My highlights of 2015


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

 

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

tel-cloud

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

…I haven’t been procrastinating.

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

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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.

Fond Farewell

Now that you're leaving I may have to actually work - eCard

Martin Weller managed to blog about this first with his post Goodbye to Two Colleagues – As with Martin I’ve been avoiding using this blog for personal posts however I’m making an exception in order to say a fond farewell to Ross Mackenzie.

Ross is leaving the Open University (N.B. he is not retiring, nor being made redundant!) – he is leaving to pursue higher ambitions and explore. During our time together at the Open University he is someone who has regularly made my working life much more bearable, especially over the past few years, by providing interesting back-channel conversations on twitter and email during meetings which usually turn out to be much more productive than the meetings themselves!

Ross has achieved many valuable things for the university. I still remember Promises (can’t remember which bits of this acronym are capitalized, or indeed what it stands for!) which was about conformance of an online presence for modules across the curriculum. I think that was a real achievement as previously everything was much more bespoke, hand crafted an unsustainable. This project paved the way for the VLE which was another one of Ross’s achievements ( I was also drafted in to advise Martin Weller with the groundwork about what an institutional VLE should include…. the old Sakai v Moodle debate and loosely coupled v tightly integrated – those were the days!).

I worked with Ross most recently to get VLE changes completed to upgrade to Moodle 2 and incorporate many new features (called RAP – Roadmap Acceleration Programme – accelerated because it achieved three years worth of work within one year!)  – I remember Ross was the person who first expressed support for use of personas – and I’ve tried to take that work forward and we’ve had some success with this although there’s more still to do to get personas embedded, however without Ross they might not have been explored at all.

… it hasn’t all been about work. It has also been about having someone who is prepared to speak up in favour of educational technology and who is prepared to look for  a ‘yes’ when the easiest answer (but not the correct one) is to say ‘no’. I value having Ross as a colleague over the past many years – for the anecdotes and witticisms that make my work enjoyable.

arctic landscape

…I wish him all the best on his travels to Arctic landscapes in search of elusive beasties that might eat him (hopefully not) and I expect that our paths will cross in the not too distant future.

Built-in Obsolescence

I had a few days off and took my wife’s bike to the shop to get it fixed as she was complaining about the gears slipping and I thought it may need a new gear sprocket. When I got it there the bike shop owner showed me all the other issues with it. It’s only half as old as my bike but poorly maintained so suffering! – Anyway he said it was about £100 with labour costs to fix all the parts and so it was marginal whether it was worth repairing. I decided in the end to get her a new bike but I’ve since taken the old bike home and fixed it up using parts from other bikes.

The point of this is to say that when I was growing up we had bikes that lasted for decades. The thought of upgrading was never there. Bikes were all the same and parts interchangeable and cheap. Now it appears that bikes have gone the way of other technology. New bikes have more gears than previous versions and the parts are so expensive (compared to a new bike, as bike prices reduce) that it becomes easier and cheaper in many cases to upgrade than to buy parts if there’s a problem. It’s also though because culturally we are changing technology quickly. The rate at which people burn through mobile technology would be staggering to previous generations. It’s true too of PC’s and laptops. As good recent example of this is that the OU is likely to need to invest around 1 million to replace all it’s PC’s to have a new generation that work with Windows 7.

Think about that though for a moment. There’s no doubt that new PC’s are better than old but this is being decided by the Operating System where presumably people have said that it will be more costly to maintain older PC’s than to replace them all to run with the new OS. It’s also about a constant need to move forward, refresh, and not be behind. There are benefits to moving to a new OS but one of the big drivers for this is that older OS’s wont get supported after a certain date. This is the built-in obsolescence.

It suits supplier businesses to build a ‘time to live’ into their products which is just long enough for people to get attached to them but not so long that they can’t be moved onto the ‘next big thing’.

Whilst I’m on the subject of time to live I want to say that there are many fantastic technologies that have driven human progress including the space shuttle, Concorde and Harrier jets to name three.

These technologies were built to respond to a specific set of circumstances and they preformed their purposes fantastically well. Economically it may make sense to get rid of these but they leave a gap in their wake that won’t be filled easily. They also represent the best of human inventiveness. I hope that doesn’t get lost as humans build things on the nano scale and go for smaller, cheaper, faster technology consumables.

But do technologies have a shorter time to live now? – How does this model square with the ‘make do and mend’ recession culture, and also the green ICT (or lack of) of replacing iPhone versions every 6 months to get the latest apps? – I’m concerned that a cultural shift needs to happen both with manufacturing and consumerism to change habits and make people think more about the ‘burn through’ effect and to find models that are more environmentally and ethically sustainable.

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.

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.

internet 

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.