Twittering in to the sand?

I’ve been twittering away for nearly a month now, and really enjoying it for the sense of tight community it gives.  Even when I was off work with the flu for a week and only managed sad whiny tweets.

One odd side effect is that it’s dragged me back to Facebook.  I’d more-or-less abandoned Facebook, until I wired my Twitter feed in to Facebook updates.  All of a sudden people who are on Facebook – that I’ve not been in touch with for ages – start responding to me there.

My colleague and noted Twitter enthusiast Martin is worried about Twitter’s ongoing technical issues, which are annoying, and sensibly points out:

there’s nothing really in the design of Twitter over Jaiku, Friendfeed, Pownce, etc that makes me use it – it’s just that it’s where my network is, and I can’t migrate without them. But if they started to go, the infamous tipping point might be reached very quickly.

Andrew Chen observed that Metcalfe’s Law – that the value of a network grows with the square of the number of nodes – can work against you.  He posits a reverse law – Eflactem’s Law,

As you lose users, the value of your network is decreases exponentially (doh!)

Chen has Facebook in his sights.  And I think he’s right, especially given Facebook’s determination to keep the walled garden thing going – in a networked world, that’s only ever going to work as a short or medium term strategy, and ‘short or medium term’ in Internet years can be not very long at all.  But I think Twitter is far more vulnerable.

The big danger – and big win – for Twitter is that their userbase is small (compared to, say, Facebook or MySpace) but highly skewed towards techie opinion-formers.  Those are precisely the sort of people who will find migrating to a new service very little hassle.

On the other hand, I think Twitter is likely to be robust over small, short outages compared to a lot of online services.  The great thing (for my money) about Twitter versus one great big IM clusterparty or IRC (does anybody use IRC these days?) is that you feel quite safe ignoring it
for a while if you want to do something else.  So if you feel like Tweeting, but can’t, it’s no big deal to get on with Actual Work instead.

It’s all a bit fluid, and who knows what will happen?  As Martin concludes, “that’s the fun of it – we get to see the new paradigms being created”.

Laptops and internet bans

After the (very mild and minor) fuss about me using a laptop at last week’s Making Connections, I said we have a mountain to climb in embedding technological change across the university.  It’s reassuring in some ways to see that our mountain is not, perhaps, quite as huge and daunting as some other people’s.  The University of Chicago Law School has removed Internet access in most classrooms, and some professors even ban laptops.  According to the Dean, Saul Levmore, the problem is that students

may overestimate their ability to multi-task during class and that some students have expressed distraction due to their peers’ use of computers during class time

The latter is a very reasonable concern, and I think it can and should be addressed through policies about acceptable usage of computers during f2f teaching sessions (which is apparently what Stanford have done).  But the former is more contentious. Levmore sums it up by saying the question is “How do you best learn? That’s for the faculty to decide.

Prawfsblog spots a certain amount of paternalism in the announcement, and urges them:

Be honest, and admit that you’re banning wireless access because the plugged-in student is usually a disengaged one and has sucked the fun out of the classroom experience.   Students are more likely to accept a top-down policy change if it’s justified based on faculty morale than student learning.

B2fxx goes a bit further (and links back to me, spurring this post) and says:

Banning laptops in class is a bit like the education sector’s equivalent of the entertainment industry wishing the Web had never happened.

That’s more what I’m thinking. It does seem like a panicky over-reaction to an irreversible technological change, which will harm both the legislators and the punters.

I do buy Levmore’s argument that the question is “How best do you learn?”.  I completely reject the idea that the faculty (or teachers or whatever) know the best answer.  Particularly if they think the answer is traditional lectures, which we’ve known since 1972 (Donald Bligh’s What’s The Use Of Lectures) are no better than other methods for information transmission, and almost entirely useless for getting learners to think.

Almost any teacher can help a student learn more effectively than the student can alone, and a good teacher will help the learner understand and improve their own learning processes.  But the idea that the teacher knows how best their learners learn is … wrong.  How can you possibly know that?  You can have a lot of good ideas about how your learners might learn, and if you teach the same topic over and over again, you can accrete a comprehensive toolbox of ways of helping learners learn those particular subjects and a lot of experience in judging which are likely to help which learners with which aspects.  But that’s a very long way from what Levmore is saying.  And all of that presupposes that what you’re teaching (or should be teaching) hasn’t changed profoundly as a result of new technologies – and there are few if any courses where that’s true.

