Fast Follower course

My colleague Paul Lefrere suggested at lunchtime that we should put on a course on how to be a successful fast follower.  (i.e. How to successfully let others pay the price of being first mover and early adopter, and rushing in to new technologies just at the moment they begin to look like they’ll deliver serious value, but ahead of the mass/commoditised/me-too phase.)  He’d looked around but not seen anything like that.

But after some discussion, we decided it would be wrong to do that.  Better to wait until just after someone else does it first.

Subtleties of systems design

Relatively small, simple changes to the design of a system can have profound effects on the effectiveness and acceptability of the system to the users. 

(This probably won’t be news to anyone reading this, but I keep coming across it in so many places.  It’s definitely somewhere in my Top Ten Things In Educational Technology That Are Well-Known Or Ought To Be, below “More research required”, “Learners can fail to understand things in ways you never imagined” and “Trying to use one teaching method as if it were a different teaching method probably isn’t a great idea”, but perhaps above “Asking whether technology-enhanced learning is better than other forms is not a very illuminating question”.)

Anyway – my example for today of small systems changes is CCTV.  The UK is covered in “security” cameras.  This includes an awful lot of cameras pointing at roads. 

In England, only the Government can see what’s on those cameras.  Oh, plus anyone the Government decides to let look at them.  So your experience as a user is of being spied on: you see all these cameras, and imagine that the people watching them might be up to no good. It’s creepy and feels like you’re being snooped on.  Hence scare stories like this one about US agencies being allowed to spy on UK motorists

In Wales, the Welsh Assembly has made live images from the cameras on the motorways freely available on the web.  You can zoom in on your favourite bit of the M4, click on a camera icon, and see what’s going on right now.  (There’s even handy ‘typical views’ for comparison with the current view.)  All of a sudden, your experience changes.  The cameras start to look like a useful social tool to you.  And  when you think of the people watching those cameras you think, blimey, that must be one hell of a boring job.

Such a small change in systems terms, but a huge one in the user experience.  (Or at least in mine – I certainly feel a lot happier on the M4 in Wales than in England.)  And another example of how making stuff openly available can often get you much more benefit than restricting it (though not always).  Which is probably another for my Top Ten – hmm, I think this may be heading for a Top Fifty if I’m not careful.

Academics do politics differently

I used to be actively involved in my trade union, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), now merged with its traditional rival, NATFHE, to form University and College Union, (UCU).  For various reasons – most pressing a lack of time – I’m no longer very active, but I do keep up with what’s going on.

I received an email from a colleague urging me to vote a particular way in a particular upcoming election.  (In a doomed attempt to keep this blog focused, I won’t go in to the details – but happy to discuss them, in brief or at length, with anyone who wants to know.)  I laughed out loud when I read this bit at the end:

Whatever you do please read the election material and the statements issued by both candidates..When you have done so I hope you will come to the same conclusion as me and vote for [my preference]

Fantastic campaigning there – real “rectify the anomaly” stuff.  (For those who don’t know, “Rectify the anomaly” was an infamous slogan of the AUT’s from a 1970s campaign for better pay.)  Polite, reasonable but leaves you clear enough what they’re trying to tell you.

It is actually pretty smart campaigning – academics and related staff generally don’t take kindly being told what to think in the way of traditional politics.  Which is part of the challenge of working effectively in higher education.

iPlayer on Wii

I was excited last month about the BBC’s iPlayer service being available on the iPhone and iPod touch.  Today I’m excited about it being available for the Nintendo Wii.  Internet TV … on the TV!

It’s pretty easy – you just need the Internet Channel (Nintendo’s silly name for Opera for the Wii, and an excuse to charge you £3.50 for a browser that’s available free on pretty much every other platform ever) and then … just go to the iPlayer site and off you go.

(Incidentally, the Internet Channel on the Wii is a fantastic idea, but really brings home to me a) how poor a TV set is as a computer display and b) just how desperately poor the text-entry system is on the Wii.  Watching YouTube is workable and more fun than on a computer.  Very little else is.)

