Effective social teaching and learning

Eric and I introduce the group to our social media session (That’s me on the right) – Image courtesy of Ian Roddis .


Several months of planning, and a few nights waking up in a sweat, have led to a successful one day social media event which I co-chaired with colleagues from Learning and Teaching Solutions (LTS) on “Embedding Social Media to effectively support OU learners”.

There were two reasons that it’s taken so long to arrange:

  1. I wanted to introduce external perspectives to the topic to refresh our thinking. To this end my fantastic co-chair Beccy Dresden got in touch with Eric Stoller and we brought him to work with us. You’ll get a sense of his work from his blog. The thing I most like about Eric is his passion and enthusiasm for effective knowledge of, and use of, social media (more on that later).
  2. I wanted to tackle this problem at three levels in order to get actionable outputs and from both a top-down and bottom-up perspective, by that I mean (i) the Vice Chancellor, (ii) the people at Director/AD level responsible for learning & teaching, communications and marketing and (iii) the people who work directly in support of academic practice around module production and presentation.

I structured the day to begin with a conversation with the Vice Chancellor about the Open University and use of social media for a variety of strategic purposes, then we held a wider conversation which I chaired with a group of senior OU staff, from both academic and non-academic areas on “Embedding social media to effectively support OU learners facilitated by Eric Stoller”, then in the afternoon Beccy chaired sessions with academic support staff which began with a Keynote by Eric followed by parallel sessions around Social media for professional development with Eric and Lawrie Phipps (JISC) and Exploring the possibilities for social media within distance learning material hosted by Beccy Dresden and Steve Parkinson from Learning and Teaching Solutions (OU) and concluded with a plenary/roundup.

I began the morning session by introducing four provocations:

Provocation 1 – “Do we need a social media strategy for learning?”
Provocation 2 -“How and when do we embed social media practice within our modules and across the curriculum?”
Provocation 3 – “What can we learn from others?”
Provocation 4 – “Can we use social media to bridge the informal/formal divide?”

We then has an introductory chat about our different perspectives with social media and Eric followed this up by giving a talk which went into more detail starting with why does social media matter?


We kept the presentations short to allow plenty of time for discussion and the session has a lot of stimulating and interesting perspectives thanks in large part to Eric’s facilitation. Eric asked me before the session what type of conversation should we expect “..sometimes it’s a conversation about org culture and daring to dream/experiment that is needed…sometimes it’s more about choosing which tools are relevant right now and how to apply them in strategic / worthwhile ways.” I said that it was a bit of both and that turned out to be the case. Eric was also interested in the variety of perspectives and knowledge, for example some people in the room, such as Ian Fribbance, have used social media effectively in their practice for some time. The OU has some examples of great use of social media within pockets of the curriculum, and indeed for more general tips on best practice with social media such as the social media toolkit produced by Communications, but there are also pockets of skepticism around social media and particularly about its relevance within formal learning and teaching. In fact one person at the meeting had never used social media and didn’t want to try it, to which Eric exclaimed “This is 2016! – I’ll not force you to use social media but we will talk later!”. The OU is also a place where practice is diverse and where OU academics don’t necessarily engage directly with students but that aspect is managed through tutors (or ALs) so there can be a disconnect.

Here are my key takeaways from the session:

  1. We aren’t using social media consistently and effectively to support and facilitate our discourse within the Open University and that has  consequences for our engagement with our learners and more widely within our teaching communities.
  2. Things are improving. Examples of use of social media which have in the past been treated as ‘renegade’ are now being seen as exemplars of good practice, which is encouraging. e.g. the use of FaceBook within Social Science to support 26,000 learners
  3. It sounds like assessment may be the key to unlocking a bit of a cultural shift towards using social media more effectively…that and the push by certain individuals at the senior level is crucial. (this was echoed by Eric)
  4. We don’t need a formal strategy (considered to be constricting) and LTS are considering how to build a “manifesto” already as a grass roots approach, so what the group thought would be most valuable was an enabling framework within which people could experiment with optionally using social media within their contexts.
  5. We need to ensure that academic staff are developed and supported to be digital scholars, which includes using social media effectively, so we see a need to build this into the “academic excellence” objective that is currently being formulated.
  6. We need to ensure that we consider appropriate platforms and risks when using social media so we see a need to build these elements into the “leadership in digital innovation” objective that is currently being formulated.
  7. We need to provide greater support for ‘grass roots’ initiatives and to remove barriers to adoption, this includes advocacy at senior level but also enabling through joined up thinking and grass roots initiatives such as the special interest group for social media.
  8. We need to continue to engage with external perspectives to help us to see how we compare, and to ensure that we are leading the way around social learning.