Stephen Heppell has long lamented that most (British) kids have great access to some of the most extraordinarily powerful learning tools (e.g. mobile phones, word processors), but are banned from using them in (many parts of) the formal school system.  It’s a bit depressing if (parts of) higher education are heading down that same “Teacher knows best” route.  At just the time when teacher is freed from having to know best!

Opening up

My organisation – the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University – has recently been reviewed.  I think our response to the review should be to become radically more open about what we do.

We had a meeting about the review with the Vice Chancellor and our immediate boss, Denise Kirkpatrick (Pro-Vice-Chancellor Learning and Teaching).  I asked if it was Ok to blog about the review, and the VC said it was the first time anyone had asked (!) – but said fine so long as it’s circumspect.

In a circumspect nutshell, the review said that the staff in IET were “talented” but identified a serious problem in perceived value delivered to the University.  The proposal of the reviewers was to split IET in two.

We’re now in to a discussion phase where we explore how we might respond to the review.  To stick to the diplomatic and circumspect line, splitting precisely as proposed is proving a major challenge to operationalise.  My colleagues have already kicked the ball rolling with the discussion about what we could actually do.  Martin talks about how organisational structures are less important now:

with new ways of connecting, it’s not that the reorg should be more prevalent, but rather that organisational structures, which are often physical organisational structures, are increasingly irrelevant. My OU network is as much to do with my OU Twitter network as it is to do with my ‘formal’ placement in a group

There’s a lot of potential to improve things, as Will suggests:

overall this represents a catalyst for change which has been long overdue in our unit 

And Patrick linked that back with the theme of new ways of working and said

However if we can do something more about changes in ways of working, picking up on knowing what we are doing and why, building on the latest tools so that structure and boundaries matter rather less then I think the review and the push for change could do us some good. 

So what is to be done?

I think  – and this is very much the direction we as a unit have been moving for a long time – the main idea has to be increased openness about what we’re doing.  Web 2.0 management!

One entirely-fun question – which I’m pleased that I’ve managed to hold off on, since it’s not what we need to focus on quite yet – is what technologies to use to support this.  But suggestions welcome!

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Freesat (not from Sky)

Today’s news in the UK media landscape is that Freesat has launched.  Not to be confused with the very-similar proposition Freesat from Sky (launched in 2004).

Both are free-to-air digital satellite services with no ongoing subscription.  You need a satellite dish and a set-top box (or box built-in to your TV).  Freesat from Sky costs £150 all-in, for dish, box and installation.  Freesat (from the BBC) costs about £50 for a basic box, and about £80 for a dish and installation, depending on all sorts of things.  Or you can get an HD box for about £150 (HD services are the only big difference in channels I can see).  It’s all very rough and a bit confusing as an offering.

It’ll be very interesting to see what happens with Freesat.  At a glance, it seems the wrong offering (it’s more expensive than Freeview, and more confusing than Freeview or Freesat from Sky) at the wrong time (Freeview has such a huge market share) in the wrong market (consisting solely of those who want digital TV but can’t get Freeview and for some reason don’t want Freesat from Sky).  An odd thing for the BBC to be backing.

But we shall see.  Maybe the HD thing is the key: free-to-air HD (BBC HD and ITV HD) is the one significant thing that Freesat has that Sky and Freeview don’t, and it’s also the thing that Sky are complaining about.  Hold on, there’s another thing it has – Freesat also has the imprimatur of the BBC and ITV, which shouldn’t be lightly dismissed – I’m sure the UK take up of DAB and Freeview are largely down to the extensive advertising campaigns mounted by the BBC.

(Other perspectives welcome: It’s hard for me to judge this sort of stuff on “what appeals to me” because – like Clay Shirky and John Naughton – I watch hardly any TV.  And the TV I do watch is often lower res than plain old TV since it’s via the BBC iPlayer.)