Ringing the changes in HE

I’ve been working with a group of colleagues across the Open University in a very collegiate spirit to develop a coherent Vision and Plan for Learning and Teaching. We are also developing a vision for our leadership in digital innovation which is complimentary. We are doing this at a time of unprecedented change for UK Higher Education, not simply because of the HE Bill and TEF and the changes those bring with them (N.B. despite the OU not entering TEF this year we still have a lot of work to do lobbying for changes, supporting the four nations agenda and national policies and preparing for the time when we will enter TEF which involves collecting and interpreting data to better differentiate part-time learners, their prior experience/level of knowledge and their learning gain) but also the wider changes resulting from the UK’s exit from the EU and implications from changes in U.S. policy. This makes it challenging to construct a vision that is both grounded but is also fixed on the far horizon and so can guide actions for transformation.

As far as Innovation is concerned we’ve been looking to the Educause “Building a Culture of Innovation in HE: Design and Practice for Leaders” as a tool to help us identify areas to prioritize. There are a series of near horizon and far horizon goals that we wish to achieve through this process. Near horizon goals aim to improve the current system of learning and teaching at the OU, while far horizon goals simultaneously build the conditions from which a new system can emerge (figure 1).

Figure 1 – Shifting from Improvement to Innovation (extracted from Educause “Building a Culture of Innovation in Higher Education: Design and Practice for Leaders”)

transform

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is element of crystal ball gazing to all of this endeavour (although some market research and academic research is also involved). I was taken with this recent post by Joshua Kim for Inside Higher Ed which resonates with some of my feelings around HE. It’s called Why Our Higher Ed Transformation Crowd Should Read ‘The Upstarts’ and emphasizes that the antecedents for transformative change are rarely understood in advance. We can create the conditions but we cannot imagine the impact (or not).

All this work has come to the attention of others in high places and so I am having my own personal transformative change. I’m leaving my role as Head of Incubation at the end of this month to take up a new role as Head of Strategy and Policy (including a continued responsibility for co-ordination of incubation/innovation). I’m going to miss the Learning and Teaching Development team which includes the Learning Design team that I’ve been managing for the past few months, they are great people doing fantastic but hugely undervalued work.

This change consequently means an alignment and co-ordination of the Learning Design and TEL-Design (Technology Enhanced Learning Design) teams to have a coherent organisational approach and vision for Learning Design and clear ownership and responsibility for aspects of LD under Rebecca Galley (Head of TEL). We are also defining the homes for enabling elements for LD including data which is becoming increasingly valuable for decision making.

From next month I’ll be managing the Strategic Planning and Policy team. I will also be moving away from the academic side of business and from the Institute of Educational Technology to focus on this new role within the Learning and Teaching Innovation Portfolio. I’m also in my second week of the Masters course in Online and Distance Education to better understand the theory around what I’m doing. It’s a seriously well constructed course and I’m really enjoying my tutor group chats. I think I’m becoming slightly addicted to this online learning thing but I’ll see if I remain enthusiastic after my first exam!

Crucially though despite all the changes I’m  keeping a hot desk in the Jennie Lee building so that I can continue to network with academic colleagues (..and steal their coffee and biscuits)!

 

 

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.

Innovation to Impact

“Innovation to Impact: Whilst there is a great deal of innovation in the University, it has been difficult to get ideas realised and tested quickly.  It will be necessary to take more managed risks to enable us to innovate rapidly and bring the benefits of innovation to our students.”

L&T Vision and Plan 2025  – Belinda Tynan PVC LT

In my last post Adaptive Capacity I began by setting the scene around the innovation agenda for The Open University, and more widely across UK Higher Education in order to meet the challenges that are currently faced by the sector. I’ll now delve a bit deeper into the Learning Innovation area to cover some of my recent work.

I’ll begin by setting out some of the current organisational barriers in the area of learning innovation as I see them:

  • There is frequently no early dialogue between different units to establish when services could be more widely applied to OU Learning and Teaching.
  • Research systems are not created to be enterprise ready and not designed with operational criteria in mind.
  • There is no organisational resource earmarked to bridge the gap between research funded activity and operational activity.
  • There is no systematic joining of the pedagogical, content and technical expertise across the organisation to enable leveraging of scholarship and research expertise to drive forward enterprise level innovation.

I suspect this is not uncommon in most large organisations that have grown organically and responded to different market forces and funding regimes. At the heart of this is a deep rooted risk aversion that has grown over the past decade. I speak to other people across the organisation and I hear things such as “the project and risk management expected of a mature organisation”. What this brings with it is a culture where experimentation is treated as recklessness and where it is deemed unacceptable to take risks.

