Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Grassroots Video

My Space or yours?
Until very recently, getting video onto the Internet involved quite a bit of know-how. Now it just takes a phone and You Tube. According to the Horizon Report 2008, grassroots video is one of the six emergent technologies that are set to transform teaching, learning and creative expression, with a ‘time-to-adoption’ horizon of one year or less. It is redefining notions of what is a useful bit of video: ‘more and more, it is a two to three minute piece designed for viewing in a three inch browser window or on a mobile phone’.[1] Is this the future of learning objects? Why don’t we make more use of the vast array of learning objects out there on YouTube? What will this mean for traditional teaching methods? Is the lecture dead?

There is some evidence that far from killing off the lecture, You Tube and My Space TV can be used to repackage the lecture. Recording lectures offers students the chance to reprise their learning. Far from giving students an excuse not to attend the lecture, there is anecdotal evidence that recording the lecture and making it available on YouTube lets students see what they are missing. It is also a great marketing technique, reaching out beyond the university to the whole world. Big higher education institutions like University of California Berkeley, USA, and The University of New South Wales, Australia, have invested heavily in getting branded space on YouTube. They are not only aiming at students who can’t attend lectures but secondary-school students as well. Check out UNSW Lectures Go Live. And because grassroots video is disruptive technology, with low barriers to entry, there is nothing to stop individual tutors taking their course materials online.

[1] The New Media Consortium, Educause Learning initiative, The Horizon Report 2008 Edition, (2008)
http://www.nmc.org/pdf/2008-Horizon-Report.pdf Accessed 29 July 2008

Social Networks

‘Here comes everybody’
Facebook has become a massive part of how students communicate with each other and organize their lives. How much should tutors use it to communicate with students? Would students resent the intrusion?

The findings of a recent JISC study Great Expectations of ICT: how Higher Education Institutions are measuring up (June 2008) found that 91% of students in their survey used social-networking sites regularly, the technology being far more familiar to students than wikis and blogs.

The interviews with the students made it clear that where ‘social networking emerges organically from among the students, it is more successful than social networking systems put in place by the teacher (which can feel overly formal and “fake”)’. Students gave examples of where WebCT discussion boards were ignored, the conversation shifting to Facebook.

Universities have started to engage with Facebook, using it to advertise and promote their functions. Widgets have started to emerge on Facebook, allowing users to search full text databases and catalogues (JSTOR widget, SUNCAT widget). Will Facebook be the main interface through which users access online resources in HE? Or as universities colonize the site, will students leave? As staff and students create their own networks using freely available applications and social networks, what will happen to corporate networks?

And how should you behave on Facebook? Are students aware of how to protect their personal data and manage levels of privacy? If you leave your 'Search' visibility as 'Everyone' on Facebook, everyone can find you and see what you write. Informal Tutor Appreciation societies on Facebook may be just a bit of fun but when does free speech and the right to criticize tutors become cyberbullying? The Times Higher Education Supplement has highlighted a number of cases recently.[1] Anonymity breaks Facebook rules (Terms of Use, User Conduct) and is no protection from prosecution. The High court has just fined someone £22,000 in damages for libel and breach of privacy for posting fake and malicious entries about another party on Facebook.[2] Once an image goes on Facebook, can you remove it? Do you have any control over photos taken by friends? What happens if those photos are ones you wouldn’t want a prospective employer to see? What happens if the press gets hold of them?

Other social networks are emerging that will have an impact on how we communicate and interact: Linked In for professional networking and Ning enabling the creation of customized social networks. Here at UCLan we have Communities at UCLan https://elgg.uclan.ac.uk/ running on the ELGG social network software. Beyond this, social networks are emerging in professional communities of practice, sometimes promoted by commercial publishers (Nature Network from nature.com, BioMedExperts from Collexis Inc) sometimes by professional groups (Pronetos, ResearchGATE Scientific Network, Academici). Whilst the research networking and collaboration application is going to grow in importance, perhaps the real question is what kind of impact are social networking sites going to have on teaching and learning?

University policy on use of social networking sites

[1] Binns, Amy, ‘Staff suffer bullying by students on the web’, THES 2 March 2007
Accessed 29 July 2008
[2] Fallon, Amy, ‘Ex-friend’s Facebook revenge costs £22,000 in damages’, The Guardian, 25 July 2008

Your Facebook? MySpace?

An Online Survival Guide...