Eric is reporting back his thoughts to the Vice Chancellor, and we are now exploring how we can work with the Pro-Vice Chancellor (Learning and Teaching Innovation), the Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research and Academic Strategy) and the Head of Digital Engagement in particular to form an action plan to take this work forward – with thanks to Simon Horrocks, Beccy Dresden and The LTS team in particular who are supporting this work and considering the next steps.

Watch this space.


iSpot roller banner - final

iSpot logo

I’ve been busy. Sorry. Very unbloggy recently. My contribution to the blogosphere and Twitter has been pathetic. Where was I?

Magile? = Mobile + Agile?

One of the reasons has been that I’ve been managing a project over the past year to create a participatory science mobile app for the iSpot project www.ispot.org.uk – actually it’s taken more than a year and we’ve had a bit of a bumpy ride with this one. I’ve documented the process in a conference paper that I’m pleased to say has been accepted for mLearn 2012. There’s a ‘stable beta’ version on the Google Play store, it’s really only a proof of concept as the more innovative pedagogic/technical features such as ‘around here’ (geo-spatial data about observations within a specific locale presented through a map view) and the posting of comments and identifications about other peoples observations are part of the new version which also has a fantastic user interface.

The paper focuses mainly on the reasons for creating a mobile app for participatory science and about the types of functionality and design considerations required during app development. I’ve quite pleased with the result. The paper iSpot Mobile –  A Natural History Participatory Science Application is available through the OU’s Knowledge Network.

If you’d like to try out the stable beta app (for Android) visit the Google Play app store (direct link to app) however before I move on from the app (there’s lots more I want to say about it but I’ll write a new post when the new version is released shortly) I want to conclude by saying that creating this has been an extremely liberating process. The work reminded me of the kind of hand crafting of HTML we did back in 1994/5 when building bespoke websites viewable through Netscape (if we were lucky) on our own custom built web servers based on Windows NT.  Thats what building this reminded me of, and I think that the HTMl5 v native issue will eventually get resolved but at the moment as Zack Epstein explains in his post the jury is still out! – which makes development expensive but hugely rewarding.

ispot mobile screenshot

ispot mobile


I’m going to be blogging more about iSpot as we’ve got a busy 18 months ahead with this project. It’s part of the Wolfson OpenScience Laboratory project and has funding to internationalise, personalise, incorporate a social layer, work better for novice users, work via mobile, be interoperable or embeddable (through APIs) with other sites and services, and incorporate new ecology functions through funding from the The National Lottery, Garfield Weston Foundation and British Ecological Society respectively.

I’ve created a technical roadmap for iSpot to explain all this and I hope to regularly blog about what is happening throughout the next three years of that roadmap.

Lots to do I better get started.

Magile = Magic + Fragile?

Community Engagement

community image

We ran an eLearning Community event on 18th October to explain the new learning systems roadmap and the direction of travel for OU learning systems – by “we” I mean that the presenters were myself, Liz Burton-Pye, Head of Learning Teaching and Quality Office and Rhodri Meredith, Project Manager (Business Change) in Learning and Teaching Solutions. The event was well attended with over fifty people from across the University and all from a range of different backgrounds.

Firstly the three of us gave short (*cough*) presentations to explain the “Where we are now” with Learning Systems, “Where we’re going next” (i.e. the new Roadmap) and “Over the horizon”.

Here are my slides from the event which set the context of the workshop which took place after the presentations (and a brief break of tea and coffee).

For the workshop we split people into five tables. Each table represented one specific “scenario”. The scenarios were as follows:-

  •  The Qualification is Everything
  • OU Goes Global
  • Informal Learning is Cool
  • Learning is Disaggregated
  • Employers Just Want Key Skills

These were picked because they were the five most popular scenarios rated by people who visited us back in March at the Open University “Learn About Fair“.

persona workshopWe were keen to try to get a good representation of staff from across the OU at all the tables and we had at least five people at each table. Every table was co-ordinated by a facilitator (i.e. someone who knew in-depth about the scenario being developed).

