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?



Risky Business

future aheadIn March I attended a visioning workshop held by the recently appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Learning and Teaching, Prof. Belinda Tynan , and attended by 60 of my colleagues. The 60 were recruited through a competition for ideas, and the best ideas won the day, so the event had people from all levels and areas of the Open University which was a refreshing way to bring bright minds together. The workshop discussed where the Open University should be by 2025. The approach we took was designed by a group who work on Future Studies and involved starting at the global and gradually working down to our own turf; In the meantime losing the baggage of the here and now, and also finding ourselves forming a consensus by engaging in cross-fertilized discussions on topics to do with educational futures.

It’s fair to say that I found the workshop empowering and inspiring, it had everything from contemporary performance art to RSA style animation. I’m currently working on the area of “Innovation to Impact” which is very close to my heart and something I’ve been working to try to strengthen within the Open University over the past few years, working alongside Prof. Josie Taylor, the previous Director of IET, who has recently retired and with David Matthewman, the Chief Information Officer at the Open University.

Another supporter of this work has been the Director of Learning and Teaching, Niall Sclater, who has recently left the Open University to pursue new ventures. I raise my cap to Niall for the work he has done in the relatively short time he’s been at the Open University, including the introduction of the Moodle VLE (along with Ross MacKenzie) and the Roadmap Acceleration Programme, and most recently leading the Tuition Strategy work for the OU. I wish him all the best on his latest adventure! – I’m starting to feel like the last man standing in the TEL area.

Coming back to innovation, Ann Kirschner wrote a piece about Innovation in Higher Education a couple of years ago and many similar articles have since followed however I still enjoy reading her article as it appears to be well researched and still a good compass to where innovations are heading. Tony Bates also covered these areas recently in a blog post around a Vision for Learning and Teaching in 2020. We covered many of these and other aspects at the workshop but sticking to the topic of innovation and risk the main thing that rang true for me from the workshop was that we have become very “risk averse” (complacent) at the Open University and there was, among the 60 delegates a very strong sense that we needed to feel able to take some risks and to be more agile (a very overused word) to survive and thrive by 2025.

The “innovation pipeline” is a concept we’ve been considering (how to improve the flow between incubators and central areas, i.e. the journey from prototype to large scale mainstreaming). We want to improve this at the Open University and last year I gave a short presentation to the Learning Systems Advisory Group about that topic. I love the quote that I took from Ron Tolido, the CTO of Amazon, “@rtolido At Amazon, you must write a business case to stop an innovation proposal, rather than to start one. Silences 90% of nay-sayers”. The Open University is no Amazon of however we do need some of the pioneering spirit…


…in the past week I have also attended an “executive away day” for the Institute of Educational Technology at the OU, organised by the new Director of IET, Patrick McAndrew. Patrick has always been an keen early adopter of technologies and new ideas and he is wanting to making some organisational transformations with IET showing the way. For example, at the away day we went through a micro version of an agile project, we had a scrum, a sprint, another scrum and a velocity check all within one hour in the afternoon of the away day. The project was to develop an induction for new starters and we all took on tasks and worked through them, helping each other out. We have now taken the step to becoming an agile unit.

I have been using an agile approach to some recent developments, in particular for iSpot where I was hoping to start using the agile or lean approach back in 2012 (see my magile post) but only actually achieved any form of agile methodology last year when we started running into trouble and found that we needed to resolve issues with a much tighter timeframe and resorted to frequent (not daily but every other day) scrums and short sprints of three weeks. This worked very well and we were transparent with the project team which kept things ticking over and very quickly (within nine weeks) turned the project around and got it back on track.

I believe that Patrick wants IET to be a leading light for the Open University to become an agile organisation. I fully support him in this and I will be doing my utmost to ensure that we embrace this and to prove that adopting an agile approach does not compromise on the quality of output.

There will be more from me on the L&T vision workshop outputs once they are officially synthesised, endorsed and made available in the public domain.

Musings on iPad

Here are my personal musings on the iPad….

I succumbed recently to the relentless hype about iPad and started trying one out at work for “business use”. I use an iPhone anyhow so it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with the environment. The first thing I did is took the device home (once charged and connected to iTunes). The iTunes stuff is a pain by the way, explained well by Paul Hontz which you can read on John Naughtons Blog.

Of course once home it was grabbed by the kids to try out the same games that we play on the iPhone. Which mostly work, some in smaller screen and some don’t work (but weren’t transferred). I haven’t got into the technical details of why some apps work and some don’t and some work in a very small window. It’s a confusing start.

