Seeing how people really use online technology with the Tobii eye-tracker

Liveblog notes from an IET Technology Coffee Morning, 16 December 2009.

Presenters: Patrick McAndrew, Graham Healing, with input from Elpida Makriyannis and Anne Adams

We have a Tobii eye-tracker in the labs, which isn’t used as heavily as it could be. Aim for today is to show how easy it is to use, and explore some of the ways it could be developed.

History – a few years ago, Graham and Patrick were trying to improve the OpenLearn website. It was hard to know whether their worries about its effectiveness were real. Used an eye tracker to do a brief study of what actually happens. It was amazingly revealing, and very efficient – just a few minutes of recording and playback showed them the interactions on the site. That then grew in to quite a study, with analysis. At that point, the technology was hard work – took many extra hours. But now have bought more recent kit, with software upgrades, which make it very easy to use.

Some classic research in to how people read pages – like Jakob Nielsen’s classic (2001) work showing an F-shaped reading pattern for web pages. But is it still true?

Has been around since the 1950s! Now more up to date – see e.g. this presentation, which is about the machine we have:

Continue reading “Seeing how people really use online technology with the Tobii eye-tracker”


Pointless babble or social grooming?

There’s a kerfuffle on Twitter at the moment about a study of Twitter that found that “Twitter tweets are 40% [pointless] babble“.  I know, I know, another new media self-referential navel-gazing situation.

But it serves as a good example of a really important point about teaching with new technology.  Teachers have to be immersed in digital technologies if they’re going to make good use of them in learning.

There’s lots to criticise about this particular study in terms of its methodology, and I’m sure other blogs will oblige if you really care.  (I personally was quite amused at the great examples of way-too-precise percentages and of trawling findings out of obviously too-small datasets that appear in the ‘full’ PDF report – and also mildly entertained at the way they pad out the report with cut-and-paste stuff, including the silly ‘Teens don’t Tweet’ story that danah boyd demolished.)

But these fish-in-a-barrel shortcomings don’t really matter: in broad-brush terms, it’s probably roughly right that traffic on Twitter is about 10% self-promotion and spam, 10% of news broadly considered, 40% conversation, and 40% ‘pointless babble’.

Fundamentally, though, this study (almost) entirely misses the point of what people on Twitter experience.  It sampled the Twitter public stream, which is the total assemblage of what everyone using the service is producing.

But what looks like ‘pointless babble’ isn’t pointless, if it’s from people you know or care about.  It’s social grooming, it’s keeping in touch.  It’s what most human conversation is about.  If you think this stuff is pointless babble, you’re really not going to enjoy parties.  Or indeed be likely to maintain fulfilling personal relationships.  On Twitter, you get to choose whose ‘pointless babble’ you want to follow.  Almost nobody who actually uses Twitter uses it by reading the public stream.

If you learn about Twitter by reading these sorts of reports, you’ll get a bizarre view that really tells you very little about what it’s like to use as a service.

And this brings me to the general point about teaching with new technology: you can do the most methodologically sound research about Twitter you like, but without a decent appreciation of what it is to use the service, you’re going to struggle hard to make sensible use of it in teaching.

Now I’m certainly not arguing that research in to new technologies is not valuable to teachers: it’s hugely important.  (And I would say that, it’s a large part of my job!) But without a practical perspective – and I suspect that means personal experience – it’s all but impossible to use research to devise good learning experiences for actual learners.

It’s like the old caricature of book larnin’ that has someone teaching themselves to swim by reading a book, without ever setting foot in the water.  It’s self-evidently ridiculous. Cutting-edge research in to swimming is helping to create swimming costumes that dramatically improve swimmers’ speed. Would-be swimming coaches who stay abreast of that research might think it would be a good idea to get their hapless learners to wear those for their half-hour learning sessions … failing utterly to appreciate that the gains only come to elite swimmers, and that it can easily take up to half an hour to struggle in to the high-tech suits.

This is very similar to Martin Weller’s Pathetic Sharks argument (see p21/22): if we don’t dive in to these technologies, we run the risk of being like Viz magazine’s Pathetic Sharks, who looked scary, but were too scared to actually go in to the water.

And it’s what I was getting at in my all-time number one hit blog post, We Have A Mountain To Climb.  The surface issue there wasn’t Twitter, but me being the only laptop user in a lecture, and thus annoying everyone else in the room when I banged away on my keyboard.  (Ironically, the subject of the lecture – given by the OU’s then-VC – was an eloquent argument that ‘scholarship in this university, in this century, has to be irrevocably tied to the technology and knowledge media‘.)

