An overview of Cloudworks

It’s Wednesday, so it’s another liveblog from an IET Tech Coffee Morning! Today it’s Gráinne Conole on ‘An overview of Cloudworks’. Much material also available on the Cloudscape on Cloudworks itself.

The slides:


First, a changing Open University. Big change from original black-and-white TV broadcasts, to multichannel. Significant recent activities – OpenLearn, iTunesU, OLnet, Elluminate for conferencing. (Some debates on Cloudworks at the moment comparing FlashMeeting and Elluminate.) ReLIVE 08 – SecondLife. And Google Apps. How does that translate to day-to-day activities of course teams? And what do they need?

A move towards student-centred learning, and a blurring of roles between student/teacher, teaching/learning, content/activities. Much wider range of media, content, activities, control loci. Learning Design initiative is trying to understand and support this.

Locating educational approaches against these along two axes from Teacher- to Student-centred, and Activity- to Content-based. Teacher/Content quadrant: e.g. TV broadcast, lectures; formal, traditional courses. Teacher/Activity quadrant: e.g. tests; home experiment kits; problem-based learning. Student/Content : e.g. online resource – learner-defined learning; often professional/skills development. Student/Activity: co-creating content, informal web-based learning (amateur photography). Move from standard, traditional models in at least two directions: means you need new approaches to design to help teachers make informed choices about pedagogies and technologies.

Converging practices – modern technologies (RSS feeds, mashups, micro-blogging, Cloud) and modern pedagogy. Big gap between promise and reality. E.g. even Moodle not used to its full potential. Why? Not knowing where to start, overwhelmed, time, research, benefit, skills, belief; resistance strategies – say yes/do nothing, undermine initiative/person, do it badly. Classic mistakes: emphasis on technologies not people/processes, funding for tech devt but not use and support.

To help: adopt a learning design approach. Conceptual tools, collaboration tools, and visualisation tools. Many developed over the project, taking forward with course business models work. Collaboration tools – is mainly Cloudworks, topic for today. But also resources and activities wrapped round all this lot.


Helping to bridge gap between potential and actuality. Set up two years ago. Origins in interviews with people in OU about how they design courses, and how they might use technology more effectively. Two main findings: (1) they want examples, case studies where it’s worked, preferably in their subject; and (2) they want someone to talk to – a guide (preferably a 24h available personal one), people to discuss it with. Web 2.0 technologies look like a good match. Lots of great case studies online, many ways of engaging and networking online. But when examined closer, only a very few people were doing it. Cloudworks aimed to be a social networking site to help academics share good practice and discuss and debate. Harnessed best of Web 2.0 practice in to an evolving, growing space, adapting it in the light of user behaviour.

It’s a space for sharing and discussing learning and teaching ideas and designs. Technical development and social intervention tied together. Team: Juliette Culver, Rebecca Galley, Nick Freear.

Aim: bridge gap between technologies and use. Real issue in skills development. Theoretical basis is ‘social objects’ (Flickr, core object is photo, YouTube video, etc – Engestrom argues social network is nothing without a shared object to anchor discussion) and framework for sociality.

In response to the request for case studies (especially on Moodle), many case studies (44 of them) commissioned and written up – but when people looked at them, were not quite what people wanted, not used widely.

Key concepts:

  • Cloud – core object. Ideas, design or case studies, tools or resources, questions or problems.
  • Cloudscapes – collections of clouds
  • Activity streams – dynamic filters of new activity
  • Follow and be followed – personal activity and stream.

[Demo/introduction to the site]

Interpersonal conversation is the most powerful way to transfer knowledge and expertise. They don’t want a 10-page case study. It’s specific snippets, tailored to the audience, and relevant, and personal.

The idea of the cloud is that it’s the kernel of an idea – with ways to augment, expand and discuss. Long decision about whether to make the original cloud wiki-able; decided not, but people can extend/expand/discuss below.

Types include current topics, questions, flash debates, presentations, resources.

Used to support events – worked effectively at the Learn About Fair this year.

Clouds can belong to more than one cloudscape.

Cloudstreams let you see the latest activity on the site.

Follow (and be followed) – can follow cloudscapes and people. Helps you filter and signal your interests.

Recent new features – events lists and deadlines. Anyone can add to this. Hard to find a comprehensive list like this for our area anywhere else. Also added Favourites – will appear on your profile. Expanded user profile – including reputational score (based on ‘like’s). Shows clouds and cloudscapes produced, who’s following them, who they follow.

By design, includes multiplicity of trails, pathways, filters and personalisation tools – and a notion of serendipity – unexpected discoveries.

Now have viewers from 163 countries, range of users (e.g. schoolteachers in Argentina giving advice to lecturers in Canada). Multiple languages – communities in Dutch and Spanish, and two others (as well as English). Now have facility to make Cloudworks itself (as opposed to the content) available in other languages, like changing Facebook. Greek is next up. Possibly German.

Works very well at events, conferences and workshops. Flash debates also popular; some very rich. Also eliciting expertise, open reviews, and aggregating resources.

Often actively moderated by Gráinne – important to success of site.

Used a lot at OU. Some very active for a period of time, but then quiet; ebb and flow of activities. Also includes Learning Design work.

Stats: just over 200 registered users. 57k visits from 160 countries since launch on 1 June 2008 to date. Much activity from team, but not insignificant from others.

