Friday, 16 July 2010

Got the train reservations and not a day too soon!
Got the train reservations and not a day too late!

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

"Heading To Follow"

CDoTL's seasonal teaching and learning publication Teaching Matters went out here at the University of Reading today. I wrote an article on Twitter for it, which ended up being too long and which, consequently, I had to cut in half. The cuts were pretty gory and I'm not sure the article makes as much sense as it did (however much that was). So I've put the full, uncut version here so you can see for yourself.

The article is titled "Heading to Follow", which is supposed to be a pun that looks like a printer's mistake. I laughed anyway. Disagree with anything in the likely inaccurate and unjustifiably opininated rambling below? — Do let me know through the comments at the bottom.
If, as Marshall McLuhan once said, "the medium is the message" what is Twitter saying to us? And for those of us that use it — still in the minority, despite all the hype — what does it say about us?

Those who aren't familiar with Twitter probably won't be surprised to hear that it's the latest popular something-or-other to hit the "Interweb". It was bound to be, what with all the press it's been getting. Turns out even the kids aren't down with this one. What distinguishes Twitter from other social websites, like Facebook or MySpace, is its simplicity. Virtually all it consists of is a box in which you can put what's called a "status update". This update is normally a record of what you're doing, or thinking, though it's equally likely to be a link to a website you've been looking at. The catch is that the box only allows up to 140 characters — essentially then, no longer than a single text message sent from a mobile phone, which is sort of the point as it turns out. If you've got a mobile you can tell Twitter what you're doing from anywhere with a decent signal.

The updates are recorded on your profile, which otherwise merely consists of a picture, a short description and all the other updates you ever put out. This might be why it doesn't seem to have caught on with people under twenty, according to some demographic studies. You can change what the profile looks like to an extent but there isn't much opportunity to create a strong identity. Also "Friends" aren't a big feature of Twitter like they are on other social networking sites. You can choose to "follow" other users instead, so that whenever they update their status, you see it on the home page. Others, likewise, can choose to follow you, but it hardly mirrors or fosters the kind of relationships younger users of the Web relish.

It's almost too simple really. So simple that people who don't use it don't understand the reason for its existence, let alone its gradually increasing presence in the news and subsequent popularity.

Having said that, you might have a similar problem trying to explain to a hunter-gatherer why you'd want to spend 3.9 hours a day on average (last time I checked) sitting in front of a box of moving pictures. But most of us don't think about television in those bare objective terms, perhaps because we're too busy watching it. The only reason people question the point of Twitter is either because they haven't used it or because the concept is too novel. So perhaps before we can say what Twitter says to and about us and the age we live in, we need to ask the same question of other concepts - for example two that we take for granted.

One could argue that, pace McLuhan, a lecturer in front of class is never merely lecturing on a certain topic. He or she is also, by virtue of the lecture itself, telling the class something simple — that what they say is of importance somehow and that you should listen. Powerpoint as a technology emerged to service that idea, to reinforce it lest our attentions should wander; to emphasise that what the person at the front says goes, for now.

Television, similarly, talks at us. However, it's a little easier for us to change channels, if we fail to switch off altogether. So television ups the stakes a little and tries to make what it tells us entertaining, which might seem hard to believe these days. It's still talking at us but increasingly resorts to either emotional manipulation or irony, in order to keep us engaged. The emotional manipulation is like the equivalent of saying "you'd be a cold-hearted bastard to turn off now". And the irony is saying "Okay so I'm talking at you but we both know this is a one-way conversation and we both know you wouldn't be watching if you didn't want that so let's just wink at each other and get on with it". The most entertaining television manages to combine these opposite poles to great effect. Aside from these two of course there are always last resorts, namely titillation or outright sexual explicitness.

It's possible, of course, for a lecturer to employ televisual-like techniques in a lecture but at a certain point it stops being a lecture. Pull on those heart-strings too much and you've got yourself a "speech". Employ irony and you may have yourself a "routine". Opt for those aforementioned last resorts and you'll have yourself a "burlesque show", or something. The very point of the lecture is to impart information to a preferably large audience. Start doing something else and there's probably another word for it.