The deeper issue is identical: Most teachers in higher education are not getting practical experience of digital technologies.  It’s just not part of their daily practice.  They’re not immersed in it; many have barely dipped their toes in.  Even if we could get the very best ed tech research to their fingertips (hard enough), they’re never going to make great use of new technologies in their teaching without that practical experience.

Changing the everyday practice of educators is going to be hard. But we have to do it.

Higher Education is in the early stages of a transformation that’ll be at least as profound as the upheavals that digital technologies are bringing to the music and newspaper industries.  There’s a huge opportunity – and a huge challenge! – for us at the OU and in other universities to lead innovation here.

If we don’t, we’re in real trouble. But if we can ride the wave instead of letting it crash over us, it’s going to be extremely exciting times for teachers and learners.  And to do that, we – as a community – have to be practitioners in the space we’re trying to innovate in.

Update: danah boyd is riffing on the same silly Twitter study, effectively as ever.

OLnet: next steps with OER research

I’m involved in the very exciting OLnet project, which is building research infrastructure to understand the Open Educational Resource (OER) world.

The elevator pitch: there’s shedloads of high-quality learning materials available, but not a lot of research in to the entire area, even at a baseline level of project-level evaluation.  The OU’s Open Learn was unusual in having a strong Research and Evaluation strand, led by Patrick McAndrew, and the Hewlett Foundation has now funded OLnet to build research capacity across the OER world.  It’s a partnership between the Open University and Carnegie Mellon, but we’ll be bringing in Fellows from far beyond.

The OLnet project proposal sets out our vision and aims, and the nascent OLnet site itself is the place to go for updates and definitive information.  We had a really successful presence at the OER conference in Monterey last month where we launched the project and captured activity and contacts there using Cloudworks.

We’ve just had another brainstorming activity about what we should be doing (as you do when you’ve been running a project for a couple of months), and here are some desperately rough-and-ready notes I made from my post-its.

NB These are very much drafts: some are silly ideas, and some are in fact things we promised to do in the proposal and are very much still signed up to do and I have merely failed to articulate that here due to cognitive impairment.

So, my notes of Things Wot We Could Do:

Enumerate/map out (dumb and smart – blog post/XML/Cohere map) all known OER projects
Bread-and-butter survey and interviews evaluating all known OER projects. (Have good baseline but not exhaustive; warm contacts for Hewlett-funded projects thanks to Monterey conference last month).

Enumerate/map out (dumb and smart again) all OER bloggers / blog aggregator. Or in fact point to existing authoritative source(s) (Again have good baseline but need to do a little more stuff to span out.)

More active OLnet blog – specified role for OLnet researchers/fellows? Or employ someone for it

Lab/research toolbox – HOWTO – how to research/evaluate your OER project, open-by-default, makes results available in open format instantly, can see how your project compares to others; OR just do the coordinating activity based around microformats/shared practice. Aim to show benefit from researching in open/OER way (see comparison with others)

Tracking package/toolkit – easy drop-in stuff fro tracking learners, tracking re-use. Link to existing Hewlett project trying to integrate Google Analytics across all OER projects; we have close link to it but aren’t part of it at the moment.

Big tech effort to provide automated OER remix/reuse/repost-tracking stuff – like plagiarism detection software. Heavy on the tech stuff but could be very exciting to do in open mode – most plagiarism detection stuff is terribly proprietary.

Working space for researchers – on OLnet site.

Baseline literature review – useful output, good to build on.

Research agenda-setting activity, or research framework setting – meetings, mappings, real, online stuff.   Like Roadmap activities in previous projects but reinvented in OER mode.

Explore impact of licenses on reuse/remix/repost/etc – the David Wiley/Stephen Downes debate about CC-BY (or less!) vs NC-SA – admits of an empirical answer to illuminate the philosophical one?

Explore models of sustainable OER learning. Yet further.

Investigate technologies – scope, pilot new ones – for supporting OER research. E.g. reputation management system, FOAF, SIOC. Cross-site identity management (OpenID vs Facebook Connect vs throwaway logins).

Single sign-on for all ‘our’ stuff – Drupal integration with SAMS (very OU centric but possibly allows us to have single sign-on from Open Learn through to OLnet …)