We gave each group a set of persona cards. The persona cards are representations of typical types of OU student (for more on this use of personas see the “How we use personas” blog post that I publish earlier ).

We asked people to then take each persona in turn…

Persona cards

…and answer the following questions to map the personas against scenarios using a form similar to the one below..

Scenario questions

We engaged in some very interesting dialogue. When we finished each table then spent five minutes summarising what they had learned. There were some stimulating discussions and I know that I can’t do justice to them within a simple blog post but I’ll try to synthesise the main ones that sprang up during the workshop…

Informal Learning is Cool

Some people will use informal spaces to engage with a professional community (Martin) and as a means to an end. Some may not have time for informal study initially due to time pressures (Abila). However others like Jason who have had a bad experience with formal learning may find informal learning stimulating and engaging and structure can be applied later to keep him on track. The idea of having “Informal with badge” may be appealing, especially to those leisure learners like Margaret. Career oriented people may stay clear of informal (Win) but generally Digital Literacy may be a concern with  some personas and be a barrier to them engaging with informal learning.

The Qualification is Everything

Some learners may want to begin with an Openings module for various reasons before going through to qualification (Abila and Josie). Jason would want to build gradually perhaps through a diploma or certificate first. He would also benefit from community engagement and informal mechanisms to keep him stimulated and on track. Some students (like Rachel) may be put off by the level of commitment required.

Learning is Disaggregated

People like Win would like the flexibility as she maybe cannot commit to specific times (e.g. for assessment) but may also require structure so may be mixed blessing by going through disaggregated route. David may prefer structured approach but may also wish to choose an alternative assessment model as he may not favour continuous assessment.  Josie and Regi may both favour flexibility in their start and end times for different reasons. Some learners like George may be overwhelmed by disaggregation (this feeling over being overwhelmed keep recurring and is a known issue with a more small pieces approach).

Employers ‘Just’ Want Key Skills

Students use context for interest and engagement and learn key skills in the process. Do they need key skills personally or as a University should we provide them for others and are they useful? Split into two camps of learners who broadly agree that key skills would help with confidence building (Abila and Jason) and useful to have appropriate skills for marketplace (Martin). And those that disagree such as Rachel where the subject is more important to keep her focussed and the leisure learners such as Margaret who do it for the love of knowledge.

OU Goes Global

This was summarised through learner stories….

Student Story 1

In middle of studies, travelling and emigrating requires flexibility and ability to learn on the move. Use of mobile and internet cafes. Local partnership provides language adaptions and contextual content, using local payment and currency – makes use of Open media – setting different prices for different parts of the world.

Student Story 2

24/7 support very important of shift workers, added benefit and advantage, same for those with families. More flexible assessment due to shift work but students ‘hopping around’ is difficult for continuity of online advantage e.g. real time/ synchronous collaboration. Student follow paths/self-directed learning versus collaborating with others. Depends on nature of module. Put in as much variety to accommodate all.

Tutor Story

Tutor generated content from diverse tutor community (local knowledge). Good local examples from students.  Want local study but want it accredited. Uses mobile (or wifi) light versions of content but not interested in rich media. Tutor group listings via mobile or text alerts. Similar to email services currently on studenthome/tutorhome.


The overarching themes to emerge from the workshop were therefore :-

1. Learners need to be digitally literate enough to engage. We need to ensure they are provided with mechanisms to achieve that (handholding).

2. We could do more around exploring informal learning with “badging” to provide status associated with having understood material without having to go down a formal assessment route.

3. Flexibility and structure are both important so need to be built into the solution. The scenarios do not stand alone so a lot of the final discussions were about how they could be combined for greater benefit.

4. We need to be careful not to overwhelm potential learners. The “chocolate box approach” may seem appealing but actually just confuse people.

5. Feedback following the event is that some of the community wanted an opportunity to have an open ended discussion around the talks and topics arising. My suggestion is that people post into the discussion on Cloudworks associated with the event (..remember this is a public space!)

My special thanks to Chris Pegler for organising the eLearning Community events and providing us with design ideas, persona cards and event facilitation which made this event so effective. There are some more photos of the event on Flickr…


How we use Personas

Personas, scenarios and narratives have a long history in user centred design. Within the OU the intention is to use personas, scenarios and narrative as a methodology underpinning the production life-cycle of new learning systems, from conception through to design, development, testing and post production promotion.

