central focus. I have sometimes thought that they would be better named as social network analysis conferences, as variations on that theme have totally dominated the proceedings. I have come across some social media conferences that drift entirely the other way, looking at social and sociological consequences, and a few that focus on a single subject area or context (education and/or learning being the ones that usually interest me most). In contrast, ECSM was delightfully broad, with offerings across the spectrum, with coverage that I feel vindicates my choice of subject matter and approach for a social computing course. It included a lot of papers related to business, politics, media, education and other general areas, and a wide range of research attitudes and methods from the highly algorithmic to the softest and fuzziest of media analyses and critical inquiries. There were plenty of case studies from lots of contexts and demonstrations or reports on plentiful interesting systems. I think this is a sign of a maturing area of study. Though they were not keynoting, I was impressed that the conference attracted the marvellous guru couple of Jenny Preece and Ben Schneiderman. My favourite discovery of the day was that Dutch police have a room in Habbohotel. At the conference dinner I sat next to John Traxler, who was doing the next day’s keynote (that I would miss). He continues to impress me as a creative and incisive thinker. We spoke more about beer, Brighton and music than mobile and social media, but it was fun.

I was not expecting as much out of the parochial Learning & Teaching conference the next day, but I was wrong. The first keynote by Sue Clegg on the arguable failure of widening participation was thought provoking and went down well. Though provocative, it was a bit dry for my taste – I’m not a fan of presentations read from sheets of notes. I’d rather read the notes and have a conversation. Its focus was also very UK-centric, which should have been interesting but I did not have sufficient background knowledge of the events and acronyms to which she referred. She also seemed unusually approving of higher education access rates in the US, ranking it highest in the world, which was more than a bit of a surprise to me: I guess it depends how you measure such things, but the OECD ranks the US well below Korea, Japan, Canada (we’re third!) and several European countries, including the UK, when it comes to higher education participation. None-the-less, her talk was mostly tightly argued and backed up by plentiful research. I had planned to leave and return to ECSM after my session, which followed Sue Clegg’s talk, but I was enjoying meeting old friends and sufficiently intrigued by later sessions to stay on. I am glad that I did, not just because it gave me a chance to catch up with old friends and colleagues.

The first presentation I saw was about use of the e-portfolio system Mahara for professional and personal development. The University of Brighton has a mature and well-implemented Mahara instance that is used for a great many things, from personal publication to coursework to CV writing. I was a bit sad to see that, in combination with a WordPress instance and a SharePoint system used by staff, it had pretty much replaced the innovative Elgg system, community@brighton, that was part of the inspiration for the Landing and that largely surpassed all three put together in functionality. After 8 or 9 years, the last few of those in a state of slow and painful decline, community@brighton is about to be decommissioned. Community@brighton was a little ahead of its time; it suffered greatly in an upgrade process after its first successful couple of years that resulted in the loss of a great deal of the network and communities that had thrived beforehand, and it never fully recovered the trust of its users; it was insufficiently diverse in its primary uses, being quite focused on teaching and, in its latter years, finding shared local accommodation; and it was not helped that its introduction coincided with the massive rise of Facebook (before most people realised how evil that site was). But it was a great system that was (and even as it nears exinction, possibly still is) the world’s largest social media site in an HE institution and a lot of innovative work was done on and through it.

I was interested to learn that the University of Brighton has outsourced its Mahara, Blackboard and some other systems to the cloud. Mahara runs on Amazon’s Cloud service and is managed by Catalyst IT, ( the company behind Mahara, all for around £12,000 (roughly $CAD20,000) per year, plus fairly minimal cloud charges. This seems pretty good value to me – very hard for an internal IS team to compete with that. Similarly, though Blackboard is the work of the devil and the costs are astronomical, moving away from Blackboard would be very difficult for the University of Brighton. This is thanks to the massive investment in materials and training already sunk into it, combined with Blackboard’s strenuous efforts to encourage that dependency and notoriously bad tools for getting data out. Bearing that in mind, it makes sense for the University to move to a hosted solution, especially given the terrible performance, countless bugs, regular and irregular downtime, and the large amount of effort needed to keep it running and to answer technical problems. At least it should now perform reasonably, get timely updates, rarely go down and just work, most of the time. On a cautionary note I was, however, intrigued to learn that the university’s outsourcing of student email (to Microsoft’s Irish branch – Google was rejected due to lack of adherence to European data protection laws) had met with an unfortunate disaster, inasmuch as Microsoft changed the terms and conditions that had formerly meant students would have an email address for life, to a much more limited term. Outsourcing is fine when it works, but it always depends on another company with very different goals than one’s own. I normally prefer to keep things in-house, despite the cost. It means that you retain control of the data no matter what and, just as importantly, the knowledge to use it.

