Non linear thinking

mission-shield-mutedI’ve been involved in supporting several workshops recently for the Open University around Leadership in Digital Innovation. This is one of the six strands of the new “Students First” strategy and the various workshops and events around this topic have already produced some great ideas. The most recent workshop was to a select group of OU leaders about the leadership challenges (in my opinion we are all leaders, and personal leadership is what we should be developing here!).

The event was led by Dave Coplin the Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft and included a video by Martha Lane Fox, Chancellor of the Open University and creator of dot.everyone, and I’ve just seen that she is now on the board of Twitter.

I was  leading the online discussion which took place during the event and I thought it might be worth sharing with you some of my key takeaways (now I’m getting hungry).

Martha gave a great talk about the dangers of complacency and how organisations are either digital organisations or they are not digital (digital DNA?). The thing that most resonated with me however and was echoed by others was how we must be “..always and relentlessly focused on users”. This may seem obvious to most but in many ways it is easy for organisations to inadvertently do things that lead to greater separation with users. For me I believe that we have been neglectful when it comes to user testing for example compared to the rigourous approaches we had previously, we also don’t represent the users at senior level in the way we once did and I’ve been calling for the Open University to consider a “chief customer officer” rather than, or complementary to, a chief operating officer, so that the emphasis is advocacy of the students. Some Universities are creating a PVC (Student Experience) role for similar reasons. The introduction of TEF and quality measured against student satisfaction sharpens the focus in this area and as we look at student co-creation, co-production, student evangelists, students champions and student evaluators we also need to consider student advocacy.

Dave CDave Coplin, CEO*oplin provided a inspiring and provocative talk on themes such as the end of the divide between work/life, with most people having access to better technology at home than at work yet we are forced to commute in order to use lower tech in offices. He talked about us as a Victorian workforce still largely pinned to our desks to use connected technologies.  He talked about email, how it relies on us as the filter to the conversation moving further in the organisation, how most emails are not confidential and how we should ditch email as not the right technology. He talked about leadership changing to become about empowerment rather than control. He talked about lack of information flows across the organisation, about the potential for connectivism in work, about AI and predicting the future and about non linear thinking. He mentioned Skype Translator and how we no longer need to learn languages (yeah we all get the babelfish idea, but here I got uncomfortable about technologies reducing our ability for human discovery and improvement, language learning changes our brains and perhaps we shouldn’t just be so quick to lose that opportunity Dave? – to be fair he did say that we still need to develop core skills) and he finished off by saying that we need to focus on outcomes not process and concluded with the elephant powder anecdote which made a very good point about people doing stuff which adds no particular value.

You can get a flavour of Dave’s talk from this piece on innovation (thanks to Catherine Chambers for reminding me of this resource)

After Dave’s provocations I led the online discussion and we had around six or seven people engaging in a stimulating chat where we discussed topics including:

  1. How we are a process driven organisation and this impacts on how we manage change, so we tend to have process led change which means we tackle little bits rather than the bigger goals and this approach seems to take away the creativity.
  2. How technology, when supporting our organisation, should be in the background and sometimes it appears to be in the foreground.
  3. The perceived tension between our regulatory and quality requirements and the need to take risk and innovate. We later concluded at our table that this was largely a demon of our own making (i.e. an internal perception rather than a reality) and that many universities find ways of working with the QAA and regulatory bodies to manage the balance.
  4. Trust being a critical factor for the empowerment of staff at all levels.

Finally there was a panel discussion with the Peter Horrocks (Vice Chancellor), Hazel Rymer (Acting Pro Vice Chancellor, Learning and Teaching Innovation) and Dave Coplin. Key quotes from that were “as Facebook say done is better than perfect“, “take the users with us on the journey”, “students as digital creators”, “everyone should have the opportunity to feed back”, “we need to challenge what we provide which is paid for versus what is given for free”, “we have gold standard bureaucracy”, “we must always and relentlessly focus on the user” and finally, a little controversially for a university “we should investigate what we can burn” (what are we doing that is of little value).