We are confident that personas, scenarios and narratives can be used in this way as historically they have been used in formal development through Unified Modelling Language (UML). UML methodology has been applied to enterprise project partnerships with SUN Microsystems, Microsoft and IBM to create systems that were mapped and tested against use cases developed during the design stage. We also know from research within the OU that personas have been used as a method of explaining complex systems without requiring users to have specialist knowledge. Workshops using personas were successfully used in 2002 by Alexander Muir to explain complex system changes to the S292 module team.

Personas: A tool that helps build a picture of users

A persona, based on available data, is a fictional but relevant and realistic user.  In most cases, personas are synthesised from a series of interviews with real people, then captured in one page descriptions that include behaviour patterns, goals and skills, with a few fictional personal details to bring the persona to life.  Personas state situations in student terms, which are easily understood, as opposed to theoretical-educationalist terms, which require specialist knowledge.

A persona is a description of a person that defines a target user group. The best way to define a persona is to talk to real learners and use their feedback to build a persona for each target group. For example:

  • Jane Smith, 35 years old
  • Has 3 children, all in secondary education
  • Works full-time as a research assistant making a decent living
  • Separated from her husband
  • She has limited disposable income and no real savings

It is important to remember that personas define a range of user types and, when applied with attributes (below), should create a spectrum of target users of your services, hence you should avoid overtly stereotyping based on bias rather than factual data. “Stereotyping a persona is a danger that should be avoided, as stereotypes are based on bias rather than on factual data. Personas explore ranges of behaviour rather than seeking to establish an average user.” (Cooper & Reimann 2003).

Within the OU we have conducted interviews with learners to identify typical student types, we have also revised the persona set based on the information from the Monitor report and we have tested the personas against real learners visiting the labs to conduct user testing on our products. This ensures that the characteristics and methods of interaction are correctly described.

Personas: Attributes

Personas may have additional attributes applied to them to bring in an additional contextual element which can be applied across the whole range of personas. For example within the OU we’re considering the extent to which we should apply accessibility attributes that describe the range of accessibility challenges that people face with using OU technology. These attributes can then be added to test a scenario against a wide range of people with accessibility issues. Attributes may also include other contextual information (location, ethnic background etc.).

Scenarios: A description of the learning system needed to achieve a particular goal

Typically scenarios describe the experience that a user (persona) has with an organisation. In our context however we’re using scenarios as the description of the type of service being provided for a user to achieve a particular goal. So, in our context the scenario is a ‘system’ in a UML use case and the persona is the ‘actor’ who is using that system.

OU scenarios are shaped by conditions that will have an impact on the future system landscape outside of the user conditions; these include socio-cultural considerations, economic conditions and internal and external drivers for change. A scenario in the OU sense describes a ‘possible future’, for example systems that support qualification rather than modular study.

Scenarios then are not mutually exclusive and the learning systems must support the full range of scenarios that are delivered through the roadmap.

Narrative: Focus on activities that help achieve these goals

The key to a good user experience is to build a lasting relationship between the organisation and the learner. You do this by focusing on activities that will help the learners achieve their goals. To do this, walk through a scenario for a persona and see where they require your assistance to move toward their end goal. Start by defining the activities they might do, and then identify touch points where they interact with your organisation (e.g. public web site, Twitter, iTunesU, Openlearn). Next think about the services your business can provide to help them and what underlying structures you need to provide those services. To start the scenario for Jane, it may look like this:

  1. I want to research financial plans for college funds…
  2. Uses Google to search “financial plans for college funds” and one of the results points to an article on your website…
  3. I want to know what things I need to think about for college funds…
  4. She reads the article and clicks on a link for a planning calculator…
  5. I want a calculator that is easy to understand and use…

This is just a small part of a narrative for Jane. It describes the activities Jane is doing and the supporting services the organisation is offering to help her. This example is very high level.

Narratives: Cover more than websites

Defining narratives for learners is about more than just designing a learning system; it is about all the ways they can interact with the OU. A learning system website doesn’t stand alone – it’s the entire cross channel experience and it needs to be seamless. By creating personas and defining scenarios and user narratives, you can create your student learning experience to meet the needs of your target groups of learners (backed by the research conducted by Monitor) and how individual learning services are interrelated with the rest of the OU business communication channels.