After a very fine lunch, I attended a double-length session reporting on the University of Brighton’s findings and work resulting from the very large Higher Education Academy ‘What Works’ research initiative. ‘What Works’ was focused on improving retention rates, seeking reasons for students giving up on courses and programs, and seeking ways to help them succeed. Brighton was one of the 22 institutions involved in the £1M study. A large team from Brighton gave a very lively and highly informative sequence of presentations on the background, the research and the various interventions that had been attempted following the study, not all with equal success, but all of them interesting. The huge take-home for me was the crucial importance of a culture of belonging. This was singled out in the HEA research that fed into this as the most significant factor in determining whether or not a student continues. Other factors are closely related to this – supportive peers, meaningful interactions, developing knowledge and confidence, and relevance to future goals, and all contribute to belongingness. There are also other factors like perseverence, engagement and internalization that play a role. It is intriguing to me that the research into this started with something of a blank slate, and did not draw significantly on the extensive literature on motivation outside of an educational setting. If it had done, they would probably have identified control as a major factor too although, given the context (traditional educational systems are not great for giving students control, especially to those in their early months of study), it is not surprising that it was missed. In recent years I have typically followed self-determination theory‘s vocabulary of ‘relatedness’ for this aspect of motivation, but ‘belonging’ is a far better word that captures a lot of what is distinctive about the nature and value of traditional academic communities and practices. Significantly for me, that is something which we at Athabasca University tend not to do so well. With self-paced courses, a large number of visiting students and relatively limited communication tools (apart from the Landing, of course!) it is very hard for us to build that sense of belonging. When tutoring works well, it goes quite a long way to achieving it and occasionally a bit of community develops via Moodle discussions but, apart from the Landing, we do nothing much to support a wider sense of belonging. At least, not in undergraduate programs. I think we tend to do it fairly well in graduate programs, where it is easier to build more personal relationships, peer support and cohorts into the system. I intend to follow this up and explore more of the background research that led to the HEA team’s conclusions. 

The afternoon ended with Pimms, but not before a closing keynote by Norman Jackson on life-wide (as distinct from life-long) learning. I found the notion of lifewide learning pleasing, concentrating on a person’s whole learning life, of which intentional academic behaviour is just a small part. The idea is related to the notion of learning trajectories as posited by Michael Eraut, with whom Jackson has worked. There was lots to like in his talk, and it drew attention away from the very course-centric view that underpins much university thinking, and that I had criticized in my own session. He had lots of nice examples based on studies and interviews with students, none of whom simply followed a ‘course’, though perhaps the examples were a little too glibly chosen – this was appreciative enquiry. He also placed a great onus on his version of ‘learning ecologies’ to describe the lifewide process. His definition of a learning ecology differs considerably from mine, and others who have used the term. As far as I could tell, the focus was very much on an individual, and his definition of a ‘learning ecology’ related to the various things that individuals do to support their learning. This is not a very rich ecology! I think that simply means that we tend to do a lot of things when learning that affect our learning in other things, all in a richly connected self-nourishing fashion. While he did, when questioned, agree that there was much richness to be gained from ‘overlapping’ ecologies and learning with and from others, I don’t think he sees the overlap as anything more than that. For me and, I think, most others who have used the term, a learning ecology has emergent patterns and behaviours that are quite different from its parts, full of rich self-organization, and it is crucial to negotiating meaning and creating knowledge in a social context. In a learning ecology, everyone’s learning affects everyone else’s, with positive and negative feedback loops creating knowledge that goes far beyond what any individual could develop alone. 