I’d like to hear your thoughts on these provocations, in the meantime I’m going to work with others across the OU to continue the discussion #OUDigitalInnovation


Artificial Perception

dyspotian futureI’ve been listening to educational technology hype recently with an eyebrow raised particularly in respect to the ideas being expressed around artificial intelligence and the role of intelligent agents to replace humans. One of the most recent examples of this is Mark Zuckerberg at F8 conference saying ““Our goal with AI is to build systems that are better than people at perception.” The Telegraph provides a summary of his keynote and the F8 conference.

Sit back and reflect on his statement for a moment.

    the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses.
    “the normal limits to human perception”
    the way in which something is regarded, understood, or interpreted.
    “Hollywood’s perception of the tastes of the American public”

What is perception? – a personal view of the world? – shaped by our emotional state and environment? – An entirely subjective reality. What do we mean by better perception? is this seeing the world logically without the trappings of emotion? – is it about the ‘wisdom of crowds? – If it’s the latter then we know that this is being gradually debunked because we are seeing greater confirmation bias within social media circles, I referred to this in a previous post as ripples in the pond, and there is evidence of the undermining effect of social influence. However there is no doubt that artificial intelligence will have access to a greater dataset and will have the ability to interpret data in ways that would be impossible to humans. My question though might be is that going to translate into better outcomes?

crucibleInvention comes from creative friction, discourse, questioning. In a world where we are all synthesized down within a crucible above the flame of artificial intelligence what happens to inspiration. interpretation. challenge? – this is of course a dyspotian future that people in the AI world are keen to promote because it creates a big dream of the future and a strong emotional connection.

But we do need to be concerned because at a minimum a possible future predicted by Gartner may see smart machines replacing millions of humans but at the same time we should be rational because we must recognize the Myths around AI’s and their usefulness is in support human endeavours, especially around tackling big data challenges.

…so what of humanity?



Plus ca change

google plusI’ve been using Google+ for a while now and I’m starting to build up a bit of stickability with it. There are already millions of guides and resources building up around it, a bit like the buzz surrounding launch of an Apple product. Including Mashable resources, the Google+ guide and Professors use of Google+ in classrooms to name three I’ve read recently.

The launch of Google+ put me off a little, because it was much like that of Google Wave in that there was a kind of limited public release surrounded by lots of PR and buzz. Luckily they moved quickly to a more open release as I was complaining that the whole concept of circles seems diminished if you can’t share with other Google people who are excluded from the release.

Lets start with Circles…

I enjoy the circle concept for allowing me to place people and share with different groups. I don’t on the whole enjoy categorising people though and I started to try it at the beginning and quickly just moved everyone into my ‘friends’ circle. I have however more recently received some requests from people I don’t know so well and have set up a circle for them. I also move people between circles and so I’m becoming familiar with the paradigm. I do think it’s a bit like Grainne Conole said in her recent keynote at MoodleMOOT about the evolution of people and technology and I’m wondering how much I’m adapting my behaviour to suit the product.

There are ways to do ‘friend’ grouping within Facebook and friends of mine who are adept at Facebooking do set up groups to share specific things with. I’ve always said that I find the cognitive overhead of this a bit much for what are, in effect, just my public outpourings. In general within Google+ I tend to share with everyone but there have been occasions where I’ve selected groups to share with and so the intuitive method Google+ have devised to allow this may well mean that I start doing this more often and therefore the metaphor is more like one of entering different rooms or online forums where you pick the forum you want to post to and go there to do it.

The streams are quite Twitter like, although at the moment more like Facebook because there aren’t too many people posting however I expect as the numbers grow the ‘streams’ will really start flowing and managing that will be like dipping in with twitter. I’m sure that Google have done testing to see that under heavy usage the important stuff does actually surface using the +1 concept and the fact that you can select the groups (circles) to view but I don’t think there’s enough usage yet to really get the impression of how this will pan out.

I like the fact that you can post longer posts than with Twitter. Twitter is good in limiting you to say thing succinctly but there are times when you need more words to express yourself than Twitter allows easily. I’m very verbose though (as you can tell from this post!). The lack of limit though means that there is more scope for pedagogic  application.