As part of the UCLan Students' Union 'Give it a Go!' series of events 22nd September - October 5th 2008 we would like to hold a staff student debate and discussion on digital literacies.

Social Networking, Grassroots Video, Plagiarism Online

  • Protecting personal data online
  • Ethical and legal behaviour – free speech, cyberbullying, defamation, privacy, intellectual property, plagiarism
  • As tools for teaching, learning, communicating

Probable date/time: Friday 3rd October 16:00-17:30

Probable venue: Media Factory, Studio Space, 3rd floor

Contact: If you would like to come and take part, contact

Jonathan Westaway, Learning and Information Services, jwestaway@uclan.ac.uk

Nicola Rolph, Students' Union Sports and Events Co-ordinator, nrolph@uclan.ac.uk

Friday, 4 July 2008

Oral Communication

YouTube Colloquium...
I have been talking with a number of colleagues recently about the importance of oral-communication skills and how they are supported and taught (or not, as the case may be). Various commentators have noted that in a knowledge and service economy, lack of articulacy puts people at a disadvantage in terms of employability. Communication and narrative skills seem to be going up the agenda in education. Cambridge now gets its Ph.D. students in science to undertake two minute public expositions of complex ideas, as part of its public understanding of science remit, fulfilling some of its RCUK Joint Skills Statement obligations for postgraduates.[1]

We have specific disciplines where the need for oral communication is made explicit (mooting in law for instance, 'pieces to camera' in Journalism and TV Production). We also have research expertise in specific areas. For instance, Prof. Bernie Carter in the Department of Nursing at the University of Central Lancashire is researching the role of narrative enquiry in diagnostic encounters between patients and medical professionals, drawing on insights from professional storytellers. On the whole though, I suspect that students are not well prepared for all the ways in which they need to communicate orally: seminars, break-out sessions, presentations, interviews etc. There is also evidence in the literature that 'giving a presentation' is one of the least favourite forms of assessment, though students grudgingly recognize its value afterwards. I was wondering if we could highlight oral-communication skills and make them more fun by harnessing the potential of Web 2.0 technologies.

Could we, as part of the undergraduate research journal Diffusion for instance, invite students to submit an oral presentation of their research on YouTube? Keep it short, make it a competition, with a prize. The best candidates get to present live to an invited audience, who can ask questions, with a further award. This achieves a number of objectives. Whilst our students are perhaps unfamiliar with debating societies, YouTube is a paradigm they understand, with very low barriers to entry. It could link research with its public communication and dissemination aspects, which would prepare students well for giving papers at conferences, surviving their viva or a job interview. Getting them to pitch it to an informed public audience would get them thinking about target audiences and the need for clear exposition of complex ideas. It might also get them thinking about the ways formal academic discourse can sometimes cloud understanding.

This is only one approach. What about updating the prize essay for the ‘Google Generation’ and getting students to submit both written and/or oral entries? In 1749 the Academy of Dijon set a prize essay, advertised in the Mercure de France: ‘Do the Sciences and the Arts contribute to the corrupting or the or to improving morals?’ Upon seeing the advertisement in the paper, the eventual winner, Rousseau, noted ‘I saw another universe and became another man’.

[1] Swain, H., ‘Spice up your science’, The Guardian, Education, Tuesday 19 February 2008, 12. http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/postgraduate/story/0,,2257835,00.html Accessed 3 July 2008.

Thursday, 8 May 2008


‘Talk about getting immersed in a book…’
Depending on who you listen to, the Internet is either very good or very bad for reading. In the USA, Steven Johnson, the author of Everything Bad is good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter recently took the National Endowment for the Arts to task for its downbeat assessment of reading in the US in its report To Read or Not to Read.[1] Are teenagers reading less or just different stuff online? Certainly the UK National Year of Reading 2008 report Read Up: Fed Up: Exploring Teenage Reading Habits in the UK Today found the top four ‘most loved reads’ were all online, with computer-game cheats at number three.[2] But is reading online the same as reading a book? The CIBER report Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future (11 January 2008)[3] cites evidence of new ways of reading emerging online: students getting better at parallel processing (multi-tasking) but worse at sequential processing (reading and evaluating stuff). It talks about the development of power browsing, a hypertextual form of reading, characterized by shallow ‘flicking’ behaviour. ‘Power browsing and viewing appear to be the norm for all. The popularity of abstracts among older researchers rather gives the game away. Society is dumbing down.’[4]

Is a new form of reading emerging online? And if there is, how effective will ‘power browsing’ be for students grappling with complex texts and documentary-based study? We all employ different reading strategies for different things. We ‘scan’ the Yellow Pages for information, we ‘skim’ the newspaper, we practice ‘intensive reading’ prior to a test. But the ability to choose and switch reading strategies ‘distinguishes effective from less effective readers.’[5] Wray and Lewis have highlighted the need for primary school teachers to help children read different kinds of material in different kinds of ways. Is the Internet making it imperative that we think in these terms at university?

