Social media for learning: a virtual ethnography

Went to a fascinating seminar last week with this title, given by Siân Bayne on a flying visit from Edinburgh to the OU.

She talked about her work on a HE Academy project exploring at the whole Web 2.0/social media world and its effect on three different courses – in Divinity, eLearning and Engineering.

She picked out three areas:

1) New literacies – the stuff you expect, but also interesting takes on Barthes’ Death of the Author a) this is very straightforwardly manifest in a world of blogs and wikis, and b) never mind “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”, in this world, there’s no unity in the destination either – the Death of the Reader as it were, and not in the panicky “OMG nobody reads literary books any more” sense.

2) Appropriation and ‘taming’ – fencing off, assessment, embedding – containing the perceived risk of wild stuff like Web 2.0.   Interestingly, (some) students as well as teachers thought private blogs – although “not proper blogs” were a valuable space in which to think out loud without it going on your permanent Internet record.  In a way, the closedness enabled more openness.  This is a theme I keep seeing all over the place.  Though there were also some who turned up with their own proper blogs and were perfectly happy doing their intellectual laundry in public.

Another point I particularly picked up here – because it relates to another ongoing theme I see – was getting students to blog their  preparation for a seminar as a ‘forcing function’ to make sure they prepared ahead of time.

3) The Uncanny in the Freudian unheimlich sense – “the effect often occurs when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred” – Freud describing Second Life in 1899.  Wikis and blogs were un/familiar but probably aren’t any more; Second Life might be now.  Some of the quotes from the students were spectacular – e.g. “Avatars are nothing but corpses” and another having unshakeable feelings of being lost, drowning (there was a lake nearby) and even dying.  There was some good stuff about art but I’ll post about that separately.

She teachers her eLearning students about identity through a Second Life seminar, appropriately enough.  I thought it was particularly cunning to use the uncanny effect to problematise stuff that the students might not have (many people have a pretty straightforward conception of ‘identity’), which is a technique worth re-using.

Also some amusing stuff about the Edinburgh island and disciplinary stereotypes manifesting themselves virtually – apparently the Business School’s place is shiny, neat and essentially a corporate display stand; they complain about the neighbouring architects’ space which is a spectacular and utter mess; and the educationalists have a fluffy zone with spaces to sit in circles with lots of soft furnishings.

(Her slides – not available (yet?) – were a great example of stylish use of Flickr-found art, with a white flower motif popping up throughout. )

At lunch afterwards, during a discussion on open and closed environments, Peter Twining (of Schome fame) mentioned a time when he was giving a seminar in Second Life and had to studiously ignore a pair of inappropriately amorous cows who wandered through.

There was another surprise moment when one of my more distinguished colleagues – with a long track record of widening educational opportunities and going the extra mile and then some for learners – startled me by vigorously voicing despair about failing students.  “What can you do?”, they complained, “You can’t just shoot them!”

(Peter noted that you can in Second Life.)

The Computer knows what you’re thinking

Direct brain input could be with us sooner than I thought – this nifty brain-wave reading headset will allegedly be ready for mass sale next Christmas. (via Engadget)

It’s not a new idea at all, but a usable, widespread instantiation could change the way we interact with computers profoundly.  And raise all sorts of exciting new issues of privacy and openness.  I predict a health scare at some point.

Social:Learn breaks cover!

My colleague Martin Weller has at long last blogged about Social:Learn, the OU project formerly  known as Skunkworks – an attempt to explore what fully embracing the Web 2.0 world could mean for university learning:

It is born of the recognition that the OU (and higher education in general) needs to find ways of embracing the whole web 2.0, social networking world, and that the only way to understand this stuff is to do it.

It’s hugely exciting.  To my mind it’s at least as big a deal as OpenLearn – and if it works at all, even bigger.  Watch Martin’s blog for more as it comes.  I’m still not sure I understand what it is, but my guess is that this is true for the people more closely involved as well.  The journey is well worth setting out on, regardless of whether we reach the destination, whatever that might be.

(As an aside, the previous secrecy, followed by this semi-official leak, and a public announcement to come later, is another great example of how Web 2.0 openness isn’t total.  It’s more than before, but it’s still partial – and that is very important.)

Ubuntu install log

Ubuntu install log – target machine Acer TravelMate C110, Pentium M, 500Mb, 40Gb.

Also has D-Link DWL-G630 card (gives 802.11g rather than b), which works native in Edgy (and presumably later), according to confusing hardware support list.

Early Feb 2008: Downloaded the CD image from Ubuntu – 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon on to work desktop. Downloaded and installed WinMD5Sum to check the download is Ok. It is. Save for rainy day.

19 Feb 2008 – Not actually raining today but I need to tidy up, so an install while I do that seems a good plan.

11.15 – Downloaded and installed InfraRecorder to burn the CD image

11.30 – Started InfraRecorder burn – failed – blank CD duff? Not clear from error message “Input/Output error.write_g1: scsi sencmd: noerror CDB: [string of hex digits] status: 0”. Didn’t think this machine was SCSI inside anyway.  Also realised don’t have power supply cord for target machine so abandon project for now.

