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.

More personal media

This isn’t remotely a new observation, but after my musings about the more powerful reach of new media, I was strongly reminded this morning that social networking is more powerful because it’s more personal.

Christian Payne, aka Our Man Inside, aka @Documentally, is a freelance photographer and new media person, who puts a lot of his life and work online using a whole variety of text, audio and video tools.  We’ve met in real life several times, but are more in contact online.  This morning, he posted this AudioBoo:


[which I can’t seem to get to appear as an embed in WordPress in this margin of my time, sorry] … and which I heard, after being alerted via Twitter, within a few minutes of the happy event.  Oddly enough, none of the mainstream news outlets carried this story.  And why should they?  About 2000 or so other babies were born in Britain in the last 24h (at a wild order-of-magnitude guess), so it’s not really news in that sense.

But to a specific, small group of people this was the biggest and best news of the day.  And this snap is probably not Christian’s most technically brilliant shot ever, nor likely to be his biggest earner, but I’ll bet it’s one of the ones he cares most about:

The news of a newborn’s arrival, and a picture of their face, and the sound of their first cry … carried to all the people who care about them.  That personalisation and relevance is part of the magic of new technology.  It’s new and it’s very, very old at the same time.

Welcome to the world, @minimentally.

Social media at the OU

Notes from OU eLearning Community event, 17 February 2009

Sarah Davies and Ingrid Nix are organising the events for the first part of this year.

New eLearning Community Ning site.

Social learning objects and Cloudworks – Chris Pegler

Juliette Culver is the developer of Cloudworks.

Chris draws a distinction between ‘social object’-oriented networks – delicious, Flickr etc where there’s a (learning?) object and more ‘ego-centric’ networks where it’s people connecting to people – e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.  Engeström claims that “social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object”. Hugh McLeod “The object comes first”.  Martin Weller along these lines too.  You need something to talk about.

Cloudworks – supports finding, sharing and discussing learning and teaching ideas, experiences and issues. In alpha at the moment. Working well at conferences/events to use as a site for storing discussion and debate.

Wants to see  more social conversations around reusable learning objects (RLOs) – metadata.

The OU in Facebook – Stuart Brown and Sam Dick

Almost all of the room are on Facebook, fewer fans, only 3 or so have the OU Facebook app.

8.5m unique users (accounts) in the UK. Top or second-top site in OU. About 5000 studying/graduated from the OU. Bit report – New Media Consortium/Educause Horizon Report – “Students and faculty continue to view and experience technology very differently”.

Many motivations for OU in FB. Open University page.

Open University Library – set up a Facebook page. A lot of their Wall traffic (biggest focus) is students looking for others on the same course. Is it a failure of our official web presence/support systems? Or is it understandable that they want a non-official/personal route?  Survey of students – bimodal, some really keen on FB, some really hate it.  Forum gets traffic too, building up started by students. Analytics (Facebook); 66% female 34% male. (Meta-comment: Facebook does age segmentation 13-17, 18-24, 25-34, 35-44, 45+! Rather lower-focused than many.)

Future plans: staff profiles, resource, helpdesk online chat, find/recommend resources. OU Library alreayd has an iGoogle gadget for searching the catalogue; want to embed in Facebook.

OU profile page – (possibly) biggest UK university page, >15,600 fans.

OU Facebook apps: My OU story (283 users). Course Profiles (6,222 users – something like 5% of current students, I’d guess).  Course Profiles helps with the “who’s studying/has studied course X” issue – can specify previous courses studied, current, future plans. Each course gives you: course details, find a new study buddy, your friends on the course, recommend to a friend, OpenLearn content, comments Wall. My OU Story – mood update, gives you mood history graph too. Post ‘Story’ which is a comment on how you’re doing.

Useful page showing all places where the OU wants to have a conversation with people – i.e. social networks with an OU presence: Platform, OU podcasts, iTunesU, Facebook, YouTube, OpenLearn, Twitter, Open2.net, Course Reviews.

Data from Facebook apps is available for analysis … Tony Hirst is custodian (of course).

OU online services have a coordinating set of pages.

Setting up a social community site (Ning and Twitter) – Sarah Davies

Again with the division of social networks: object-centric, ego-centric, white-label.

Object-centric: Flickr, delicious, SumbleUpon, digg, imdb, LibraryThing, Meetup, SecondLife, World of Warcraft. Ego-centric: Myspace, Facebook, Bebo, LinkedIn. White-label: Ning, Elgg.  But categories are blurred.

Review of typical features of sites.  Analysis of sites as communities of practice – Lave and Wenger – Peripheral (lurker), inbound (novice), insider (regular) boundary (leader), outbound (elder).

Twitter overview. Tag tweets with #elcommunity to appear on eLC Ning site.

Ning overview. Demo of new eLearning Community Ning site. Originally set up for talk for ALs on Web 2.0 tools.

Work/social life mix. Intrusion/time intensity. Balance/tradeoff between VLE/OU-hosted stuff and external services.

What’s the point of it all?

My colleagues Chris Jones and Gráinne Conole are at a learning design workshop hosted by Peter Goodyear, listening to contrasting talks from John Sweller and Roger Saljo.  Chris tweeted that he didn’t like the Information Processing view:

John Sweller argued “the purpose of education is to get information into long-term memory”. I just don’t buy that at all!

but he’s

Much happier with Roger Saljo’s position “the ability to transform and recontextualise in manners that are relevant to local needs”

I think both are right, in some senses, and both are wrong in others.  It’s a question of what you mean by purpose, and what level of description you’re talking about.  I strongly uspect that you need to get information in to long-term memory in order to gain the ability to transofrm and recontextualise in manners that are relevant to local needs.

This problem of levels of description has a long history: Aristotle argued that there were four sorts of causes of any change: the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause. (It gets a bit confusing since the Greek word Aristotle was using isn’t quite the same as cause.)  The last two are the ones we’d think of as causes: the efficient cause is what makes a change happen, and the final cause is the purpose.

In more modern times, Systems Thinking embodies these distinctions in the notion of a root definition of a system, which goes “A system to do X by means of Y in order to Z”, and implicit in any definition is the possibility of considering a system one level up or down.

So to come back to education, it could be a system to get information in to long-term memory by means of (something we need to work out) in order to gain the ability to transform and recontextualise in manners that are relevant to local needs.

For me, though, the top-level purpose,  goal, or point of education is to make people better people.

This might well – at several levels of description down – require changes in the bonding between molecules in synapses in their brains, but that’s not (yet) a level of description that’ll help you much as an educator. And focusing on that level of description as your goal could easily distract you from better ways of achieving your aims.  So, for instance, the purpose of a carved wooden table is not chipping away at a block of wood with a chisel.

The focus on making people better people is an important one. It makes it clear that education is a social, political and fundamentally moral enterprise.

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”.