Risky Business

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Personae gratae

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

man with hammer image

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

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

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

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


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

Personas are powerful because they:-

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

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

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

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

Future Learning Systems

If you do one thing this week then watch the YouTube video RSA Animate – Changing Education Paradigms by Sir Ken Robinson.

Inspirational? – yes I thought so.

I gave a presentation to the OU community last week about future learning systems. Barbara Poniatowska, Liz Burton-Pye  and I presented the current VLE state, 1 year planned and 3-5 year vision respectively a set of short talks and followed these with a “World Cafe“. If you haven’t come across the concept before then I encourage you to visit the website and find out more about it. It’s basically a way for people to think inspirationally around issues, moving between tables where facilitated discussion takes place and there the tablecloths are used by people to write out their ideas and to link them forming a ‘web’  and evolution of thinking. I decided to adapt this a bit and instead of getting people to simply write thoughts and ideas we also asked people to go around afterwards and to add a tick next to the ideas or comments that they most endorsed.

We decided on five themes of “User Generated Content”, “Communication and Collaboration”, “Assessment”, Joining Up” and “Supporting Students Online” (Joining up was about exploring new markets, linking to OER, globalisation etc.)

This worked very well,  for example here is the tablecloth from the table  where the discussion happened around “user generated content”

User Generated Content Tablecloth

I particularly like the ‘fuzzy felt’ suggestion. I think there’s a killer app waiting just around the corner :).

Seriously though there was a good discussion around the subject and what was interesting was that on tables where the facilitators were from operational units the discussions focused around the ‘here and now’ and on tables where the facilitators were from other units the discussions were more future focussed. This wasn’t because of the facilitators themselves because they’d all been told to allow the discussions to flow between the 1 year and the longer 3-5 year visioning but for some reasons the conversations naturally gravitated in that way. I suspect that there we some ‘historical’ reasons why some discussions were more rooted than others. i.e. the legacy systems that people may love or hate but recall when thinking about what to deliver next.

Overall I really enjoyed the event we had over fifty people attend. I have noticed one or two comments on a very particular subject that are on every tablecloth, some one or two people really having an axe to grind but the method of using the ticks helped to cancel out bias as the really important things for most people got lots of ticks.

If doing it again I’d suggest the following:-

1.       Have some clear ‘feeder questions’ at each table to steer discussions

2.       Have the facilitators shape conversations (or even stop them) if they’re focussing on an area outside what we want to capture. Brief facilitators before the event to explain that.

3.       I think it’s OK to allow the personal agendas to surface as long as they’re within scope and people then construct solutions to the issues raised. So moving conversations past what’s broken and onto the ‘ideal solution’.

4.       Again around personal agendas I think these are fine as long as we provide something like the tick/cross idea which I think worked well to allow people to judge how significant they thought particular things were. This means that personal agendas can surface but may not get many ticks compared to issues which are more ubiquitous/significant to many. There’s also a point to be made here that all concerns raised are legitimate and need to be considered so should not be dismissed (Barbara reminded me of just this point recently and it should not be remembered when gathering requirements to gather them all).

So what were the big ideas? – I’ll reveal one from each topic that I think they’re worth sharing.

Big idea 1. Build widgets/gadgets that are platform neutral to provide services  that follow learners between environments, allowing for VLE and ‘small pieces’ system types. In particular these widgets should provide contextual help and online support and collaboration with other students.

Big idea 2. Provide methods to allow academics to easily leverage other OER material (produced outside of OU) so we become a consumer as well as producer. Use Learning Design to help foster this. Also provide better routes between informal (OER) and formal environments.

Big idea 3. Support (through internal research) prototyping of methods for rich web 2.0 assessment. Once established build into course design where appropriate (again course models and learning design).

Big idea 4. Provide methods to allow students to share content found elsewhere, including references. Allow methods for others to comment and annotate on these shared resources.

Big idea 5. Provide services to allow students to engage in forums and Elluminate and other synchronous/synchronous tools outside of their module (course). Including pre-registration and alumni stages. Make registration process simpler to allow the student to ‘continue discussions’ throughout their learning journey.