Of course, it’s been possible to stream videos from your PC to your Wii via the Internet Channel for a while, through various bits of software.  And it is also entirely possible – if somewhat dubious – to strip the DRM from iPlayer downloads so you can stream them.  (Or indeed blow them to DVD and walk them through from the PC to the living room.  Never underestimate the bandwidth of sneakernet!) So this has been possible in principle for some time, but a lot more technical faff than most people can be doing with.  iPlayer is about bringing P2P to the masses, rather than the geeky copyfighting few.

As another aside, I’m amused at the ISP industry taking against iPlayer.  (See, e.g., El Reg’s piece on the recent spat between Tiscali and the BBC.)  Parts of the IT industry often seem to want to defy ordinary economic gravity – I’m reminded of the dot-com nonsense (“How could that possibly make money?”  “If you read our business plan you’d see that we will develop a monetisation strategy in Q6”).  In what other industry would businesses get terribly unhappy if the demand for their product increased beyond what they had ever anticipated?  Madness.

To be fair, it’s more as if they’ve worked out one way of making money and don’t want technical development and change to stop that working.  Rather like mobile phone ringtone vendors, traditional record industry executives, blacksmiths and indeed the original Luddites, then.  For technology companies to take that position is particularly odd.  And life-limiting.  I’d advise against buying Tiscali stock.

Anyway!  Enough asides.  What about iPlayer on the Wii?  Is it any good?

Alas, no.  At least, not for me tonight.  The resolution is great.  There seems to be far more content available than when the iPhone/iPod touch version was launched.  But the bandwidth is so rubbish as to render it unwatchable with stutters and stops.  Don’t know for sure what that’s down to – no problem at all on my desktop PC over Ether to my router, or my iPod touch using the same WiFi network as the Wii.  Anthony Rose from the BBC mentions in his announcement that they’ve had to up the bitrate for the Wii from 500 to 820 Kbps because they need to use a less-efficient codec to work with the ancient version of Flash the Wii uses.  That could be it.

Still – maybe the BBC’s wizards will fix this with tweaking.  Maybe I’ll think of some way round the physical barriers to running a hard connection from my router to the Wii.  Maybe something even better will turn up next month!

And while I’m waiting, my copy of Dance Dance Revolution Hottest Party for the Wii should arrive very soon …

JIME: The Once and Future Future of Academic Publishing

I’ve just been to a meeting about the Journal of Interactive Media in Education, or JIME.

I’d been vaguely thinking that I may or may not be on the Editorial Board of it, but the meeting has usefully confirmed that I am as of this afternoon actually one of the three core Editors along with my colleagues Patrick and Will.

In 1996 it was a very exciting new development in academic publishing – it aimed, inter alia:

Through its innovative use of interactive Net-based media, to be an action research project which explores the changing face of journals, and more broadly, scholarly practice in the age of digital publishing and communication.

(Ouch. The site uses frames! Making linking to that aims page hard. Oh dear.)

It had a cool new idea about being a proper journal but freely available online, and about the reviewing happening in the open. After an initial quick ‘threshold’ review, the article appears, the reviewers make comments, and the authors respond. All in the open.

Alas, the current technical system to support all that is Broken. And not fixable for boring reasons, on top of the reason that fixing an out-of-date kludgy system that you didn’t build is a deeply boring task. Things have rather moved on from 1996.

So we need to do Something. We had some fun (and despair) thinking about what. I think we have two main principles for the journal:

  • Firstly, we definitely want a Proper Academic Journal. That clearly still has value, and is part of what JIME always was and could be. So that means a proper Editorial Board, and proper reviewing. And – note to self – proper indexing in major citation indeces, which indirectly probably means a regular publishing schedule, which is a serious – but not insurmountable – tension for a very-rapid publication model. (e.g. it might be possible to come up with a hybrid where things appear as ‘accepted’ as soon as they are, and then every four months we create an ‘issue’ which formally moves any and all currently accepted articles to ‘published’.)
  • Secondly, we want to continue to explore new, more open ways of doing that – being open access is a minimum. So teaming up with a publisher (which would get our hands on their lovely money to support the process) isn’t likely to be an obvious big win (since it would be extorted from academic libraries by means that would prevent us being openly available). I don’t know what our current licensing agreement with authors is – implicitly it must involve permission for open access – but that might want upgrading to a CC licence.