Narratives and Personas: Using these to test and ensure quality

Through a series of iterative user testing cycles you can test the services being developed against the range of personas. You can do this through ensuring that the users interacting with the system cover the range of target learners and through conducting expert peer testing using the personas to ensure that the systems achieve high levels of usability and accessibility.

Personas, Scenarios and Narratives: A method to promote and explain

Narratives and personas are important and effective tools for professional development and disseminating changes within systems, which have been used successfully in the OU previously  as a method of describing complex system changes (e.g. see S292 above). These techniques were also used during the 2011 Learn About Fair to explain complex learning systems by describing a set of scenarios in a simple but effective way. We expect to continue this work by incorporating elements of personas, scenarios and narratives within Learn About Guides, Learning Design and Curriculum Business Modelling work, alongside other professional development resources, using them to describe changes more effectively to both academics and learners. The diagram below describes a learning system life-cycle.

System life-cycle diagram for using personas


The main risk when applying these techniques is that the people involved in the design, creating and dissemination of services don’t engage or understand the concept of personas and narratives and their importance in creating better services, this leads to a further risk that the tools are not applied holistically. To use these tools effectively you need to have all stakeholders fully briefed and trained in applying these within your organisation. Within the OU we conducting three personas workshops during September and October 2011, co-ordinated by Online Communications, to explain the concepts to all OU stakeholders and to explore the best methods of applying these within the OU. We  also held an eLearning Community event in October where personas were applied as a tool to help people begin the process of creating the stories that accompany the scenarios. (further blog post on that event to come).

The real power of the methodology described above is realised when it is applied to system engineering and design, and applied throughout the whole system life-cycle, and through this establishing systems and processes that are proven to meet the needs of the users. These techniques aren’t new and some of the concepts date back over eighty years however the application of these methods within the OU is new and therefore needs careful nurturing to ensure they are correctly embedded into OU practice.

References and further reading

Cooper, A., & Reimann, R. (2003). About face 2.0: The essentials of interaction design. 2nd Edition. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons

Cooper, A. (1999) The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, 1st Edition: Sams

Norman, D.A. (2002) The Design of Everyday Things. Basic Books

Krug, S. (2005) Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2nd Edition, New Riders Press

Neilsen, J. (1994) Guerrilla HCI: Using Discount Usability Engineering to Penetrate the Intimidation Barrier http://www.useit.com/papers/guerrilla_hci.html

Neilsen Norman Group, Usability Return on Investment http://www.nngroup.com/reports/roi/

Pruitt, J., Tamara Adlin, T. (2006) The persona lifecycle: keeping people in mind throughout product design, Elsevier

A list of scholarly articles on “Personas and scenarios” http://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?q=personas+and+scenarios&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart

JISC (2010), Assembly on personas and User testing: Blog post http://academic-networking.blogspot.com/2010/03/assembly-on-personas-and-user-testing.html

Woods, W. (2011) Personae Gratae: Blog post https://technocrapy.wordpress.com/2011/06/26/personae-gratae/

Agile Ballooning

Over the next three months there are projects planned which will use 140% of the available resources. In reality this means that we’ve got to hire in freelancers and contractors to cover work and ensure we’re meeting all the commitments. All of the work is strategically significant and high priority, and I’m acutely aware that the funding available to make these things happen is only available until August is unlikely to be available again in the next couple of years so we have a small window of opportunity to get things done. I thought that I’d explain what the developments are and how we’re planning to manage them.

Firstly we’ve had a number of successful small bids by academic colleagues. One of the most interesting of these, led by Doug Clow, is the development of a community based version of iSpot – this project is called iSpot local and is JISC funded for the next six months. The project is around community engagement as much as technology and there are a number of Bio Blitz’s to engage locals. Because the system is can be largely standalone we’re using a freelancer to carry out the work and using a series of hooks to the main iSpot service. The plan is that the iSpot local modules will be made available and can be set-up by anyone using a generic Drupal instance. Then you request an API key to allow your service to connect to iSpot and transfer the data between the services. Without the key you’ll still get the local community toolkit but it only becomes really useful when you can overlay all the data, the ‘spots’, that are localised to your community. There will be a map which will be set to your region or area (you’ll need to configure it initially to set it for your region) and the sightings in your area will then be displayed. The freelancer is having to work pro-actively on a steep learning curve to get the services working efficiently but he has been making good progress and we’re confident that the system will be ready for the first Bio Blitz on the 21st May.