What about Hangouts?

I tried using the hangout feature (not sure that I like the name!) but quickly came unstuck as the whole thing crashed on me. I later discovered (thanks to colleagues who investigated further) that the problems arose because of the local firewalls at work that blocked me from hanging-out. I think this may be a problem for Google if they want to get it used more widely as corporate firewalls will simply not allow it. I’m not generally one for social video sharing as I prefer to mong around in scruffy clothes and unkempt hair when using social sites at home and wouldn’t want the effort of having to become presentable to chat to people. Note to Lord Sugar – That’s why the Amstrad video phone never took off.

So how does it shape up overall?

I like the integration with other Google products, this may well be the killer move since so many people use Gmail or Google Docs regularly. I think that Google+ mixed with Google Apps for Education for example will make a very interesting a dynamic suite for constructivist learning.

I think that on a simplistic level Google have done something that could be considered as much of a social experiment as it is a technology breakthrough. Are people evolving to think more overtly about the groupings they share information with or do they just want to be public and open with everything as they can with Twitter?

I’m still unsure about whether I’ll be sticking with Google+ in the long-term as I tend to spend most of my ‘cognitive overhead’ time in Twitter and even then most of that as a consumer rather than a producer of information, I especially like reading the postings by my peers but also like the feeds coming from tech news services etc. This flow is important to me. What Google + allows though is the movement of information easily between social groups and this may become something extremely useful. It will require the evolution of people and product and it will also require a tipping point where organisations start adopting it so that we get a mixture of social space and feeds of useful information.

For me the jury is still out but I’ve stuck with it for over a week and I logged into it before either Twitter or Facebook this morning so perhaps that is a sign of things to come.

I’d like to know what other people think of it.

Personae gratae

A group of us who are involved in developing the future learning system plans for the Open University are using a range of techniques taken from “User Centred Design” and User Experience (UX) to help us create the future systems for the OU and also to explain the complexity of the systems developments to senior management in a way that is easily understood and powerful. I wanted to share some of these techniques that we’re using without going into any of the detail which may be business sensitive.

man with hammer image

First of all what we’re doing is using a combination of Personas (some people suggest personae as the plural but I’ll use personas to describe these) and scenarios. There are many websites and blog posts going back years which talk about the power of personas and scenarios to design and development. JISC have used it within their design workshops and they’re used in different ways by different groups, for example here’s a post on “Web Design from scratch” by Ben Hunt which describes their use in design.

We’re using these in a slightly different way than for design but rather to describe areas of functionality to be developed to meet particular needs. In the persona development we adopted a range of persona’s that were created by the Online Communications team to describe target users for OU websites.

Here’s an example snippet of one of the persona’s to help explain them…

Age/personal:  18, lives in Glenrothes with his Mum
Job:  Works in Dixon’s part-time
Education:  Highers
Studying aim: Degree in Computing/IT
Online likes:  Interaction, multimedia,
customisation and iPhone apps
Web games, chats, texts; surfs fast, but without


We use a set of personas to describe a range of target users and they test the system through a typical use case. We also have some high level scenarios to describe the depth of a particular system in supporting users from end-to-end. Scenarios in our case describe the environmental elements not possible easily through personas, so our scenarios are focused on direction setting and understanding where the OU should be going to meet the demands of new learners. for example we have scenarios based around informal learning becoming prevalent and another scenario around the need for key skills.

Personas are powerful because they:-

  • Allow systems to be developed to meet specific user types
  • Afford consistency of development across different systems
  • Are a useful tool for describing how people will use the services
  • Are useful for testing and benchmarking services against requirement, i.e. are useful for usability and accessibility testing.
Scenarios are powerful to us because they:-
  • Describe the full end-to-end functionality of a system
  • Take socio-economic and other environmental factors into account
  • Set direction of development
  • Describe the strategic value and business benefits

We are using these to map through to a set of “Roadmaps” which describe how we intend to deliver the changes. The roadmaps, programmes and projects within it are along the lines of the JISC P3 model which itself is a variant of PRINCE 2 methodology and therefore well established. The creative bit is how we’re describing this through the combination of personas and scenarios. We have been through this process once before with a programme called RAP (Roadmap Acceleration Programme) where we used a world cafe approach to gathering requirements (see my previous post on Future Learning Systems ). We used the user testing sessions to “validate” the personas against real people to ensure that they’re accurate and complete and the testing informs the system development, this was particularly useful to establish what works in the less clearly defined areas of the roadmap such as the development of Google gadgets through the JISC DOULS project.