The current sketchy idea is to use Open Journal Systems (OJS) for the nuts-and-bolts of the threshold review and the publication process, then some cunning system where the reviewers post their review in their own blogs (opening up that process much more widely in a very interesting new way), and JIME picks that up via trackbacks. Ideally we’d do something clever where the initial submission appears in the author(s)’s blog(s) too, as well as their response/revised final article. Should be pretty easily do-able … just needs the time fiddling with OJS.

There’s much more we could do, it’s just thrashing out what it should be – and convincing people that it has value and then getting the resource to do it (!). We talked about deeper issues – in particular, Patrick’s fine theory that Word has set academic publishing back decades by inhibiting structured authoring and referencing, which were solved problems by the late 80s.

But following the Web 2.0 philosophy, we should do the least that would work as soon as we can, and build towards the bigger vision, rather than waiting to build the whole thing in one huge leap.

It is fun being a (small!) part of the revolution in academic publishing. We’re also looking to refresh the Editorial Board as part of this revamp – anyone interested in joining us?

The video future is here

… just not evenly distributed, as William Gibson almost said.  But it’s just got that little bit more widely distributed.

About six months ago I said that the DRM battle in video hadn’t really got started, and complained about the BBC’s choice of DRM for its iPlayer.   That’s an awfully long time ago in Internet time.

Things have just got a lot better. The BBC has opened up iPlayer for the iPhone and the iPod touch. You just go to the site in Safari and it works!

Even better, as Cory Doctorow points out at Boing Boing, this means that iPlayer content is available in DRM-free versions – all you have to do is change your browser’s user agent string to claim to be an iPhone.   (If you’re interested in the technicalities, Anthony Rose has a great explanation.)

This is a huge step on the way to video being available when and how you want it, in the way we’re getting used to audio being available.

We’ve a long way to go, of course.  Bandwidth is still a bottleneck.  (On the iPhone, you must be on a Wifi network – the phone network won’t work.)  Storage likewise.  And the content is still patchy – most of the programmes on the iPlayer site aren’t (yet?!) available like this, and the BBC is just one source of video.  And the interface isn’t fantastic – you only find out whether a programme is available when you try to play it.

But it’s fantastic to be able to see what are still quaintly called TV broadcasts on my iPod touch, on demand, in impressively high resolution – way better than most YouTube videos.  Strange the effect that new technologies have on you – I’ve never have predicted that I’d be so excited to see Jeremy Clarkson’s ugly mug.

Blackboard wins, learners lose

Blackboard has won That Patent case against Desire2Learn:

Earlier today [Friday 22nd Feb] the jury handed down its verdict that the patent is valid and that Blackboard should be awarded damages of approximately $3 million.

My colleague Grainne Conole can’t believe they won. Terry Anderson hopes this action:

further alienates users from Blackboard and it accelerates the exodus of fair minded educators from the ranks of Blackboard customers. I also hope that John has the resources to continue the fight with an appeal and wish him success if he does.

This is very disappointing. To my mind it’s another example of the (US) patent system being badly broken, particularly in the area of software. It’s very hard to see how learners win as a result of this. Unless it’s as Terry Anderson hopes, and educators leave Blackboard – and any other company that seems similarly-minded – in droves, to embrace a more open, collaborative approach to teaching and learning. (That’d be a lovely silver lining, but I’ve never been one to follow the RCP-style line that it’s desirable that things get worse in order to spur people to make them better.)

One step back doesn’t mean the journey is doomed, though, and I think it will eventually become clear that this was commercially – as well as ethically – a huge mistake by Blackboard.

EDIT: Stephen Downes has a more comprehensive summary of reaction. It’s not terribly positive.

Mature students: Follow the money

I was – like many OU colleagues – dismayed at the Government’s announcement late last week that funding for students studying second or subsequent degrees is to be stopped.

Many of the OU’s students already have a degree.  There’s been much talk of us shifting from being the ‘University of the Second Chance’ to the ‘University of the Second Time’.  Makes unarguable sense in a world where lifelong learning is increasingly obviously a necessity.  These students – unsurprisingly – tend to do a lot better than average in terms of sticking with their course and getting good marks at the end of it.