With Twitter of course there isn't a one-way conversation; there are several. What Twitter says to us, implicitly like blog tools in general, is that the things you do or think or say as an individual are important. But on Twitter, it's on one forum and there are no distinctions between "posts" and "comments" as you get with blogs. As a result, everyone talks at each other. While it's possible to send messages to one another, either in public or privately, this isn't the point of Twitter. It's designed so that you can announce what you're doing. There's a big give-away to this effect above the box where you enter your updates — it says there: "What are you doing?"

Twitter isn't really built for dialogue therefore. Dialogue might be a side-effect of using it, in the same way that two people might talk to each other while watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

In its simplicity, there is at least an honesty to the design of Twitter that one doesn't find with for example Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Hi5, or any other social networking site you might care to think of. On Twitter at least, the word "followers" instead of "friends" or "fans" keeps the "voyeuristic" aspect that seems to have become part-and-parcel of the social networking game upfront and intentional. Although as David Foster Wallace once said of television, true voyeurism depends upon the voyuee being unaware of their being watched. The main purpose of Twitter, it seems, is to encourage a kind of exhibitionism or performance art. At least, those that use Twitter best seem to manage to make what they're doing or saying or thinking sound entertaining, even when it may be the most mundane thing — they therefore get larger numbers of followers.

I suspect this is why some people have said they didn't understand Twitter before they used it and now they've started they can't stop. It can be entertaining, especially when you can take part in putting on your own text-based show, replete with hyperbole, self-depracation and post-ironic witticism. That isn't to say Twitter can't be useful. If you sign-up and follow the right people, you give yourself access to a wealth of resources, not to mention potential contacts. I personally use it as a way of sharing bookmarks and occasionally commenting on what I've been doing or will do (but never while I'm doing it).

Other ways of using Twitter in teaching and learning include 'backfeeding'. This has been done at a few of the conferences I've been to lately, where the speaker will load Twitter on a screen behind them and all the tweets relevant to the talk will appear for everyone to see. This seems useful when it comes to the "questions and answers" section of the talk but there might even be scope, in the future, for such feeds to change the direction of a presentation — depending on how brave presenters feel in the future. But it hardly feels like the solution to concerns about disengaged and disconnected learners. To find out what that is we're going to have to stop talking at each other first, no matter how much it sounds like we're having a conversation.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Can hear normally again! Music is beautiful; traffic too loud...

Sunday, 27 September 2009

was told (w/o provocation) by someone at the pool this morning to read Marx's Das Kapital; will shortly be checking forehead for writing...

Saturday, 26 September 2009

"Getting Started": A New Approach

The short version: I haven't previously blogged much about the training we do but I thought this was mention-worthy, and the patient reader (or impetuous scroller) will be rewarded with a link to some resources at the end.

The less short one (in two parts):

Pilfered from Blog with a View at, found via Google ImagesMy workload seems to have gone beyond crazy this week (and it was already twitchy, drooling and rabid).

One of my colleagues, Robyn, has been getting ready to leave our Team recently, and Richard (the other guy on the e-Learning Team) has been on leave. That's left just me to deal with all the email queries about courses on Blackboard that have been pouring in. Next week it's Freshers' Week and everyone has obviously either just got back from holiday or has just woken up to the fact that things need preparing.

Meanwhile, I've also had two workshops to deliver with my colleague Paul Janota from IT Services. They were both "Getting Started with Blackboard" training sessions. We tend to run perhaps five or six times of these a term and they're internal, so the first one at least didn't involve too much preparation. But the second...