The next steps are to build in the marketing knowledge that we have received through consultancy reports on segmentation which can help us plan out which personas we particularly want to target, and  secondly to get areas of the OU to adopt sub-set of the personas and ensure that they refresh them to keep them relevant. We already have some success with this since Student Services have adopted a persona approach to describe the “targeted services” which they want to provide through StudentHome the OU Student portal.

I can’t stress enough though how important it is to have a single coherent set of OU personas. The power comes from system developments being mapped holistically i.e. when values are shared across the organisation about meeting specific user needs and creating, buying or customising systems to meet those needs.


Nevolution = Evolution through networking

Star Trek

Borg - Are we evolving into them?

Since listening to a keynote by Grainne Conole recently at MoodleMOOT I’ve been thinking about the concept of people and technology co-evolving. It’s not that profound a concept really and links to a previous post about the “hidden influence of social networks” we adapt to technology probably more profoundly that the technology adapts to us.

In the case of Twitter this is becoming somewhat of a concern to me because I’m starting to become the type of person who will try to make his posts witty and engaging (perish the thought), this leads to a tendency to exaggerate or enhance. You have this kind of hyper-reality dynamic played out in Twitter where there are the seedlings of truth but couched in the attention grabbing advertising blurb that gets them noticed, you then run the risk of becoming obsessed by ego rather than the topic. It’s not true of all interactions of course, and there is a lot of very good factual information provided without hype, but I’ve been on twitter now for a number of years and it’s only recently that I’ve started noticing the ego-centricity of Twitter.

I think blogging is similarly an egocentric method of communicating and I remember when Martin Weller first encouraged me to blog many years back I was concerned at the time about it being all a bit of an ego massaging exercise. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that when I started my blog I tried deliberately to blog about things that I’d refer back to and find useful for me and my work so treated it like a diary and reminder. A “To-Do” of research ideas. I did originally intend to blog about all things but technology is the predominate subject within many of my posts and perhaps it because my “other life” is one I’m still not comfortable in sticking into blog posts because that does seem rather egotistical. I do occasionally do put family stuff up on Facebook.

So that leads me to another evolutionary trend which is that I’ve noticed now that I’m CATEGORISING my online persona and using different media to reflect different parts of myself and to interact in different ways with different groupings of people. In Facebook the club of followers is quite narrow and when people are flagged to me as “mutual friends” that perhaps I should friend, I don’t tend to do that unless I have a close connection with them in the real world.

So Facebook is, for me, only a group of real friends and close colleagues, and where I feel safe to share personal information.

Twitter on the other hand is more like a pub where I have some close friends that I’m out with and where there are various other interesting people who I know or ‘follow’, some of which are celebs and where listening to them is amusing. The pub persona also means that I do a bit of boasting and bragging and ‘hyper-reality’ is the norm.

Blogging for me is that part of me that wants to remember things which I find useful and may also be useful to others, so my use of blogging is a kind of therapeutic method for me to relieve myself of some thought that I’ve been struggling to articulate. It is like revision classes where I’m repeating stuff that I may have mentioned in class (in a tweet or on Facebook) and trying to explain it, mainly to myself, so that I can work out if it’s got any validity.

This persona building is happening constantly and it’s evolving over time. I also have my “linkedIn” and my “” and various other elements of myself expressed online.

How much though is the media I’m engaging in changing me? …am I becoming ‘hyper-real’?

Dark clouds ahead?

Dark cloudsI have been considering the issues of betting the future or your organisation on a commoditized cloud based-approach.

I’ve tweeted many times about the benefits of cloud and how were exploring those at the OU. It’s always interesting though when things come along that wake you up to some obvious dangers.