If HMG does cut this funding, the OU is in serious – and we are talking spectacularly serious – financial trouble.  We’re working out just how serious at the moment, and our VC has promised that once we have ‘we will register, most vigorously, our concerns’.  (I for one wouldn’t like to be on the the receiving end of vigorous concerns from her.)

And it does very much look like the rug being pulled out from under any idea that the Government is committed to lifelong learning, reskilling, and all that stuff.

But then today in the news I hear that the Universities Secretary is urging universities to attract more mature students by designing courses to fit in with with people’s lives. Er, like, say, the Open University model where you can work and study at the same time?

So in this post-Leitch “70% of the 2020 workforce have already left school” world, do they want more mature students or not?

I was annoyed and baffled at the apparent contradiction in policy direction until my colleague Paul pointed out that the policy is entirely consistent:  they’re not remotely talking about making any more money available for this.  The whole idea – from Leitch and enthusiastically taken up by the Government – is for industry to pay for (any) expansion.  Now it all makes – deeply dismaying – sense.

Content Battles

Martin has another interesting post, arguing that “Digital content wants to be free, and will seek the path to maximum access.”

He makes a good case based on some examples from photos, broadcast and music. I’ve two points of departure.

Firstly, I think ‘photos, broadcast and music’ are old-media concepts that don’t have a guaranteed right to exist in the new-media world. Online, these map – in a complex way – on to images, audio, video and combinations of those. (FWIW I don’t think ‘streaming audio/video’ category is a stable, separate category in to the future either – it’s a workaround for limited bandwidth.) It’s a tribute to how embedded that way of thinking is that even an analyst of Martin’s stature and experience paints the world in those terms.

Secondly, the analysis is incomplete without acknowledging that digital content also wants to be expensive. The original information-wants-to-be-free quote was from Stewart Brand back in 1984, and is worth restating in full:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

And that’s what’s been going on with the music/audio industry.

And that’s what’s just starting to go on in the video industries. We’ve got YouTube playing the Napster role and any number of consumer-hostile walled-garden DRM solutions from bone-headed unimaginative existing market incumbents.

These include, alas, a lot of people who should be in a position to Do The Right Thing, but sadly aren’t, such as the BBC and Google. The BBC have made what I reckon is their worst decision of recent years by going for a DRM-ed offering (tied to Microsoft), despite overwhelming public offering. For stuff the licence-fee payers have already paid for! And Google Video is another disaster. Google is shutting down its video service. Punters who signed up in good faith and bought DRMed video from them now face being unable to play those videos.

The battle in audio is far from over. The battle in video hasn’t really got started.

Leitch Review of Skills

Have just been to a meeting where we discussed, inter alia, the Leitch Review of Skills and its potential impact on the OU.

For those of you who’ve not had a chance to read it cover to cover, the general gist is – surprise, surprise – that the UK needs a lot more skills.  At all levels.

How this is to be achieved varies by level.  The Review urges shifting much more Government resource in to basic and intermediate level skills.  It also says there should be far more at degree level and above, but says that the expansion here should be funded by employers and individuals.  The Review also says that offerings from HE providers must be much more “demand-led”.

The OU’s Council – our ultimate governing body – looked at all this, and I’ve seen the briefing paper they had and indirectly heard their response.  It seems pretty smart.  As I understand it, it goes:

a) The OU is pretty well connected with employers already – though of course we can do better;
b) Don’t for one moment assume that there will be a sudden huge flood of new money in to HE from employers – there won’t; and
c) Note that the Government has yet to set out a timetable for implementing the Review – assuming it decides to do so.

There is a lot of potential for exciting stuff post-Leitch, but there’s a lot of problems too.  (I’m particularly skeptical of the role they envisage for Sector Skills Councils, for one thing, although at least it’s not recommending a whole new machinery for doing that job.)  I think we’ll need to wait and see before anything dramatic arrives.

Joining things up in my head, I think that the Leitch push to be more demand-led, more bespoke, and more cost-effective (all at the same time!) cries out for a Web 2.0-style mass customisation operation.  How we do that at scale, though, is a huge challenge.