Given all this, what of the headlong rush to shift library resources online in the form of e-books? Has anyone ever read an entire monograph online? Maybe the e-book reader revolution is just around the corner, e-paper delivering the satisfying ‘book like‘ experience?[6] Xerox PARC research teams have developed speed readers incorporating dynamic text, its flow rate controlled by the reader, the text morphable onto any surface.[7] Welcome to the world of WalkIn Comix.

WalkIn Comix is a graphic novel you can literally walk into -- it's printed on the walls, floor, and ceiling of a small set of labyrinthine rooms we built at the Tech. Talk about getting immersed in a book...
The story tells the adventures of five teenagers who literally get lost in a world of text and can only find their way out by learning to read it. The exhibit's maze-like structure reflects the story's twists and turns.

Does this level of interactivity add to the experience of reading? Or does hypertextuality and dynamic text do something fundamental to reading that means we should resist the rush to digital?

Given that there is evidence that reading is shifting online and away from books in secondary cohorts, should we be encouraging reading at university with book and journal clubs? Can we make reading more interesting? Is the privatized notion that reading is something you do on your own, in your head, just historically contingent? The collective reading of newspapers, political, satirical and philosophical texts in coffee houses and salons was at the core of the European Enlightenment. Do we need to recover some sense of reading as an exciting and social activity?

[1] Johnson, Steven, ‘Dawn of the digital natives’, The Guardian, Thursday 7 February 2008, Technology Guardian 1-2.
Iyengar, Sunil & Bauerlein, mark, ‘Response: There is good reason to be worried about declining rates of reading’, The Guardian, Wednesday 20 February 2008, 31.
[2] Brown, Mark, ‘Celebrity scandal and Anne frank: the reading diary of British teenagers’, The Guardian, Thursday 27 March 2008, 11.
[3] http://www.ucl.ac.uk/slais/research/ciber/downloads/ggexecutive.pdf Accessed 20.03.08
[4] Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future (11 January 2008) 19
[5] Wray, David & Lewis, Maureen, ‘Extending interactions with non-fiction texts: An exit into understanding’, http://www.warwick.ac.uk/staff/D.J.Wray/exel/exit.html Accessed 17 April 2008
[6] http://www.tfot.info/articles/1013/cybook-gen3-e-book-review.html Accessed 5 may 2008
http://www.tfot.info/articles/1000/the-future-of-electronic-paper.html Accessed 5 May 2008
[7] Back, M., Cohen, J., Harrison, S. & Minneman, S., ‘Speed Reader: an experiment in the future of reading’, Computers & Graphics, Vol. 26, Issue 4, August 2002, 623-627.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Words Matter

‘What we find changes who we become’[1]
How do we find information on stuff? As Dr. Ian Rowlands, chief author on the CIBER report Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future (11 January 2008) has stressed, findability used to be partly about physical attributes: ‘As a kid, I grew up spending hours in the central reference library in Plymouth. This helped me to form a clear understanding of the information landscape because of the physical layout of the library, and the appearance of the materials’.[2] As information is embodied online, we have shifted from a three dimensional realm to zero dimensions. Findability used to require physical waymarkers:

'Definition, distinction, difference. In the physical environments, size, shape, color, and location set objects apart. In the digital realm, we rely heavily on words. Words as labels. Words as links. Keywords. The humble keyword has become surprisingly important in recent years. As a vital ingredient in the online search process, keywords have become part of our everyday experience. We feed keywords into Google, Yahoo!, MSN, eBay, and Amazon. We search for news, products, people, used furniture, and music. And words are the key to our success'.[3]

If that is the case, what happens if you can’t spell? Or for that matter, if text message orthography is employed? Or you don’t know the difference between US and UK spelling? Sure, Google will prompt you ‘did you mean…?’ but is that any substitute for a well stocked vocabulary, with plenty of synonyms at your disposal? Or knowing how to use a dictionary? And what happens if you don’t know how words are conceptually related to each other and form ontologies and taxonomies? Or if you don’t know that there is a meta-language toolkit for words called ‘grammar’ that establishes the rules of the road, the dos and don’ts that enable us to communicate, help establish meaning, formulate questions? The CIBER report highlights many such problems of poor lexical and logical skills leading to bad relevance judgements being made in search behaviour. Words are fundamental to findability.