Next I tried to edit some Google Docs on the device. I thought it would be simple and well established (one of the reasons I waited so long to try it out was that I knew that when iPad 2 launched they should have all the kinks ironed out). I found this an interesting landscape because some work (editable) and some don’t. It has improved as before Christmas none were editable (this is to do with the Safari browser and “contenteditable” function apparently). So things have progressed. The problem in my case is that native Gapps Doc format (i.e. older documents created in Google Docs) aren’t editable, whereas newer ones are. The solution is to create new containers and to cut and paste content from the old to the new.

I’ve tried twitter and facebook apps on the device. I like the way the twitter app looks and it’s easier than the iPhone. Entering text is OK but I wouldn’t say that I’m a big fan of the on-screen keyboard and actually I don’t yet find it that much of an improvement over the iPhone. However the iPad has been described as a ‘content consumption’ device and I’d go with that. You can type if you want to but if you’re doing it regularly there is a keyboard that you can buy for it (but then the device becomes less easily mobile?)

It’s early days in my iPad experience but I find that note taking for meetings is better done with my trusty laptop. I think the iPad is great for when you go to conferences and I took it with me to one last month to keep in touch, but I did the same with my iPhone last year so actually it’s no further advantage to me over it as the bigger screen isn’t necessary since I’m only skimming backchannels whilst listening to the presenter and screen size isn’t important. I like reading PDF’s and eBooks and the resolution is good and image fine (I’m only doing it indoors though, wonder what it’s like outside in the Summer?)

I’ll keep investigating this and I’ve yet to try some of the more exotic bits such as voice recording etc. but so far I’m unlikely to stick with it as my device of choice. It’s looking like the Yammer to my laptops Twitter.

Built-in Obsolescence

I had a few days off and took my wife’s bike to the shop to get it fixed as she was complaining about the gears slipping and I thought it may need a new gear sprocket. When I got it there the bike shop owner showed me all the other issues with it. It’s only half as old as my bike but poorly maintained so suffering! – Anyway he said it was about £100 with labour costs to fix all the parts and so it was marginal whether it was worth repairing. I decided in the end to get her a new bike but I’ve since taken the old bike home and fixed it up using parts from other bikes.

The point of this is to say that when I was growing up we had bikes that lasted for decades. The thought of upgrading was never there. Bikes were all the same and parts interchangeable and cheap. Now it appears that bikes have gone the way of other technology. New bikes have more gears than previous versions and the parts are so expensive (compared to a new bike, as bike prices reduce) that it becomes easier and cheaper in many cases to upgrade than to buy parts if there’s a problem. It’s also though because culturally we are changing technology quickly. The rate at which people burn through mobile technology would be staggering to previous generations. It’s true too of PC’s and laptops. As good recent example of this is that the OU is likely to need to invest around 1 million to replace all it’s PC’s to have a new generation that work with Windows 7.

Think about that though for a moment. There’s no doubt that new PC’s are better than old but this is being decided by the Operating System where presumably people have said that it will be more costly to maintain older PC’s than to replace them all to run with the new OS. It’s also about a constant need to move forward, refresh, and not be behind. There are benefits to moving to a new OS but one of the big drivers for this is that older OS’s wont get supported after a certain date. This is the built-in obsolescence.

It suits supplier businesses to build a ‘time to live’ into their products which is just long enough for people to get attached to them but not so long that they can’t be moved onto the ‘next big thing’.

Whilst I’m on the subject of time to live I want to say that there are many fantastic technologies that have driven human progress including the space shuttle, Concorde and Harrier jets to name three.

These technologies were built to respond to a specific set of circumstances and they preformed their purposes fantastically well. Economically it may make sense to get rid of these but they leave a gap in their wake that won’t be filled easily. They also represent the best of human inventiveness. I hope that doesn’t get lost as humans build things on the nano scale and go for smaller, cheaper, faster technology consumables.

But do technologies have a shorter time to live now? – How does this model square with the ‘make do and mend’ recession culture, and also the green ICT (or lack of) of replacing iPhone versions every 6 months to get the latest apps? – I’m concerned that a cultural shift needs to happen both with manufacturing and consumerism to change habits and make people think more about the ‘burn through’ effect and to find models that are more environmentally and ethically sustainable.

Google Bad Day?