So what should we do to address this? – I’ve had a number of workshops with colleagues from the Institute of Educational Technology, Knowledge Media Institute and Learning and Teaching Solutions (in particular the Learning Innovation team) along with a number of academic chums from across the faculties to try to tease this out and we’ve done lots of creative scribbling on boards! …

board

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The objective has been to improve the environment for innovation. The above scribbling represents a ‘maturity model’ where as a project moves from incubation to larger scale there is a process and environment to allow that transition to take place and at each stage a gradually larger amount of ‘transition funding’ is released (and consequently rigour applied) following an evaluation to allow the project to move to the next stage…but before I get into too much detail what framework is needed?

Let’s call it an “action plan” to addresses the four areas:

  • Governance – Directing investment and identifying opportunities for adoption from existing research work
  • Process – Creating a managed innovation process
  • Systems – The structure required to manage innovation projects
  • Culture – Developing a culture which enables innovation and managed risk taking

This is easy to say but difficult to achieve (see my previous post for details on that). I intend to cover all of these areas in future posts but I’ll begin by taking one of these, let’s take process for example, how would we achieve that objective?

Objective: Create an innovation pathway

  1. Identify and track opportunities to leverage research, scholarship and innovation investments etc.
  2. Regularly review the Learning Systems Roadmap and priorities in light of these opportunities.
  3. Ensure a clear and transparent process is in place to support the inclusion of worthwhile opportunities – where colleagues know how to get their work adopted to benefit students and learners and understand the learning systems priorities.
  4. Opportunities are developed by the appropriate teams at the appropriate stages for sustainability, quality, performance and security.
  5. Opportunities are reviewed throughout the development stages and continued or culled as appropriate.
  6. The cost/benefit of all developments is tracked.

The overall investment in learning systems results in an improved experience and outcomes for students and learners.

So on a practical level what can we do to enable this, what concepts can we apply?

Concepts discussed:

  1. “ideas club” – fostering ideas in a friendly informal environment
  2. Create an “ideas bank” and allow mechanisms for worthwhile ideas to get incubated and sponsored. (N.B. this needs to be carefully managed and orchestrated so that it is more than just a popularity contest but addresses mundane but important organisational innovation as well as the “shiny stuff” – Neilsen and Norman have done some good work on this within the usability research field)
  3. Build innovation into work planning and career development processes so that people are encouraged to develop ideas (i.e. building time in to allow everyone to develop scholarly practice across the organisation).
  4. Three stages
    1. “feral” – use anything, built it try it, agile, cull or iteratively improve.
    2. “incubated” – evaluated, developed further, sponsored, fostered.
    3. “mainstreamed” – roadmap ready, enterprise ready, robust, scalable, sustainable.

How do we remove blockers to taming the “feral children”? – That is the cultural challenge. To put this into perspective I often quote Ron Tolido, Chief Technology Officer at Amazon

“At Amazon, you must write a business case to stop an innovation proposal, rather than to start one. Silences 90% of nay-sayers”

This can be achieved if we all treat innovation as something we expect and sponsor. If you haven’t read it the Educause paper Building a Culture of Innovation in Higher Education: Design & Practice for Leaders is a good read with lots of practical advice.

 

I’ll talk more on the cultural aspects in my next post.

adaptive capacity

The Open University needs to reinvent itself to survive. The new Vice Chancellor, Peter Horrocks, has been explaining what that means most recently in an interview for the Financial Times. I’m extremely impressed by Peter and his plans for reinventing the institution. For my part I’m now part of a new portfolio called learning innovation, however the remit for this portfolio will be a very broad one encompassing institutional innovation and the capacity for innovation as a means to dig ourselves out of an (organisational) hole.

We are all asked to consider how the portfolio can respond. Have we got the right leadership? – what are the barriers?

I have been doing some desktop research and found an excellent set of articles on the news industry about innovation moving from print to digital. The OU is grappling with many similar issues. If you read one article from this group read the one on creating the right culture and structure.

“Leaders cannot simply mandate a new culture,” wrote Brown and Groves in their paper. “Organizations must develop new routines that fit in the context of the existing culture and nudge members toward a culture that embraces innovation.”

There are parallels between the reinvention of the press from print to digital media and the OU. Although the OU embraces technology and has a very rich VLE the underlying model and culture still demonstrate influences of the print-based correspondence model of the 1960’s.

