Plus ca change

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

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

Lets start with Circles…

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

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

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

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

What about Hangouts?

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

So how does it shape up overall?

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Dark clouds ahead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Google User Group Event

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

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

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

CR-48 Chrome OS laptop

CR-48 Chrome OS laptop

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Walled gardens present problems”

“Most VLE’s are actually only CMS’s”

“Sakai 3 is a Facebook like environment”

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

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

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

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

Further blog posts and event summaries

Hidden Influence of Social Networks

I’ve been interested for the past few years in the inference that can be done using publicly available information. The web means that people nowadays give quite a bit of information away freely in their public profiles. There are now a number of tools which automatically attempt to link peoples user accounts together based on profile information provided and there is a lot of other information that is picked up through the routes and links that people click through and make determinations about the type of person, sometimes referred to as social graph privacy.

I found the article “Eight Friends Are Enough” from a group of researchers at Cambridge interesting because, using data provided from Facebook, it seems to support the claims that much can be inferred by the information provided by the person and by their peers (friends). I’ve seen various media articles using this research to make bigger claims for example there was an article in last week’s Sunday Times about how governments are using this type of information for political gain, removing dissident factions and controlling populations. Our own government for example is conspicuously scanning email traffic looking for terrorist threats.

It will be interesting to see how things pan out in the future. I already know that for example I have spent money buying things that were brought to my attention through services designed to target advertising to me based on my previous preferences. That’s a small and some would say innocuous example of how information is used. Humans are influenced by others, the ‘wisdom of crowds’ can sometimes mean that large numbers follow a direction because they see ‘trending’ on Twitter or highlighted on Facebook. Is this any different from reading it in print? – I think the difference is that if you think enough of your friends have liked something you may give it extra gravitas. So the more of the social network we engage in the more our individualism may get polluted? – Or perhaps it no different from going to the pub and agreeing with people just to keep them happy?

Certainly the web opens opportunities for social influence marketing, and consequently for other uses of that information.

Here’s an interesting video on YouTube by Nicholas Christakis: The hidden influence of social networks

Hmm. Ripples in the pond.

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.

Anthropomorphizing Technology

I’ve just read an extract of Clay Shirkys Cognitive Surplus book in the Times along with a very good interview about him and other web gurus. Unfortunately you have to pay to get Times articles these days (hmmm. Ironic) but there’s a good review if it in Guardian. There are lots of good videos on YouTube of him talking about the concept of cognitive surplus so I encourage you to listen to them.

Clay Shirky

…anyhow I could spend the rest of the year dissecting Shirky’s writing because I love his enthusiasm and agree with much of what he says but what I wanted to get out in this post is the fact that people are really anthropomorphizing technology. He does it and Skirky has particularly emotional prose about the internet and how when he used the internet in 1992 it was an emotional experience for him (his brain flipped out!), his compatriots do it when they write about the internet and technology and we’re all doing it as a society.

I was out drinking with Martin Weller the other week (always a bad idea) and we got to talking about the fact the friends of ours talk about a piece of technology with such irrational love and affection that to an outsider it seems bizarre but to us it’s quiet normal although we might not always share their love of a particular technology. Some people at the OU for example love FirstClass because we’ve used it at the OU since the mid 90’s and some feel a kind of ownership of it that others might not.

It’s not just ownership though but a sense that the technology is life enhancing.  Take the recent ‘buzz’ about the iPad. When all is said and done the iPad technology is not a big leap forward from that of tablet PC’s or indeed from Apple’s own iPhone but it really got into people emotionally in a way that I haven’t seen a technology do to the same extent before. It was slightly scary to see the reaction of some people to it and how they talk about it as if it is a living breathing thing.

I think there are two distinct patterns here.

1. A kind of addictive quality to new technology where it fills a gap that people never knew they had.

2. A sense of ownership and stakeholding for technology that has been around a long time and has given that person a wholesome experience over a sustained period of time so that they have become personally involved with the technology in a way they wouldn’t have imagined when they first saw it.