I am back in Canada now and trying to catch up with the load of things that two conferences inevitably delayed. I usually reckon that a conference takes up at least three times the time taken by the conference travel itself – preparation and recovery time are always a significant factor. In fact, it should take longer to recover because it would be great to reflect further to help consolidate and connect the learning that inevitably happens during the intensive sessions and conversations that characterize conferences: too many learning opportunities are lost when we rush back into a pile of over-delayed work after such things. At the very least, posts like this are a necessity to help make sense of it all, not an optional extra, but there is a lot more that I would like to follow up on if I had the time. It is also a pity because the weather in Vancouver is stunning (maybe too hot and dry) and I have a newly purchased but very old boat floating outside that keeps calling me. 


Teens In The UK Say Facebook Is Dead – Business Insider

This story has been carried in numerous news outlets over the past few days, most with more hype than this one. 

The hype is a little premature: Facebook is not dead yet, though it is very interesting that it is no longer the network of choice amongst younger people, not only in the UK, and has not been for most of the past year. Though a billion or more users will take a while to leave, the ugliest company in social media will need to do something amazing really soon if it is to survive. If it does go under then it might happen surprisingly rapidly, thanks to the inverse of Metcalfe’s Law, especially as Facebook is already suffocating under its own flab. It is the biggest we have ever seen but it is certainly not too big to die and, once the exodus gains momentum, could happen in months rather than years. Like MySpace, Hi5 and others that have fallen out of favour, it will likely collapse in a big way but won’t totally vanish, especially given some sensible investments in things like Instagram that do make a lot of sense. Is this a bad thing? While mostly evil in its business practices, it has made some significant contributions to open source projects, but not enough to compensate for the harm it has done to the Internet in general: I won’t be sorry to see it go. It doesn’t need to be replaced. That’s not how things work any more.

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Facebook Is A Fundamentally Broken Product That Is Collapsing Under Its Own Weight

An article from Business Insider reporting on Benedict Evans’s compelling analysis of Facebook’s big challenge. Essentially, there is too much data, and Facebook’s algorithms cannot cope. In fact, algorithms are part of the problem…

today, you could post that you’re getting married, but only half of your friends might see that posting because of the News Feeds’ algorithms.”

And algorithms are not the solution…

 “If you have 1,500 emails coming in every day, you wouldn’t say, ‘I need better algorithms.'”

So what next?

By this time next year we could have 3,000 posts, links, videos, status updates, etc., all flowing through the News Feed. It’s a struggle to sort through 1,500; how will Facebook deal with sorting through 3,000?”

Basically Facebook is broken and, unless its henchpeople and minions can come up with something radically new, it is not going to be fixed and it will just get worse. Sure, Facebook as a central service is not going away any time soon (probably – Metcalfe’s Law works in reverse too, so I’d not want to place any bets on that) but it doesn’t work as a social network any more, precisely because of the avaricious, amoral, single-minded network-building design that made it what it is today. I think it did a very sensible thing in buying, but not fully integrating, Instagram, because it can only grow now by moving into other ecosystems and dissociating the core from the satellites. It probably needs to go on quite a big spending spree now.

Seeing Facebook begin to fail, at least in its core, pleases me because it rose to success by cynical exploitation. It went places other social networking systems that predated it, as well as most that have come since, feared or had no inclination to go. You can’t have too many predators or parasites of one kind in an ecosystem otherwise the whole system falls apart. Or, to look at it another way, Facebook got too fat eating its own users, and now it can’t digest them any more. Either way, we’re much better off without it.

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12 Awesome Social Media Facts and Statistics for 2013

An interesting summary of the GlobalWebIndex for Q2 2013. 

Some takeaways are:

Google+ is catching up with Facebook in numbers, but not in active usage. This makes sense as Google has a very different and less unpleasant agenda than FB that is all about search, not lock-in.  Google+ gets by far the largest number of visits, which is exactly what Google is aiming for.

Pinterest is still the fastest growing social media system. The report calls it a ‘social network’ but I think that is a slight mischaracterization that doesn’t quite capture its distinctiveness – it’s at least as much about interest sets rather than networks between people, with a focus on content and themes far more than on individual’s connected with one another. Tumblr is not far behind.