13.55 Got another blank CD – started writing, seems Ok.

14.00 Stopped, with an error (as before) It’s certainly not worked. Suspect the CD writer.

14.10 Ok, try writing on the target machine (have found power supply); downloading image to there.

14.25 Got image. Installed WinMD5Sum, but it crashes. Machine wants to reboot (background Windows Update perhaps to blame) and I need to plug in the CD drive anyway, so off it goes for reboot #1.

14.35 Oh for heaven’s sake. Still crashes. Downloading MD5 from Fourmilab instead. That works and hash checks out fine.

14.40 Writing image using CD writing s/w already on the tablet. (NTI CD-Maker 2000 Plus – very now name)

14.50 Done, CD Ok. Right, trying to boot from it! Oops, missed F2 first time round, tried again, got it – Ubuntu booted! Installing.

14.55 Oh dear. Screen has gone blank and a couple of broken snatches of cheesy music played before stopping. Drive is still spinning so leave it to think … oh, Ok, seems to have installed. Oh, no it hasn’t, it’s just booted – I’m guessing from the desktop with ‘Examples’ and ‘Install’ on it. Maybe ‘Install’ is what I want. Aha – bet this is actually Ubuntu Live (version you boot from CD). Install!

5.00 Note to self: Wifi/Bluetooth light is flashing red – not right. Remember to fix.

15.00 Nice installer so far. Lovely touch to have a text box to type to check your keyboard. Astonishingly few config options – just select location, keyboard and initial user account data. (Ghods I hate passwords – far too many to remember. And I particularly hate password expiry, which my main work password has. I have a good memory for arbitrary strings, but not if I have to keep changing them. Bruce Schneier might say write them down and keep them in your wallet but a legible written list wouldn’t fit in my pocket.) Right, left it doing the install proper.

15.25 It’s done! Rebooting to my shiny new operating system.

15.30 Ah – much slicker cheesy music after the login screen. The boot is terrifyingly blank, I must say. It’s recommended restricted drivers … for the software modem driver? I don’t need that. Ignore. Start Firefox!

15.40 Bother, can get to websites on-site, but not beyond. Tried tracert to explore, got helpful report telling me it wasn’t installed and to try ‘sudo apt-get install traceroute’ … which then told me ‘Package traceroute is not available, but is referred to by another package.’ Ah well. What’s with traceroute? Trying configuring the proxy by hand, if I can remember/dig out the settings.

15.45 Yay! Done! I’m updating this from my laptop running Ubuntu. Job done, basically. That was easy. Oh – need to check: works on WiFi (PCMCIA card), get tablet features working, sort the WiFi/Bluetooth notification (don’t want it turned on by default – and how to do on/off).

16.10 Oh. Hibernate doesn’t work – it crashes when you turn back on again. Perl is there and working, but there’s something not instantly right with C – can’t find stdio.h (easy config tweak surely). Nice to be playing with Unixy stuff again – comes back quickly, thankfully. WiFi seems to work fine on the card, cool. Can’t be doing with the tablet features actually. Oh – check can use external monitor? (No, not yet, need play with X conf, ouch.)

16.30 Ah. Found the Update Manager. >250Mb of updates. Ah well – left those downloading.

17.00 libc6 update failed, because it couldn’t create /etc/ (read-only file system). Also ‘could not create log directory /root/.synaptic/log/’ for the same reason. Hmm. And that’s left Update Manager crashed. Took a bit of hunting to remember I wanted ps -e to get the PID to kill it. Ah – and even once I’d done that I couldn’t start it again. Or Synaptic. Bother. Also keep getting warnings that the application ‘nm-applet’ attempted to change an aspect of my configuration that my system administrator says not to. Ah well. No time now. And since Hibernate isn’t working anyway it’ll have a reboot next time I get to it.

Things todo: C and C++ need build-essential installed. Also explore PHP. Optimise kernel – find appropriate linux-image (Intel Pentium M). Try for useful bits, especially to get the Bluetooth/WiFi turned off.

Trying Ubuntu

I decided to try out Ubuntu so I can live in the Linux world a bit. I have a semi-aged tablet PC (an Acer TravelMate C110) lying around. I used to use it heavily as a totable laptop (ignoring the tablet features). It’s got negligible use since I got a shinier notebook (Samsung Q40), so it was ripe for a low-demand, try-it-out OS installation. I was hoping to do better than my colleague Patrick who tried out Fedora core on an old laptop … which then melted. (Oops.)

Summary: It was really much, much easier than you think if you’re technically competent and are at all familiar with Linux. I had far more trouble trying to burn the installation CD (under Windows XP) than I did actually installing Ubuntu on the tablet. So all your mates who tell you Ubuntu is very little bother to install are probably right – if you are fairly technically savvy and have come across Unix at some point as a user. If you’re not, you will probably get bewildered at some point, if not many.

It’s a nice operating system so far. It’s noticeably faster booting and browsing than the old Windows XP system was on the same hardware. I’ve not tried doing anything too clever yet, but for basics it’s great. It is lovely having a shiny GUI but with the gubbins easily accessible under the hood. (And there is a *lot* of gubbins.)

Ubuntu has fantastically simplified the whole process (my previous encounters were with RedHat and SUSE years and years ago ) … although even the shiny, user-friendly stuff suffers from open-source unnecessary forking. Do I want Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Edubuntu … or one of the unofficial versions? Most people don’t know, don’t care, and don’t want to spent precious time finding out.

Next post will be a more detailed install log for those of you who care about such things. (Both of you.)