I think these are all great ideas and there were more like this which can’t be shared outside the OU but which I’ll be making sure the Learning Systems Visioning Group consider when they next meet and I’ll be pushing to get some of the exploratory work progressed to make sure the OU’s future learning system isn’t just an off the shelf VLE tool but rather actually meets the needs of 21st learners who quite rightly expect more from their education.

Cities Turn To Rubble

I’ve been reading articles over the past year by a number of people amongst them John Naughton, Luis Villazon and Stephen Baxter who have all give some views about how the current technology is influencing our society. Stephen Baxter wrote a fantastic piece in BBC Focus magazine a few months back about it which was a vision of how people will work in small communities and the idea of cities will just that since they will have broken down and the people dispersed. 

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

I do like considering how the technology in our society influences us both on a daily basis and also in a more ambient and subtle way over a long period to make changes that are felt across the globe. A good example of this is the way people have integrated mobile phones into their lives. Love them or hate them they now form part of our connected presence. I regularly use my iPhone to pick up emails and to book events or browse the web when I’m on the move. I see people using their phones all the time. This is not just a western but a global phenomenon. 

There are potentially much bigger changes however happening across our society and in western culture the economic downturn and destabilization of transport services through industrial action in the UK is influencing people to think seriously about video conferencing and conducting meetings remotely (VR, Unified Comms, etc.) – A good example within the OU of this is that last year we hosted a big conference called “Making Connections” which was well attended. This year it has been decided to run this as a “virtual event” and Martin Weller is leading the organisation of the event which takes place this Summer and I’m contributing my knowledge and support with the technologies for it and Elluminate are partnering with us to provide the event. There will be a number of nationally and internationally renowned keynotes however I’ve been asked to keep quiet about the lineup until it’s officially launched.


The whole event will be organised to be available totally online and will be location neutral. I’ll be interested to see how successful it is but it’s just one of thousands of meetings that now take place in the virtual rather than by a traditional face to face method and academia is actually behind commerce in embracing the use of new technology to support distributed meetings. 

Other influencers are the green issues and the combination of green and economic is driving people to consider purchasing locally, reducing their travel costs and to grow their own food and become more self sufficient. I was at a wedding a few months ago with friends who are scattered across the globe, with ages ranging from mid twenties to mid forties, and the conversation turned naturally during the meal to the things we’re all growing ourselves. I was amazed that almost everyone at the table was growing their own fruit and/or veggies in some cases in such large quantities that they were providing it for their local community. 

So whilst I don’t think that cities are going to turn to rubble overnight (you only need to look at the population figures for greater London to see that cities are still doing very well thank you!) I do think that over a long period of time the things that are currently moving people subtly in a particular direction, using cycles rather than driving, buying locally, travelling less, communicating online rather than in person etc. will impact more on our society on how we live. 

traditional farming

traditional farming

The idea of smaller well connected  ‘village like’ groupings, forming their own socio-economic communities and becoming much more self sufficient is one that harks back to the wartime but also seems to be in tune with how the world is shaping up today.

Future of Web Apps (day 2)

Day two of the web apps conference was much like day one and I could describe the talks which would perhaps be interesting but nothing more than looking on the FOWA site and checking the tools out.

I met up with some colleagues and after the morning sessions (on SlideShare by Rashmo Sinha and The Future of Presence by Jyri from Jaiku and Felix Peterson of Plazes) and we discussed the fact that there are a plethora of tools that are aggregating feed of other services to provide you with a presence generater (where am I what was I doing, what do I intend to do) this can be a very good or very bad thing and people seem to be divided on whether it’s useful or not for them. For example why do I want to be part of the dopplr community when I don’t do any serious travelling (this is the further I’ve been in a couple of years) and those people I know that do travel has someone (usually their secretary or partner) who knows where they are! :^) – I can see how it would be good if I was part of a crowd of frequent travellers, so dopplr has a user group but it’s just not for me.

This made me think about the themes emerging form the conference so I’ll share these instead and they actually correlate with some of my predictions which I included in my earlier future of content blog. This is pretty good since you can assume that about 80% of predictions never come to pass.