A second project which we’re currently involved in is around the aggregation and presentation of Digital Scholarship data, this is led by Martin Weller, this is interesting because it is getting data feeds from a number of existing services and pulling data to form a view of an academic’s digital profile. As Martin says

Boyer defines scholarship as being based around four functions: discovery, integration, application, and teaching. We can think of digital scholarship then as the changes in all four of these that are brought about by the impact of digital and internet technologies. For example, if we take ‘discovery’ to be largely synonymous with ‘research’ then a digital scholarship view would be interested in the way researchers are collaborating using new technologies, sharing and visualising data, forming research communities using social media, etc

Up to now we’ve been using a contract developer (Richard Greenwood) to build the service but Richard is now required on another project around developing android apps (see below) and so we’re employing a contract developer to complete the final phase of work which is around adding further data feeds and working with the researchers to develop the visualisations.

The third project we’re undertaking is to develop mobile apps for the iSpot service. iSpot recently passed the 10,000 user mark and so it’s at a stage where we’re considering the use cases and the baseline activities that need to be developed through to ‘production’ level service. I’m excited by the opportunity to work with the OU’s Knowledge Media Institute to create mobile apps. We’re concentrating on developing an app for Android and iPhone initially but we’re creating an API which can be used across mobile platforms. Richard Greenwood is going to be working on the API and also developing the beta iPhone app. The apps will allow users to easily use their phones to capture images and upload and share them. Because of the location specific information and the visual aspects of iSpot it is a perfect service to deploy as a mobile app and it will interesting to explore how things like the image carousel and mapping information can be recreated through an app.

The fourth project we’re working, led by Mary Thorpe, is called PePLE, the concept is to create a professional working environment to support social workers, as Mary says…

PePLE is a resource for the training and continuing professional development of social workers that can be used with flexibility to fit in with the operational demands of workplaces. The resources can be used to support independent study or existing employer led provision.

The site is unique in terms of the tools it provides and we had to make the difficult decision (as we did with Cloudworks) to use a framework other that Drupal for it because there were too many constraints within Drupal to allow it to be considered. By the way there’s a good blog post about the decision to move to CodeIgniter by another of the developers, Juliette Culver, for those that want to explore the pro and cons of different PHP framework environments. The work on this project is almost complete and the site is being used as a resource to support OU Health and Social Care courses.

The fifth project we working on is the development of the OU Media Player, which I’ve already blogged about in a previous post. Work is going to plan on this project but we’ve had to be very agile and flexible in our thinking and do some reassignment of work throughout the project, to ensure things get delivered as expected since there are fours units all working together on this project and the timescales are tight. There an early demonstration of the embed service in action (note not yet accessible!).

So these projects are all significant and all have deadlines of end of July. What are the lessons we’re learning for doing all these things together and with limited resource.

1. It’s the people who make the project work. Good people who are flexible in their thinking and are into solving rather than creating problems.

2. Being pragmatic. Don’t think you can do the ‘gold star’ service within three months. In particular getting a realistic scope and keep it realistic. The developers need to be good as deciding when the requirements come in how to manage those against existing ones.

3. Use freelancers and contractors where you can on the commodity items.

4. Keep reporting and documentation to minimum. Rely on the developers to self organise, using tools such as TimePanic to keep active tracking of their time on projects.

5. Organise meetings effectively. In the team we have a system which I’m exploring where we only arrange meetings on Monday or Tuesday and the rest of the week is purely for programming. This allows the ‘flow’ that is needed to develop. So all the team only arrange any project meetings on the Monday or Tuesday in any week. The meetings are kept short and a fixed agenda. I have monthly 1-2-1’s to check progress (the team use Google Docs to record their progress for these 1-2-1’s) and rely on project blogs to keep me informed of any day-to-day changes.

6. Issues are flagged up and recorded and resolved quickly and without fuss or blame. We assign an owner to problems and fix a date to have things resolved. We use the same Drupal module that Drupal.org use for managing bugs and feature enhancements. I bring in project support staff to assist me with organising resolutions if they involve multiple parties/units.

