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 .

eric

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.

My highlights of 2015


“Don’t procrastinate” – that was my only resolution for the New Year as I started 2015. I began the year by moving to Learning and Teaching Solutions (LTS) which was a big decision as it was a huge change for me to leave behind the research part of my job to focus on the big challenge of working in the learning and teaching area to create the TEL (Technology Enhanced Learning) sub-unit of LTS.
Over the past year we’ve created a sub-unit with 44 extremely dedicated and committed staff from different parts of LTS who have come together to cover four TEL areas which complement each other. These areas are Learning Innovation, Learning Environments, TEL Design and Online Student Experience. All areas are supported by evidence which is gathered through student engagement or by working with areas from across the Open University responsible for data and analytics.

 

…it has been extremely hard work. TEL was created during a change process which saw the OU cut costs and reduce staffing across all units. This meant that we needed to adjust plans in March to take account of the financial constraints. TEL was also created during a period when we could not afford to reduce productivity which meant that people were expected to “double hat”, doing both their previous role and their new TEL role in parallel. I have huge admiration of the team and unit for what has been achieved. We’ve run Hack Days, drop-in events and worked with people across the OU to deliver a series of “Quick Win” projects to accelerate priority activities for TEL and we’ve also collaborated with the IET Learning Design team to create a joint series of Special Interest Group events to stimulate discussion about TEL across the organisation. We have created new websites including the Learning Innovation site. We have introduced a TEL design process across OU module production and have begun to explore co-creation, live student feedback, activity design, workload consistency issues and many more.

tel-cloud

Across the wider Open University the new OpenTEL Priority Research Area has been created which complements TEL, the research feeding through into practice.

As well as the organisational achievements I’ve also had some personal achievements during 2015. I became Acting Director of TEL in May and have enjoyed a year sitting in the “hot seat” driving the work of the unit. I’m now looking forward to taking on a new challenge in 2016 and to passing on the leadership of TEL to Mark Nichols who takes the reins in February.

I have achieved Senior Fellowship status with the Higher Education Academy through an OpenPAD inquiry process. My personal inquiry was my reflection on delivering services for the Open Science Lab (now called Open STEM Lab). I really enjoyed the process of reflection. I would encourage colleagues in HE to go through this process as it is extremely valuable to improving practice across the sector.

downloadI’ve also written a book chapter for a Routledge International publication, again on my work on iSpot and the Open Science Lab, in particular about using a participatory approach and design based research methodology to develop the mobile optimized experience – The book, published today, is called Mobile Learning and STEM: Case studies in practice  (a good read – especially chapter six!). Janice Ansine and Kevin Mcleod helped me to get the chapter in shape. The lead author role gave me a new found admiration for the work of my academic colleagues as it has been very challenging fitting the writing around the other aspects of my job.

I’ve really enjoyed the friendships I’ve made during 2015 and these will stay with me for life. I’m looking forward to the changes to the the portfolio and to enabling innovation across the University.

 

 

…I haven’t been procrastinating.

My next blog post will be about my thoughts on the external environment, the culture for innovation and the challenges ahead!

Acquisitions and Mergers

I have been reading with interest the posts about Blackboard’s recent aquisition of MoodleRooms. There’s a good article by Christopher Dawson about it for ZDNet Education. The creation of an Open Source Services Group headed up by our old pal well known by the OU crowd – Charles “Chuck” Severance of Sakai fame. I think he’ll do a great job and he is upbeat about the Blackboard finally listening to his message about ” think[ing] more broadly about the LMS market”.

I’m sure I’m not the only one however that feels a little uncomfortable about the acquisition (and possible merger?) of these. The quote by Martin Dougiamas is interesting

“The decision of Moodlerooms and NetSpot to work under Blackboard may sound very strange at first to anyone in this industry…but it’s my understanding that these three companies have some good plans and synergies. I’m happy to say that Moodlerooms and NetSpot will remain Moodle Partners, and have promised to continue…participating in the community…and contributing financially to Moodle exactly as they always have.”