So here are the themes I took away

(i) Entropy and Chaos – Website builders can’t predict how people will use their sites. You can’t simply throw people off since this makes them come back with a vengance so rather you need to ask why are they using the site in this particular way? – it could be that they have an idea that needs to be pursued. This is how Dogster and Catster came to being because people wanted to share pet profiles with each other but couldn’t do it on other “about me” type spaces (they tried and the administrators remove the pet ones, ha!). You need to adapt to users needs and keep control to a minimum at least on social networking sites.

(ii) Omni-visual-presence – (almost but not quite godlike!) – having your presence available to everyone in the world, “where am I”, “what am I doing”, “where am I going”, “where have I been”. Big mashups are being created around presence and the aggretaion of dynamic content (calendaring, twitter, mobile location sensing (plazes) and so forth) to create a real sense of the real you.

(iii) Semantic web or just screen scraping? – The semantic web is still proving a pig to bring to life and the demo’s I saw around it were disappointing to put it mildly. Slightly clever screen scrapers. It doesn’t mean it wont happen but it’s not here yet.

(iv) Web apps developers are still extremely geeky – Not a problem really just an observation. There were a lot of navel gazers and people with silly tee-shirts.

(v) The big players are still running the show – I think that Google in particular is doing so much that it would be foolish to ignore the big ones and focus in on the tiddlers.

(vi) A lot of the ‘ideas’ were variations on a theme – There were a lot of similar developers working on Facebook Apps, Social networking sites and spinoffs, ‘washing lines’ or ways to collect together data for you (aggregators), publish on demand systems and presence helpers (twitter et al).

Future of Web Apps?

I went to the Future of Web Apps conference today in London http://www.futureofwebapps.com – It was an interesting day but as with many of these things I sometimes wonder if I couldn’t have got much of this by just researching on the web, it’s good to talk to the people involved though as I always like to hear the “what not to do’s” which are sometimes more important and something that people don’t like to admit to unless you’re talking to them in person.

The speakers I enjoyed were Heather Champ founder of JPG and Community Manager as Filckr. She did a duet with Derek Powazek of JPG and they had a good talk about what builds communities (or drives them away) with some common sense advice including the fact that ranking can be a big negative as it engenders a “gaming” to the community where they start to compete and also even those in the listing with high rankings tend to feed off the fact that there are others above them so it generally a no-no except in special cases. I discovered this myself when we started a top ten ranking of things in our Knowledge Network (a system we developed for Knowledge Sharing at the OU) – we discovered that if we ranked it top to bottom people always clicked on the top one always enforcing it’s status as the top, therefore the list becomes self perpetuating. We decided instead to gather the popular sites and then randomly display these in random order on the front page to show a variety of popular sites but which was fresh and different. …Anyway they had much more to say and I recommend their talk.

 The other speaker I enjoyed was Matt Mullenweg the funding developer of WordPress (and I’m not just saying that cos I use it!) – He looks about 12 and his powerpoint presentation is not special but what he says is real and his advice is sound in my opinion.

In general the speakers were all good although some a bit to techie for me (the Dojo, Ajax and Google Gears stuff was great but I nearly lost the thread (multi threading in javascript by the way – cool) a couple of times when he displayed a few code pages. Some was a bit too commercial, all about ‘monetizing the web’ but largely good.

The things that disappointed me were that I was bombarded with a hundred different ‘sponsors’ or mini site vendors Blurb, widr, yuuguu, wakcopa, pluck, baagz, zend, etc. so why the stupid names guys?!? – It was a bit overwhelming, I’m just about getting my head around Facebook and MySpace and now I’ve got aobut 50 more to explore (if I get the energy!). They weren’t disappointing in themselves, it’s more that I know that nine out of ten of them will be gone in a year or taken over by Google, Yahoo or Microsoft.

Second thing to disappoint me was that the presentations were largely ‘death by powerpoint’ – These so called designers and web app develoeprs actually put togehter pretty ropey presentations, I’ve seen my colleagues give much better ones and I was surprised that more presenters didn’t rely on a more off the cuff approach and a creative talk that was more dynamic, but then again I probably wouldn’t do that myself if I was speaking to several hundred peers!

Those things aside the conference is good and Im looking forward to tomorrow once I recharge my batteries. I do think that as one speaker said ‘even in the virtual world people like to end up with an artefact, something real and so it’s worthwhile thinking about how you can give them that’. I think the conference gives us that – it’s the reality around all the virtual.