7. Ensure the developers are not ‘managing other people’s monkeys’, I use the 1-2-1’s as an opportunity to explore what the developers spend time on to try to ensure that the majority of time is on the development of the services and not on administration, design, support.

8. Be transparent. Keep active communication channels open with the project team, stakeholders and end users. This can be done in numerous ways and will help to ensure rapid feedback and iteration.

None of these things guarantee success but they help to reduce failure rates.

Musings on Moot

moodle moot logoI attended Moodle Moot 11 for the first time this year. I’ve been happy to catch up from others or to visit blogs to get a sense of the up and coming Moodle stuff but I must say that there is nothing quite like a face to face dialogue with other practitioners to help to clarify the big “elephants in the room” and get them addressed.

Senate House

Senate House, UoL

Highlights of the conference for me included Gráinne’s keynote and her differentiation of services which are ‘object’ centric compared with those which are ‘ego’ centric. I hadn’t thought much about this up until now but I’m definitely finding an urge with my twitter and Facebook posts to make them ‘quirky and interesting’ and so Gráinne’s talk struck a cord. It was quite an academic and generic but none the less inspirational and her references to works by Sara De Freitas and Michael Wesch were on the money, for example how people either love or hate Facebook, the fact that the people and technology both evolve together and organisations are generally slow to employ technology well to evolve their practices.

I attended a workshop from Manchester Metropolitan University about their use of cloud service provision using Equella and ULCC to provide the hosting, platform and custom integration. Things that interested me about this approach was that they employed a post per faculty to assist with the migration. They migrated quickly and moved all undergraduate provision to the new platform from Blackboard. The key point that they made in my opinion was “We wanted to target resource elsewhere on the learning environment so bringing in expertise was best way to get ahead and it was important to get contracts right for hosting. Make sure you have the right partners.”

There was a workshop from University of Kent on their move from WebCT to Moodle which followed a similar model to MMU and they transferred in around nine months (January to September 2009). They made strong reference to the LTI specification and later in the MOOT we had confirmation for increased LTI support in M2. They have a blog site that explains their work in the LTI arena.

Other things that I attended included a workshop on Individual Learning Plans. I was impressed by the work done by Hall School on getting tutor feedback models and peer review and peer assessment processes in place and which they seem to think works. I also found it interesting that they (also) use Google Apps and Moodle model for their VLE and do various things around the portal to make these as integrated as possible and have single sign on working across them. The Hall School chap caused a bit of a stir by suggesting that Google Apps is the future for the VLE in his opinion and they’ve started using Google spreadsheets for peer assessment and Google Sites for ePortfolio (as they didn’t want to add an extra layer of complexity by adding Mahara to the mix).

There was a good talk by the University of Vienna on using Eye tracking for Usability using the Tobii Eye Tracker. I agree with everything that the chap said but we at the Open University also use the same equipment and also user studies, paper-prototyping and accessibility testing and a myriad of other practices throughout VLE development so I found it useful but to me it’s to be used in context of improved testing regimes rather than the ultimate tool (for example certain elements are more distracting to some people than others, causing fixations which could be interpreted incorrectly if not backed up by other evidence, for example whether colour blindness affects the fixation).

Martin Dougiamas

Highlights from day 2 of MOOT include of course the keynote by Martin Dougiamas given via video conference link. Things he covered included big push for mobile support, work on community engagement (Mooch), the new method and processes for deploying code which make it much more robust and creating what he calls “Safe environment for production sites”. He also mentioned work on performance improvement in v2.1. The development work included a shout to Tim Hunt and his work on the quiz engine and also the work on incorporating Forum NG, although here he was a bit vague on whether Forum NG would be adopted, adapted or  rebuilt from ground up. The three things I came away with were

(a) Martin wants to push to mobile effort and increase support across mobile tech, initially iPhone and closely followed by Android

(b) Martin wants to improve the mechanism for responding to issues and building them into the product through new process models

(c) Martin is not interested in building a repository within Moodle and indeed the emphasis is on building good hooks from and to Moodle with whatever back-end of middleware products you wish to use for your installation.

I spoke to the Equella people on day 2 and discussed how they’re working with MoodleRooms to provide an alternative hosting service to the MoodleRooms/Alfresco option. They also want to promote their products as aggregators and to enhance visibility of institutional repositories. Providing the glue.