I’ve been asked for my thoughts on what we need to do. In doing this it is important to reflect critically on what we mean by innovation. In particular around radical or disruptive innovation. Compressor_and_jackhammer_for_drilling_rockThere’s a great post by Phil Hill called Cracks in the Theory of Disruptive Innovation summarizing current scholarly thinking around the pitfalls  of applying disruptive innovation theory within the context of higher education. The article includes a summary from MIT Sloan Management Review :

“In summary, stories about disruptive innovation can provide warnings of what may happen, but they are no substitute for critical thinking. High-level theories can give managers encouragement, but they are no replacement for careful analysis and difficult choices.”

When thinking about the problem of innovation within the context of the Open University we also need to consider the external environment, for the Open University it’s looking critically at the funding and support for part time learning and  life long learning as described in recent media articles demonstrating the issues of reduction of funding and support to the sector which are particularly important to the Open University.

I spoke to Alistair Jarvis Director of Communications and External Relations at Universities UK recently about this subject and he said that in order to survive universities would need to diversify their business model and to occupy a market niche. He said that the EU referendum will have impact regardless of the outcome but is potentially very damaging and that government funding will continue to decrease.

In my opinion for the Open University this means thinking critically about the business models. Looking at B2B and B2G services. Thinking about continuing the OU’s mission through the open and informal routes and through micro-accreditation and certification routes and apprenticeships. It certainly means an overhaul of the curriculum. A simplification of the infrastructure and support services. It also requires a re-evaluation of risk. In particular the risk of complacency. It requires senior sponsorship of ideas to move them through to practice. It relies on internal funding for transition and up-scaling of research into teaching practice but most importantly it requires everyone to look outside the Open University and to wake up to the external environment. To see the OU in the context of challenges within the wider sector. To work in partnership with others, to bring or adapt solutions in use effectively elsewhere.

It requires everyone to stop assuming that how it has been done here is how it will be done in the future.

In my next post I’ll explain more about what I see as the method for achieving organisational innovation.

Design for Life

I’ve finally worked some Manics lyrics into my blog post..

design for life - Manic Street Preachers

Why the title Design for Life? – Well there is a very good reason why I’ve not been blogging these past three months. I’m currently on secondment to the big production engine of the Open University (Learning and Teaching Solutions) and heading up the development of a new area there called TEL (Technology-Enhanced Learning). This new sub-unit is responsible for the aspects of Learning Design as we apply it within the Open University context, so we’re referring to this as “TEL Design”.


Learning Design in it’s purest form is technology and pedagogy neutral but within TEL design we are seeking to to use evidence based approaches to the production and presentation of modules so that they are designed appropriately considering learning outcomes (LOs), tuition/support approach, assessment and the overarching student experience. The OU has already being doing this for some time through the Learning Design team in IET who have been working with module teams on activity planning and module mapping processes to ensure that a sound pedagogic approach is being considered which is appropriate for the level of study and disciplinary context. This work however needs to be scaled up as we have perhaps in the order of 100-150 modules being refreshed every year from a provision of around 600 modules which form the OU curriculum. I’m therefore simplifying what is a very complex activity, working with module teams to turn these sound pedagogic approaches into practical module/course designs suitable for each disciplinary context which form part of a coherent student journey and consider appropriate use of technologies.

Learning Design Diagram

So tackling each area of my role:

Evidence-based Practice

Within TEL we have a group of around 20 very seasoned practitioners in module production or aspects of teaching, either within or outside the OU. This group have excellent experience in what works, is appropriate for design of online learning activity and which enhances the student experience. i.e. lots of empirical knowledge.

magnifying glass image

(a) We are building a library of examples of best practice

(b) We are establishing, through a survey, the evidence bases that are currently being used within the OU to establish what is “best practice”. (we have huge amounts of of evidence to draw upon – see our Learning Analytic colleagues such as Doug Clow for details of that work!).

(c) We are considering where evidence is needed and of what type. For example in some cases a “deep dive” approach may be more suitable. We are working with colleagues in IET on projects exploring analytics and evidence to support decision making for both improving design during production and also for in presentation adaption and improvement.

(d) We are also considering how much to rely on phronesis or discretionary practitioner judgement. There is a lot of interesting literature in this area, I particularly enjoyed the McNamara Fallacy and the problem with Numbers in Education article by Carl Hendrick on the dangers of using data for decision making on very complex models.

Scholarship, Development and Training

I’ve been working on a development plan for “TEL Design” practitioners. I’ve been co-ordinating work on this, looking at job descriptions both internally and externally and mapping the skills and competencies into a framework which also matches to the UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning (UKPSF) from the Higher Education Academy. During March 2015 I released a questionnaire to TEL staff to ask then to rate themselves against areas of this framework. We are currently creating plans to meet these needs which will be through:

(a) Identifying the most reflection imageurgently needed skills and competencies required by the majority of people and consequently running workshops and training sessions to up-skill our staff, for example Grainne Conole ran a workshop in March for us on “Strategies for designing and evaluating effective learning activities”.