I heard about the demise of Google Wave last week and I’ve been reading a large number of the hundreds of blog posts and tweets that accompanied it and continue to do so. I’m not going to try to capture all of these but the TechCrunch and Mashable articles are as good a summary as any.

One article suggested that Google does simple things very well but doesn’t do complex things well, it suggested that where the concept (not necessarily the technology) is simple, such as with search and mail, it flourishes, but where there is more conceptual complexity or a larger leap forward then Google struggles.

I’m not sure that I totally agree with this argument but during the week when Wave was ‘crashing against the shore’ as someone put it I was taking a second attempt at swapping from using iPhone onto an Android device. In this case the Google Nexus One.

My primary motivation for the swap was some rubbish customer service from O2 when trying to change my “bolt on” on my account.

Anyone who has tried this and has texted the number that O2 provide to get a response “you are not subscribed to that bolt on” as a response and then had to deal with a call centre in some far flung country where you get assurances but then find you’re charged for the service you have asked to cancel will understand my frustration.

Anyhow coming back to Android the main downfall of the Nexus One in my opinion is the complete failure of Google to support devices which might need to connect to Wifi networks in ‘work based’ environments and to provide methods to address different ‘proxy’ and network types. There are 623 messages on this thread in the Google Code forum but the upshot is Google did a bad thing omitting this and haven’t addressed it in the 18 months since it was first highlighted. For me this is a ‘show stopper’ and not only did I attempt many of the suggestions and found them unsatisfactory solutions but also having spent this much time on the issue I was not very pleased with how the Android phone is set up considering it doesn’t rely on ‘syncing’ with a PC and therefore the importance of the Wifi connectivity should have been paramount to the success of the device in the workplace.

Google Nexus One

It would put me off buying it in a corporate capacity or recommending it to others to do so until this is addressed. It doesn’t seem to be affecting the take up for the device by end users but I think Google are missing a big market by not fixing this problem. (and only working with some Wifi networks, e.g. eduroam, is not enough).

It may appear in my blog posts that I’ve got a firm opinion on these things but that’s not the case and I’d like to hear other opinions about how well or badly Google handles the delivery of the more complex. I’d like to think that Google can put Wave and Buzz behind it and start afresh to hit Facebook in the social arena after conducting some good research, or studies research done by others and investigated the area well enough to deliver something that users really want.

I want to end by saying that I used and liked Wave because it did bring something new to the table in terms of allowing the blending of synchronous and asynchronous sharing of ideas and it could have been developed into a strong CRM or mind mapping solution for example, but it wasn’t in itself enough to provide stick-ability. It needed a killer application.  Buzz is in danger of suffering the same fate however I applaud Google for trying though and not a lot of concept stuff becomes commercially viable so accept that and move forward to the next big thing.

Star Trek Tech


Back in 2006 I attended the Star Trek exhibition at the London Science Museum (here’s a photo of part of the exhibit).

It wasn’t just some nerdy event (!) but also a way of demonstrating how far we have come in meeting the challenges of creating the kind of Science Fiction tech that we see in Star Trek. At the time it was pretty impressive, from the medical through to communication and analysis tech we had come a long way. However the world has moved forward since then obeying Moores Law quite accurately.

I was therefore interested last week to see that they now invented a ‘cloaking device’  – the first step on the path to a 3-D invisibility cloak. Cool. So here are some others…

Start Trek                                                    Equivalent

1. “Phaser to Stun”                                        Tazer

2. “Phaser to Kill”                                           Laser guided weapons

3. “Communicator”                                       Mobile phone

4. “Tricorder”                                                  Mobile Phone or PDA

                                     (possibly with Sciencescope attachments)

5. “Medical Tricorder”                                 MRI scanner

6. Holodeck                                              3-D holographic projection

                            (immersion suits, immersive VR environments)

7. Replicator                                                   Replicator (3-D) Printers

8. Universal Translater                               iPhone app

                                                            or Phraselator (U.S. Military tech)

9. Scalpel Free surgery                               Laser surgery

10. Jordy’s visor                                            digital cameras and

                                                           tongue devices help blind see.

11. Communicator earpiece                      Bluetooth headset

12. Force Field                                                Plasma bubble

We live now in the world inspired by the Science Fiction depicted in the early Star Trek. I hope however that as we ‘boldly go’ forward we continue to explore the macro as well as the micro and to be pushing outwards as well as exploring the inward workings of our world. I worry that we’re using technology as a crutch for everyday living rather than as tools to project us to new and rewarding (off world?) experiences.