Both these have parallels to relationship building. The instant attraction of new lovers, and the slowly growing deep love of long term relationships.

…I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Moodle v Sakai

“That old chestnut again”  about whether to continue to invest in a centralized service or whether to look at a more SOA approach for the OU’s Virtual learning Environment (VLE) has risen its head again. Ross MacKenzie has blogged about the fact that with the imminent release of Moodle 2 the OU is conducting a landscape review of competitors including Sakai, Desire2Learn and BlackBoard, exploring the features of each.

In my opinion moving to Blackboard or D2L, which are both commercial VLE products, would be quite a significant shift in cultural and strategic direction – moving the OU into a position where it would be using a commoditised approach to delivery, customising an off the shelf product for delivery and in direct competition to other sites offering similar services through the same toolkit.  This may be a step too far for the OU but it doesn’t mean that it wont happen. If the OU accepts that it’s the content and quality of teaching and the tutorial support model that makes it unique rather than the technological infrastructure that provides ‘supported open learning’ then this might be the way forward, especially to achieve saving whilst delivering to very large scale.

Setting aside those two products and looking at the Open Source VLEs which is more in line with the OU’s current philosophical approach there is Sakai and Moodle. Back in 2004 Martin Weller and I had a discussion when he was exploring VLE’s for the OU. Martin suggested that what was really important for a VLE/MLE was integration. A system that is flexible and extensible and interoperable and standards-based. He was thinking then that Sakai was the way forward for the OU. In the end the OU went for Moodle and since then has been quite successful with it and both the OU and the Moodle community have benefitted from the relationship. However the marriage has not been without its tensions and the OU has a lot of customised code within the OUVLE that is not part of Moodle core. Another tension is that even with ‘modules’ Moodle remains quite a monolithic product with over 1m lines of code. This is not as flexible an architecture as Sakai which is more truly modular and component based. In 2004 Sakai was far to green to really be considered for the OU but things have changed and it is now in use in over 200 Universities and colleges worldwide.

By the way there is a good blog post provided by Mark Smithers providing some public comparisons of LMS’s.

The review that the OU is conducting is going to be purely comparing features of Moodle 2 against the direct competitors but I hope that it can also be used to move the ideas of shared services, distributed and hybrid cloud architectures for creating a more personal, student centred environment. I hope that thinking around commoditisation of service doesn’t close down but rather open up the range of features and services available.

I hope that the OU considers itself to be more than simply pushing out (good quality) content through standard channels but rather creating, innovating and delivering new channels and ways for people to find learning through a variety of online social engagement and formal and informal methods – with intelligent services scaffolding that learning process. That’s where I hope we’re going.

Stupid Web

John Naughton (amongst others) has been critical of Google Buzz. Buzz has been criticised for trying to second guess and provides what John describes as a category mistake”. I have the same feeling about a lot of the tools that fall under the ‘semantic web’ banner at trying to provide some level of cleverness, in this case it’s very basic looking at your contact list and the people you converse with most. I’ve had a similar experience with Amazon.

The problem with Amazon is that it doesn’t store context. The context of some of my purchases (rubber ducks for my niece) is a one off buy that will never be repeated, the horsey books for my partner are repeat purchases but I think Amazon misses a trick because I’d buy a lot more from Amazon if it gave me stuff that’s contextually relevent to me and what I need at the time. That’s difficult to do because I usually go elsewhere for technology purchases but I hardly ever get recommendations for gadgets from Amazon and if I did I would probably be tempted to buy them. Amazon can’t read my mind and the Venn diagram that includes “bath toys for 2 year olds, books about agile programming techniques and horsey books” is quite a small one so the recommendations I receive are Amazons guess at what I will buy based on what I’ve bought in the past.