I think it’s a very interesting move by Blackboard. It reminds me of the Microsoft approach of the 90’s where they saw best-of-breed and acquired them to be merged into their ‘market leading’ technology group.

My feeling is that if all the organisations can remain pure to their ideals and founding principles then this should be treated as a positive move to financially support the onward development of the products and services. There is a little demon on my shoulder thought that’s whispering in my ear that Blackboard are not being altruistic in this venture. They are owned by a private equity firm. It’s a good move for them, it’s hedging their bets. It’s playing the percentages. It may however reduce consumer choice down the line.

Overall I’m not quite as upbeat about this as Christopher Dawson. I see this as a power-play by one of the giants in the LMS arena however a saving grace might be the fact that we’ve got a good guy in Chuck and a mature Open Source Community. If they don’t like a product they’ll build a better one.

I’m not for a proliferation of LMS’s but I am pro choice and I think we should be able to have interoperable systems and services without having to buy whole product suites. If Dr Chuck can manage to make that happen then I’ll buy him a drink. Possibly two.

Community Spirit

footbridge over canal

Where I live...

I live in a small community in a historic and picturesque village on the outskirts of Milton Keynes.

The community has gone through up and downs, and most notably when a local man Paolo Sicorello disappeared earlier this year, he was well known in the community and, for example, went to school with my wife so most people knew of him or his family. I was amazed by how quickly the whole community got behind the search for him. There was a Facebook campaign and groups out organising search parties, with the help of the police, again coordinated through Facebook.

Eventually he was found dead in the canal, he had fallen in and drowned. His Facebook campaign became a memorial site and there were some absolutely wonderful stories and heartfelt outpouring on the site which I think his family really appreciated.

Recently I’ve again seen some of that community spirit as we’ve had problems with a group of travellers. These are not the nice sort of travellers. These are the damaging property, thieving, fighting in public and littering type of traveller. I know the other type exist as I spent some time with courteous travelling folk in my distant youth. These ones are a breed apart.

Anyhow the travellers moved in and the community started to find things going missing and property being destroyed.

poniesWe have two ponies which graze on local paddock land owned by the Parks Trust and the travellers took particular interest in the animals. They started marking up the signs on the bridleways as if they were planning to use these as a way to get to the paddocks at night. Another horse owner found a plait in the mane of her horse. A sure sign that travellers are interested in stealing it as they use the plaits to find the animals at night.

The good thing was how the community seemed to rally together. People informed local land owners straight away and the manor park lands ware closed to the public. People went out checking on their walks for anything out of the ordinary and kept watch on each others property.

The police were informed within hours of the travellers arriving to a new site (they kept switching sites but staying in our area). Community Support officers patrolled the area and the parks trust rangers also did patrols of the paddocks. We even had local security firm come and agree to do patrols of the paddocks for free and put up signs on the gates to deter criminals.

Of course the measures were not infallible and we did have a chain a padlock stolen. Thieves actually broke down the fencing to remove the padlock and chain from next to the gate. The parks trust rangers thought it was an attempt to test how easily they could break in and how quickly we’d respond. The rangers phoned around and arranged for contractors to replace broken items and we texted them the crime reference number after we telephoned the police and the parks trust sent the police the images of the damage via their mobile to use to support a criminal damage claim as well as theft if the criminal is ever caught.

Since then nothing further has happened. The parks trust are considering installing CCTV surveillance on that area if there’s any further trouble and the police are using the local paper to inform people to keep a look out and raise awareness. The travellers have now been moved on by the police so we’re keeping our fingers crossed that they don’t return.

I do love the humanity I see displayed around me – both on-line where digital media affords different and new types of community interaction and in the real world where people use ubiquitous and ambient technology, mobile phones,digital cameras and text alerts to help the community. This type of community has existed for thousands of years but the wonder is how the newer technology has become an integral element of the community spirit.

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…

Jason
Gamer
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
direction

Jason?

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

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 “academia.edu” 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’?

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.