I spoke to the Institute of Education about their use of PebblePad (hosted by PebblePad) but was surprised to find that they leave the whole service in the hands of the students so that for example it can be used for CPD activity but relies on the students being trusted to manage their portfolio and not ’embellish’. They did say that it was extremely well used by their students as a reflection tool.

I attended three workshops on day 2 two of which were from the OU as I was learning as much about how our developers see our installation as how other people view theirs. I found it refreshing to ‘look in from outside’ with fresh eyes. I think the team in the OU within the Learning and Teaching Solutions unit do a fantastic job of which they should be very proud and it really showed at the MOOT how much they are respected in the Moodle community.

The other workshop I attended was from Dyslexia Action about their support of students. Boy do they give intense and active management, guidance and support. I’m really not sure if it would scale to the numbers the OU supports but I admire their dedication to their students.  Camtasia to provide screencasts, Scribd to provide documentation support, help button and FAQ’s, webinars to get students involved then further webinars for tutorial support, live chat for support issues including Jing and Skype and when all else fails GotoMeeting . It made me tired just listening to him!

To finish off the moot we had a great stimulating talk about happiness. It was a fantastic way to end the event and made everyone feel upbeat. We even did a bit of flashmob doing actions to the ‘official Moodle’ song

Transience and protectionism

police helicopter

Police Helicopter

I had a bad night’s sleep last night. It was caused by the police helicopter which started to buzz around overhead at about 2 a.m. and continued for a further hour, the light occasionally flashing down into the garden and house and rather than giving my the ‘glow’ of reassuring me that the police were catching criminals in my neighbourhood it had the effect making me worry that we were about to get caught in crossfire or hostage situation. i.e. it wasn’t comforting at all. But perhaps they caught the criminals.

Taking this into cyberspace we have the governments “Digital Economy Act” which is designed for ‘our’ protection. The latest push is over filesharing. There’s a good summary on the ISP review site but the main issue is that ISP’s don’t actually have a huge amount of control and there are many ways to get around it (of course) because the internet is a multi-nodal network and not a sequential pipe with a tap that can be shut off when you feel like it….and who decides? – and what if they get it wrong?

BT and Talk Talk are going to court over this as covered in many of the papers. Here’s the Inquirers view and in it David Neal states “…legislation that has caused controversy ever since it was first hatched by a bunch of copyright holder firms and a Machiavellian ex-minister”.

My opinion is this is an attempt to protect a way of operating for businesses that have failed to understand the internet at a fundamental level. The time and cost of policing these policies would be better spent on creating micropayment models, providing free views and freemium content around paid for services and promoting channels to get users to the genuine products and services. If they did this well enough then there would be no need to police.

The only comparison I can provide to explain this is the Open University where we have given away huge amounts of course content through OpenLearn and provided much of our media through iTunes U which is currently at 32 million downloads and rising. It costs money to invest in these channels but there is no denying that student figures are increasing and that  a portion of students who have gone to OU freemium content have then gone on to register on a course.

Speaking of Machevelli, he’s quoted in John Naughton’s Guardian article about Amazon’s new Cloud Drive service and the response it’s receiving because of its new take on consuming media. Fascinating stuff but I am concerned as we move further into the digital that data becomes significantly more transient and more controlled through a selective bunch of ‘channel providers’. In increasing numbers all the articles I get these days seem to refer to Amazon, Microsoft or Google. There is nothing equivalent to a library in cyberspace, free browsing of book resources, and sharing of others people books. I say this as I sit next to my bookshelves. Last week I glanced over someone’s shoulder as I was leaving a meeting and caught sight of a book that I’d been meaning to read but forgotten about so I picked it up off the shelf. The equivalent of this is the iTunes store or Amazon bookshop but they’re so ordered and structured. Also it’s all about new stuff. There are organisations trawling/spidering twitter and Facebook content to target people with stuff but all the semantic web stuff aside I can’t help feeling that the random interaction with me to places I inhabit and books I read is a synergy that I enjoy and can’t be easily replicated online and something which we may lose  as a society if we aren’t very careful to find a way of preserving it.

I’m not sure that we can rely on Amazon and Google to be altruistic enough to care about localised public cyber libraries.