Organisations lose their autonomy and right of decision making when moving to cloud providers.

Take for example the cull of Ubertwitter, this article by Dave Winer sums it up nicely. In it he says…

“They [twitter] sent two wakeup calls to their users:

1. Hey it would be safer to use our client to access Twitter.

2. We will kill your use of Twitter if it suits us. “

Why is it important? – Well taking the control of your users outside of a carefully crafted institutional environment and leaving it in the hands of a for profit commercial organisation does bring risks and one of those is that they have the power to decide how and which users access their site. You only have to look at the Google censorship row in China to see that big organisations can cause big problems for governments, that in itself can cause problems for organisations who rely on those services to reach learners in countries such as China.

As well as institutional loss of control there are also individual loss of control issues with cloud. Summed up by Richard Stallman with regard to Chrome OS (again I’ve blogged about this being potentially very powerful in past posts). Another post by John Honeyball talks about the “thorough data rogering” of Twitter and the fact that some cloud providers are still not giving guarantees about where data is being held.

Imagine how embarrassing and difficult it would be for example if an organisation had recommended UberTwitter to it’s clients (learners) and then found them cast adrift (and perhaps unaware of being adrift). I’m most concerned though that to work in a loosely-coupled distributed way organisations must take a significant risk over ceding the right of access, delivery and protection of information for their community. If you get into bed with one of the big providers and then they piss off a country you lose a potentially huge market and also remove access to anyone currently studying from there. It’s a risk.

Google User Group Event

This week I attended the Google Apps For Education UK User Group Event in Loughborough.

There were a group of hardcore tweeters and the event had over 1000 tweets (search for #guug11) – also some nice work done to demo a mash-up using Google Apps spreadsheet and crunching twitter data to display top tweeters against this hashtag. (@timbuckteeth won the day!)

Highlights included the first UK live presentation of the CR-48 Chrome OS laptop.

CR-48 Chrome OS laptop

CR-48 Chrome OS laptop

..I was impressed by the simplicity, the fact that you can install multiple copies of the OS so that you can have failover if an OS gets corrupted and also that you don’t need any other software as it’s all simply a browser. The always on concept is appealing, and thankfully at Loughborough we had good Wifi, but I’ve been to events where it’s patchy or non-existent. I do now however store almost all my ‘stuff’ in the cloud and use Google docs to master and then convert into MS Word to clean up and send on so I think conceptually it’s where we’re moving. For those who don’t know about Chrome OS there’s a good explanation at Geekosystem

We saw a live demo of Google Translate which was impressive real-time translation of IM chat messages (into and from Japanese in this case). Worked very well and available within docs, sites and gmail. We saw a demo of this in sites and again it seemed to do a complete translation of the page.

As well as the new tools and functionality presented we also had the opportunity to hear accounts of how people were getting on with using Google Apps to support students. A couple of notable quotes here…

“How many people are happy with their VLE’s?” – a total of five hands went up.

“the platform must be intuitive FOR THE TEACHERS, the students will know how to use it anyhow”

“If it’s good the students will sell it for you”

“Walled gardens present problems”

“Most VLE’s are actually only CMS’s”

“Sakai 3 is a Facebook like environment”

“Will we need Moodle, Blackboard etc. in the future or simply mix and match Google Apps and tools on marketplace to create the LMS?”

This was for me one of the most interesting aspects of the day and when at the end of the day we returned to Google presenters and had a Q&A session the same concerns were being voiced across the group. Those who had not adopted the suite were generally concerned about security and privacy of data. Those that had adopted the suite were generally concerned about accessibility, onward directions with respect to the learning landscape (integration with VLE products) and how Google was going to support the HE community that it was cultivating.  Google stressed its commitment to achieve better accessibility in the Apps suite and working with us to do that.

Google also stressed the support for the community and it’s ambition to address concerns that individuals had which would be raised directly through the Google reps at the event.

Overall the event was thoroughly enjoyable and I’m looking forward to the next one. I particularly enjoyed the chats with people both on twitter and face to face during the breaks in sessions as they provided an extra dimension to the event.

Further blog posts and event summaries