(b) Exploring what specific skills and competencies are required by individuals and creating personal development plans (PDPs) to meet those needs

(c) Using practice-based approaches to improve competency, for example mentoring and encouraging staff to engage in HEA fellowship programme through the OU OpenPAD scheme as a method to encourage reflection and improve practice.

(d) Developing a scholarly culture within the unit, this includes encouraging TEL staff to be involved in publishing and attending events relevant to their practice and to recognize and reward achievement in areas of specialism and knowledge within the TEL group.

Strategy and Culture

This is by far the biggest challenge as we are having to carve out a shape for the design process within the OU’s current production methodology and management processes.

training pants image

The good news is that we are doing this at a time when the curriculum systems are being refreshed, when the OU curriculum itself is being refreshed through a curriculum: fit for the future programme and the Learning and Teaching Vision and Plan 2025 provides us with imperative to establish the evidence based design approach within production and presentation. I’m also located within a unit which is currently going through a re-focus process so the design processes can be considered within an overhaul of the whole production life-cycle processes to make them more efficient and effective. In order to make this stick we need a cultural change and that’s perhaps my biggest challenge. OU module production has become very risk averse and procedural and the people are necessarily used to that safety blanket of knowing what’s coming up six months before they need to start work, things need to change here and the ability to be agile and adaptive is increasingly important.

We are doing this successfully in MOOC design where the timescales are shorter and the methods used are bespoke and usually outside of regular process, the challenge now is to make that the norm rather than the exception.

moons

I don’t have all the answers here but I have a number of ideas which I’m currently exploring.  I’m also looking, with my colleagues in TEL and LD, at the activity structure for the TEL Design workshops and I’m considering a model which I want to share for discussion. More on that in my next blog post.

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.

Technology Ecosystems

time

I feel a bit embarrassed having only secured one single blog post in 2013 . My mentor Martin Weller would be ashamed of me. Interestingly though, according to my annual feedback, my blog received almost as many visits in 2013 as 2012 (around 3000 visitors). Is that a reflection that the content is becoming more valuable as time passes?

Reflecting on 2013, for me it’s been the year of turning aspirations into products. For the iSpot project for example I created what I called a “Technical Roadmap”, which is really a grand way of saying that we had so much to deliver from a total of four different funders, we also been involved in BBC TV series (The Great British Year) and in the OU’s first Futurelearn MOOC on Ecosystems. (Which I took part but sadly became a drop-out!)

As a consequence we needed to ramp up the technical management of the project for what was an extremely challenging year and the Technical Roadmap helped us to keep our sanity (most of the time). Richard Greenwood has created a project blog about the main technical work during 2013.

Here are a some of my highlights:

globe1. Internationalisation/Community (the link takes you to the UK and Ireland community)- This is by far the biggest technical feat of the year for iSpot. The system now supports numerous communities organised according to geographical or taxonomic criteria. Richard Greenwood worked very hard on the functionality, which uses polygon mapping to calculate areas (and use multiple polygons so a region such as the UK, or Eastern Europe can be mapped out). The difficulty was providing communities without destroying the taxonomy (species dictionaries) as these sometimes span many areas. With the UK is was simple but now there are multiple dictionaries (one for Global iSpot) that need to be used in the correct places. Richard therefore couples the taxonomies to the observations locations, but decoupled it from the community (polygon) model, thus allowing freedom to create communities without having to use a dictionary that wasn’t relevant to their locale. The technology used is MariaDB and Open Street Map for creating polygons (and Google maps for displaying them). Richard also implemented Geo-IP to direct people to the correct community be default and the system will also allow people to move to different communities. Communities don’t have to be countries (we now have a budding Chilean community on iSpot for example ). Communities have their own News items and maps which are centred on their geographical region, and observations relevant to that community. Communities don’t just have to be geographical, they can also be around organisations or species or in fact anything that can be filtered against within iSpot, this makes the feature potentially very powerful.

species surfer2. A species surfer – The species surfer (or ID tool as it was originally called) allows anyone on iSpot to browse the species dictionary (taxonomy) using images to represent the main categories and sub-categories. Within a sub-category people can look at the variety of types to track down ones that are similar to their own observations. We know from talking to users that this is something they’ve been interested in having. Many people use Google and other sites to try to find out more about their observations and we thought that since iSpot has over 250,000 observations, the majority of which have been accurately identified, we should use that feature and draw it to people’s attention. It also acts as a learning tool and we hope it will be useful for field studies and research, from novices through to experts. This has only just been released so we still have further work to do to improve it but we want to get feedback from users since we know that there is still more work to do on this. The iSpot team have  provided  help information to guide people in how to use it correctly.