The trend is towards increasing mobility, of course. As an aside, it is interesting that Microsoft recently redefined smartphones as PCs. Probably an unwise statement from the point of view of their shareholders as it reduces Windows PCs to a very small percentage of the total.



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Fiverr: Graphics, marketing, fun, and more online services for $5

A marketplace for services, many of which start at $5, hence the name. Compared with long-established competitors like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk this is very simple to use and easy to understand – you hire someone for a ‘gig’ and they do the work for you, whether it is proofreading, choosing a gift, teaching you to juggle, turning your room design into a CAD drawing, correcting your code or whatever. Mostly, you pay $5 or some multiple of $5. Being a global site, some of the prices are amazingly low. It has a simple collective approach to reputation management so, like most such sites, it is not too hard to find reliable service providers. I’m torn between concerns about the ease with which it can handle contract cheating and delight that people can distribute workload in such a simple and convenient manner. I’ve not come up with a personal use for it yet but can see the potential value in many different areas.

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LinkedIn launches LinkedIn for Education

This is about connecting people you at colleges or who you went to college with, rather than being a service for academics like or others of that ilk, and it’s an incremental change from the existing ways LinkedIn already does pull people who claim the same institutional background together, but an interesting development none the less.


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Julian Dibbell » A Rape in Cyberspace

I have made use of this or its influential ancestor article in a few courses that I have taught over the past decade or so and, after a long period of forgetting about it, have done so again recently. Rereading it again, I was as affected by it now as much as I was the first time I read it. Though it relates to events that occurred in the largely superseded technology of the MOO, Dibbell’s detailed descriptions and rich reflections are as relevant in an era of social networks, MMORPGs, Q&A sites, web forums and immersive worlds as they were when he first wrote them. Maybe more so.

It’s a long, harrowing, but rewarding read, not for the easily offended, unravelling the unpleasant story of Mr Bungle and his reincarnation as Dr Jest, the things he did to other characters in the MOO, and the responses of the other inhabitants of the MOO to ‘him’ (I may give away too much with those quotes). It challenges notions of identity, self, and the nature of human engagement as well as offering a fascinating meditation on ethics, consensus and social contracts in both meat-space and cyber-space. No unequivocal answers, but many challenging questions. The denouement that was not there in the original piece is worth waiting for, and makes the whole episode even more ugly and even more thought-provoking than it appears from the start. 

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Texting frequency and moral shallowing

An interesting study that reveals, in accordance with Nicholas Carr’s predictions, that there is a close positive correlation between what most of us would consider moral ugliness and frequent texting, at least among young people in Winnipeg. The correlations between frequent texting and moral dissolution are unsurprising, as the study appears to suggest that 42% of students in Winnipeg appear to text more than 200 times a day. 12%  of them do so more than 300 times a day. That leaves little time for thought. It averages out at once every 3 minutes for 15 hours of the day. I guess they read the replies too And eat and use the bathroom (I don’t want to even think about that in the context of texting). And indulge what appear to be quite prodigious and positively correlated sexual appetites (or that). Luckily for the rest of us, that leaves little time to pursue their interests in wealth and status.  My suspicion would be that most activities apart from breathing that that we engage in 300+ times a day are unlikely to do us much good. 

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Elgg source code evolution (before 4th May 2013) – YouTube

A fascinating diagram showing developer contributions to the open source core of the Elgg project (used here on the Landing) over the past 5 years or so. Quite fascinating to watch, and especially pleasing to see how the number of contributors has grown over the past year or so, probably as much due to moving to Github from Trac as anything else, though the great work of the Elgg foundation team in building and employing the work of the community goes hand in hand with that. Makes me feel quite a lot more secure about the future of the technology to know that so many people are active in pushing it forward. It would be intriguing to look at the larger ecosystem of plugins that sits around that using a similar visualization.

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Discourse – rebooted forum software

Discourse is an extremely cool and open source reinvention of forum software that is replete with modern features like real-time AJAX loading of threads (which are not the usual tree-like things but more a flat form with contextual threading as and when needed), lots of collective features including reputation management, tagging, rating and ranking, what’s-hot lists and so on. Looks slick, hooks into plenty of other services. I’d like to see something like this on the Landing instead of its simple discussion boards. Not trivial to integrate, but it does have an open and rich API so can be called easily from other systems.

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