So what would help ? – Something that tells Amazon about things that interest me most. Something that can explain to Amazon when I’m “browsing” or when I’m actually engaging with something deeply and emotionally. Hmmm…that would be me then.

So that centre of the universe is the individual…or is it ‘collective intelligence’ which is the newest buzz trend (but not a new concept) to try and find out the wisdom of crowds and apply it to web problems. See the problem here is that Americans voted for Bush….and then they did it again. I’m not entirely sure about the wisdom of crowds. The wisdom of peer groups perhaps but I’m not sure that I want to know what ‘the great unwashed’ are twittering about today. I think it’s likely to be a bit dull….and I’ve  looked so I think I know. What are people tweeting about today? “valentines” – what a surprise.

So I still think we’ve got a pretty stupid web. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think the Amazon site gives me interesting suggestions (BTW  I have twice bought a ‘bundle’ under the ‘people that bought this item also bought that too!’)  so it does work. Similarly I do occasionally when I’m bored click on one of the popular hashtags to see whats being said but I would say that I spend more time doing my own research from following ‘known good’ paths than from following paths provided for me.

Perhaps this will change but I hope in a way that people’s own higher order analytical skills remain the primary means of sifting information, otherwise we’ll have a world of people who just believe anything they read and buy anything popular for the sake of it…. iPad anyone?

Oh and while we’re at it what’s going on with Wolfram Alpha …not beta yet? – have people lost interest?

p.s. On the Amazon site I’ve just gone in from my home machine which uses my partners account. Finally now I have recommendations for gadgets that I was looking for all along. All Amazon need to do is send her recommendations to me! Happy Valentines day – 🙂

SaaS meets Old Skool

I was in a meeting recently between Google and the OU implementation group involved in the rollout of Google Apps. Google has flown in Gabe Cohen, Google Apps Product Manager and Sam Peters, Business Development Manager (Europe) and the OU had representatives from all the big areas of the organisation. I’ve had meetings like this several times in the past but I was struck by the chasm between the Google view of Enterprise change process management  for implementing SaaS (software as a Service) technology versus the ‘old school’ view of implementing services and systems with paid for 3rd party service suppliers.

For example the OU would like to spend a period working with a senior technical person from Google about how the Google suite gets implemented against existing technologies. Sitting around a table and whiteboarding scenarios and coming up with a implementation plan. With Google it’s a case of switching it on. They say they can provide eight weeks of technical support around the launch window ‘but we’re unlikely to need that’.  I visited the University of Westminster when they had just ‘switched on’ the Google suite and I can testify that Google make the process painless. UoW’s head of ICT said that they spent ten days internally with Google mapping their authentication services and sorting our the passthrough of information to their Google Apps environment and that was it!

At the meeting on Friday I was struck by the different world views. The people from the OU (myself included although I may think of myself as a little more enlightened) were discussing about how you’d provide a stable environment for students and roll out tools. Google said they just add ‘feature sets’ and have a quarterly release cycle so it’s a case of benefitting from new things and providing them as you see fit. The OU has however a different demographic to other UK higher education institutions and we have a fair share of ‘silver surfers’ and some technophobes to consider.

I think it’s a very different mindset coming from a more traditional 80’s or 90’s style view of systems and services where you have total control, holding you full architecture stack within your business in a single place (or multiple places within your control) and having a total internal structure and staffing mechanism to keep things going to moving to allowing things to be controlled by others and to have services that are provided for you (and that you don’t even pay for) but that your organisation benefits from.

This lack of control is obvious and moving to the cloud is undoubtedly a very positive step but when it finally starts to become reality you can almost smell the fear. Knowing that Google provides services to governments, pharmaceuticals and other organisations that have serious data control concerns doesn’t make it any easier. Our students ARE our business and even a 1% drop in students would make a huge impact so we need to make sure we do this right. 

Yes lets just switch it on…but after we’ve planned and made sure that our students will be switched on to it.