A recent anonymous piece in the THES entitled 'The kids aren’t all write: functionally illiterate and frankly not bothered' highlighted spelling and grammar problems in new cohorts. The author argued that

'It seems to be an endemic problem, with many lecturers now lowering their standards, or even not recognising spelling or grammar errors. One of my third-year dissertation students looked at the corrections I’d made to her draft thesis with absolute disgust and said to me: “I don’t understand why you’re so picky about my spelling and punctuation. Nobody’s ever told me there’s a problem before”'[4]

Ideally, lexical richness and linguistic sophistication should develop with subject expertise as students move from shallow to deep learning, entering the Garden of Paradox where the same words have different meanings, different words have the same meaning, where meanings are contested and contextual and students are comfortable with uncertainty and contingency. But how carefully do we guide students by choosing our words carefully, being consistent, explaining the terms we use?

'Words are messy little critters. Imprecise and undependable, their meaning shifts with context. One man’s paradise is another man’s oblivion. Synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, contranyms: the challenges of communication are part of the human condition, unsusceptible to the eager advances of technology'.[5]

Arriving at university many students are lost for words. Being able to say what you mean requires words. Lynsey Hanley, the author of Estates: An Intimate History makes the case that inarticulacy leads to social exclusion:

'When you don’t have the words to express how you feel or what you think, there are two ways you can go. You can fall back heavily on clichés, or invent new words to fill the gaps. Speaking in clichés or argot, in turn, invites those with a wider conventional vocabulary to treat you as though you are stupid. Like illiteracy, inarticulacy has great power to disempower'.[6]

[1] Morville, Peter, Ambient Findability, (O'Reilly, 2005) cover quote.
[2] ‘Intellectual literacy hour’, The Guardian, Tuesday 15 January 2008
http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/news/story/0,,2240563,00.html Accessed 17 April 2008
[3] Morville, Ambient Findability, (O'Reilly, 2005), 4.
[4] Anon., ‘The kids aren’t all write: functionally illiterate and frankly not bothered, THES, 21 February 2008
[5] Morville, Peter, Ambient Findability, (O'Reilly, 2005), 15
[6] Hanley, L., ‘Succumbing to inarticulacy is a blight on all our lives’, The Guardian, Tuesday 4 March 2008, 28

Information Literacy

Lost in Ciberia….
Is the Google generation more information literate than previous generations? Not according to a recent report from the CIBER research unit at UCL, produced for the British Library and the JISC, Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future (11 January 2008). It is perhaps ironic that the explosion of freely accessible information has gone hand in hand with clear evidence of an inability to find information, that we have become ‘information-rich but question-poor.’ This would seem counterintuitive, given the enormous success of search engines like Google, the utility of natural-language searching and the hype around the semantic web. But the CIBER report indicates a number of startling findings

The ‘net native’ generation they studied increasingly lack the linguistic, logical and critical-evaluation skills to find stuff. They have no conceptual framework of the digital-information landscape. In effect, the digital literacies of the Google Generation have not developed in parallel with information literacy. If anything, the digital environment has made it harder to evaluate stuff in terms of: authority, quality, accuracy; relevance, bias, currency. There are a number of reasons for this. Partly it’s about the rapid rate of change to a fully digital environment, partly because of the speed at which things are emerging, converging and hybridizing on the web. But the big problem is information overload. According to Peter Morville in his seminal book Ambient Findability, (2005) ‘There is so much to find, but we must first know how to search and who to trust. In the information age, transmedia information literacy is a core life skill’. The UNESCO Prague Declaration of 2003, Towards an Information Literate Society goes one further and frames the problem as one of rights: information literacy ‘is a prerequisite for participating effectively in the information society, and is part of the basic human right of lifelong learning.’ Fail to find stuff and you are marginalised and disenfranchised. Findability just got a whole lot more serious.