quiz13. Intelligent quiz – The existing crowdsourced identification model within iSpot, rewarding improvement in ability to identify observations, provides some of evidence that people are learning and improving their understanding of nature through iSpot, however it isn’t full-proof. For example a person may gain reputation through identifying very common species and without expanding their knowledge of other species. We therefore require empirical evidence of improvement in people’s ability to identify a greater variety of observations as their reputation improves; the iSpot intelligent quiz is designed to test this knowledge. The quiz was launched in July 2013, since then around 350 people per week have taken one or more quizzes, so an average of around 50 people per day. The quiz is tailored to the level and subject area that people request when they start a new quiz on iSpot. The reputation level that iSpot provides is a good indicator of the level that people should take but there is no restriction on the level so, for example, a level five expert could take  a level 1 quiz and vice versa. The data from the weekly logs shows however the people are averaging about 7 out of ten for quizzes across the skills levels which suggests that people are naturally finding a level which challenges them.

The quiz has a number of different types of question that test a range of knowledge within a specific domain, some questions are multiple choice and others are about entering the correct name or type of observation, some examples are shown below:-

quiz2

The quiz is largely image-based and relies on people correctly identifying observations. The quiz is open to both visitors to the website who have not yet registered, and also to registered users. Registered users have the benefit of being able to look back at previous quizzes they have taken to compare results. As part of the intelligence the quiz tries to select images which have been agreements and ones which are non-contentious, for example it will attempt to filter out hybrid types. In the example below people can use the button in the right hand corner of the image to expand it and see additional detail.

quiz3

Certain questions prompt people to enter correct names associated with an image, they are based on the names given within the species dictionary on iSpot. The system will look up the dictionary and offer suggestions for entries that match, or which are very similar to, the name entered by the user.

quiz4

We collect overview information about the quizzes on a weekly basis, including information about preferred groups, as you can see from the chart below birds consistently prove to be the most popular category for people taking the quiz.

quiz5

quiz6

The weekly statistics show us that the percentage of visitors who take quizzes compared to registered users varies from week to week.

For example during w/c 16th September 2013 about three quarters of people taking the quiz are registered users as indicated in the following diagram.

Interestingly during the previous week the ratio was more like 60/40 in favour of registered users so this seems to be indicating that as time passes the quiz may be becoming more popular with registered users however this will require further data analysis.

quiz7

Each quiz has up to ten questions so the table below shows that during the previous week there is an 80.7% completion rate.

The completion rate for the previous week was 89.1% and completion rates seem to fall consistently within 80%-89% percent range.

quiz8We are tracking the average scores of people who take the quiz and the results show us that there is only a very slight variation in score between people who class themselves as novice and take a level 1 quiz and people who class themselves as expert and take the level 5 quiz.

There is a slight decrease from 7.5 to 6.5 going from level 2 to level 3 and beyond however it is worth bearing in mind that the quiz provides novice users with up to three “lifelines” to use to help them (a lifeline is typically where two of the four choices are removed to make it simpler for people to find the correct remaining answer).

We have yet to analyse the raw data coming from the quizzes and because the service is relatively new we need more time before we can start to get useful trend data to help us demonstrate that people are increasing in their knowledge of nature through using iSpot.

In particular we need to understand the relationship between the amount of time people have been using iSpot and the level of knowledge they have attained. The data already indicates that people who use iSpot are gaining knowledge about nature and over the next few months we will be conducting further data analysis to understand exactly how this is being achieved.

These are just a selection of some of the new features in iSpot (I have at least 24 more to share with you!). I am very interested in how these systems evolve over time and the nature of the co-evolution of the technology and the people using that technology.

The Facebook we see today is very different from the first iteration of Facebook.

People are generally much more technology aware, and use technologies frequently for “selfies” and to share with others in a connected way. Systems must therefore evolve to support the changing perceptions of users to technology and iSpot can naturally support learning using images and photographs that people nowadays naturally want to share.

I’ve summarised some of the latest iSpot features that explain this co-evolution process in a presentation that I gave in December. We “technocrats” rely heavily on the community, and the subject experts to help us create services that are useful and provide mechanisms of learning and improvement.

I will be continuing  over the coming months to give examples of the richness of the  systems that we’re working on the Institute of Educational Technology. Working in partnership with the Science Faculty and Open Media Unit and the 36,000 users of iSpot.