One community moving over from Ning – ELESIG – because Ning closing down for free.


Question: Does a person who sets up a cloud get seen as the OU’s expert on it?

Gráinne: They might become seen as that over time by the community. But no official endorsement. Martin Weller well known as a Web 2.0 guru, OU expert on blogs. It’s the community that decides, not an individual.

Joe (KMi): How real and how virtual is it? The debate around it becomes an artifact in itself. It’s hard to ask people to do anything extra, and the virtual space is often seen as extra. But people like doing them anyway. Where would you position Cloudworks in that 2D space at the beginning?

Gráinne: It works in real and virtual space. Works well as complement to real events – e.g. workshops. People engage at different levels: majority lurk, discussing is another level – but e.g. adding a link is a lower-scale input, and has generated more and wider activity and participation. In terms of Teacher/Student vs Activity/Content – depends on what you’re using it for. Could do it very Teacher/Content style. Or very open on either or both axes. It’s the design of the activity that matters.

Rob: Worry about the potential pitfalls of democracy. Very open system. (Deliberate design decision.) A great virtual. Perennial problem – just because something is widely thought doesn’t mean it’s right. Seems that only quality control is partly commenting, which depends on others doing it. Reputation, except that doesn’t necessarily transfer. Danger if looking for advice, think someone must know what they’re talking about since they’re talking about it. Also, too much information problem, bit put off the whole thread, just want the small specific thing they’re looking for. Anti-democratic concerns.

Gráinne: This is the reality of modern space. Pandora’s box is open and we can’t limit or control things. We can – e.g. Jenkin’s digital literacy work (added in Cloudworks) – part of the new skills is about making judgements about what’s good and bad. Overwhelmingness – H800 students playing in this space, having debates – some were quite overwhelmed, ‘there’s just so much’. But that’s the reality. That’s why we provide multiple routes through. Can see the students going through, initially overwhelmed, then finding a route through, becoming more adept. Everyone is too busy. But people are going in there – why? Engaging if it’s useful and valuable to them, if it’s motivational. Some people will hate it – don’t like the look, or the open-ness. True of all these tools – Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Someone (one of the H800 students!): We do adapt, we learn to use. But that doesn’t discount our initial reaction. We go, woah, don’t like this, then get in to it and learn. [Yaka-wow happening.] Very new to learning and teaching, are a real beginner. Like and understand the concept. Are learning very much at the moment. People use different terminology to talk about the same thing – e.g. learning design, student-centred learning – and you’re just typing in the wrong keyword!

G: Another known problem of the current space. No more fixed taxonomies. That’s why serendipity is important.

Graham: Cloudworks is open at the moment. Going to develop closed versions for groups?

G: Hot, contended debate. Vision to connect worldwide, get the connection going. Tend to be very insular at the OU, and over-cautious. Being open is taking that power to connect. A lot of people in the OU put off because it’s open. Her argument is if you want a closed space, use a discussion forum or email list. Are going open source with the product in the summer – which would mean people could do a closed locked-down version. Wouldn’t be surprised if a closed OU version happens.

H800 student: Important to become accultured in to these spaces, really important to be open.

Me: Fan of both closed and open spaces. Closed spaces can be helpful for people who are learning and uncertain. [This is a version of my Wild Woods vs Walled Garden point.]

Joe: Not fair to dichotomise closed versus open. There are some aspects that are not entirely open.

Someone2: An issue about flow and osmosis between spaces. On a course there might be times where you do want a lot of closed, trust, confidence – and times when you want to open up, and flow and interconnect between the two.

G: Also danger of being seen as cliquey. H800 has had standard discussion forum through, but experimenting throughout- preference/experience?

H800 student: Some people really busy in the forums, some not. Hers is quiet today, they’re using other tools this week. Hard to comment. Feels a tension in writing – curious mixture of academic-style paragraphs and conversation style of writing. And when you don’t have time, you need short sentences. Funny hybrid of writing style, hard to judge, and takes a lot of time to form an appropriate answer.

G: Problem with all these spaces. Need to find own style – Gráinne’s is a stream of consciousness on her blog. Some people on Twitter have the art of great well-crafted one-liners, others just splurge out what they’re thinking.

Simon: Seems very community-oriented, but little collaborative capability with an object, like Wikipedia.

G: Surprised. Different with e.g. a wiki and a shared culture of changing the object. Can add to objects, though – very important.

Simon: Reputation, how’s that worked out?

G: Reputation line – you get it when someone favourites a cloud or cloudscape they created. Gives you a score of 1 each time. When you recommend a link – moves the link up the list, and adds 1 to your reputation. Not actively promoted yet, but can start to see their reputation. Can’t yet see what the reputation is based on, will come, but can also see what each user has favourited/recommended.

Rob: Link up with ratings from papers from elsewhere?

G: Yes, don’t want to duplicate features.

Paul: Concern that people will learn to game the system? Groups, like reference clubs where you all recommend each other’s stuff.

G: Always an issue. Happens already across the board. Also the peer community having enough nous to spot that’s going on. Have tight moderation for spam – if you promote a product you’ll soon be kicked out.

G: Also can migrate content around the site, ideas and aggregation coming together very quickly. Example of mindmapping. Then in four different cloudscapes.

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Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

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