Normally, Paul takes everyone through their first steps in Blackboard with the aid of the Netskills guides produced by the Newcastle University. Once he has spent half an hour doing this from the front, he then gives them the same amount of time to follow the guides themselves while we go around giving individual help to anyone that needs it. Then about an hour into the session, once they've got a good idea about the basic functionality and limitations of the system, I talk about our Good Practice courses. These are example courses, copied from actual courses that were selected on the basis of their demonstrating good course design and making innovative use of tools within Blackboard (or the Web generally) for teaching and learning purposes. Once I've spent about ten minutes presenting some of these and showing people how they can access them in their own time, they all resume following the guides, while I go around asking if anyone needs specific courses setting up (though Richard sometimes does this bit).

And that's what we did on Monday. As usual.

However, yesterday, in our second session, we decided to take a different approach.


Over the summer, Robyn and I have been working on a new online Help system. The new help information is presented on a wiki within Blackboard (we use the Learning Objects Expo LX tool). Preparing this has been a long and painstaking task: detailing every step needed to, for example, post an Announcement or Assignment, ensuring the information is thorough but not too dry or boring, and trying to keep the pages from being too technical despite all this. We've tried to put each tool in a teaching and learning context but at the same time keep the pages concise. We don't know if we've succeeded (we're pretty sure in some areas we haven't had the time to) but the idea of putting this information on a wiki was to make it easy to change and not just for one member of the Team but all of us and, if need be, people from other areas too. So we're not really expecting it to be "finished" as such - ever, let alone by next week.

As long as the information is comprehensible, relatively accessible and easy to navigate, we'll be happy (and relieved). And it very nearly is.

Except a couple of weeks ago, having returned from foreign climes and possibly still a little affected by the sun, I thought it'd be great if we could make these online guides print-friendly too. That way, we could use them in place of our Netskills guides during workshops, thereby cutting out some of the what we'd always thought to be unnecessary stuff and also making them more specific to Reading.

So on top of all the firefighting, I spent a sizeable chunk of time this week, perhaps even a clock's worth, going through the guides, making sure they followed on from each other, and changing links so they were not just user-friendly but paper-friendly too. I met with Paul halfway through the week and we agreed on what other changes should be made.

Then Friday came. After a punch-up with the photocopier, I arrived at the workshop and rather apprehensively distributed the new guides. I basically had to run through the whole session with a new outline because the order in which tasks were done had changed slightly. I was a little nervous because I wasn't sure the new guides would compare and, although Paul had brought the old Netskills guides as back-up, it would've been embarassing for us and confusing for the attendees, switching halfway through.

Thankfully, it all seemed to go well. There were, unfortunately, a couple of steps missing from the guides and a couple of spelling errors (for which I apologised) but the participants seemed able to follow the guides just as well as previous participants had the old ones. I shouldn't have worried I suppose; Paul and I were breaking a pattern that we were used to, but the attendees had by design never come to a "Getting Started" session before, so they weren't about to make comparisons, favourable or otherwise.

The feedback we received was very positive so I'm glad I put the time in. Now I just have make all the more advanced-level pages print-friendly and we'll have a whole set of new resources to use.

We've started to promote our new Help System yet: we have a few changes to make to the tab in Blackboard before we're ready. Hopefully these will done by Monday evening and I'll get my weekends back and live a peaceful life once more. However, the wiki pages are already available publically at this address -

If you're using Blackboard and you're struggling for help guides, then you might want to use these. Feel free to copy and modify as you see fit, though some credit would be nice where possible! And let us know how it goes, if you have time.

In summary: (1) We've made some new resources, (2) we're very nearly proud, and (3) I should write shorter blog posts (but see point 2).

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Catching Up

It's Wednesday, my fourth proper day back after returning from my travels, and I have a big pile of to-do on my desk. Not that I got to do any of it today as I had some meetings which produced their own to-do, which I then had to do first in order to clear my desk (and mind) for the original pile of to-do...

The main tasks at the moment seem to be:
  • Finishing our new online Help System which uses Expo in Blackboard
  • Changing the iLearn e-portfolio enhancement tool in response to the feedback we received from students
I'm now really appreciating the fact that we decided not upgrade to Blackboard version 9 this year.

When I get time I also intend to write up my remaining notes from ALT-C which I'll then back-post here and advertise up-front.