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 .


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.

Plus ca change

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

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

Lets start with Circles…

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

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

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

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

What about Hangouts?

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

So how does it shape up overall?

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

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

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

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

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


Nevolution = Evolution through networking

Star Trek

Borg - Are we evolving into them?

Since listening to a keynote by Grainne Conole recently at MoodleMOOT I’ve been thinking about the concept of people and technology co-evolving. It’s not that profound a concept really and links to a previous post about the “hidden influence of social networks” we adapt to technology probably more profoundly that the technology adapts to us.

In the case of Twitter this is becoming somewhat of a concern to me because I’m starting to become the type of person who will try to make his posts witty and engaging (perish the thought), this leads to a tendency to exaggerate or enhance. You have this kind of hyper-reality dynamic played out in Twitter where there are the seedlings of truth but couched in the attention grabbing advertising blurb that gets them noticed, you then run the risk of becoming obsessed by ego rather than the topic. It’s not true of all interactions of course, and there is a lot of very good factual information provided without hype, but I’ve been on twitter now for a number of years and it’s only recently that I’ve started noticing the ego-centricity of Twitter.

I think blogging is similarly an egocentric method of communicating and I remember when Martin Weller first encouraged me to blog many years back I was concerned at the time about it being all a bit of an ego massaging exercise. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that when I started my blog I tried deliberately to blog about things that I’d refer back to and find useful for me and my work so treated it like a diary and reminder. A “To-Do” of research ideas. I did originally intend to blog about all things but technology is the predominate subject within many of my posts and perhaps it because my “other life” is one I’m still not comfortable in sticking into blog posts because that does seem rather egotistical. I do occasionally do put family stuff up on Facebook.

So that leads me to another evolutionary trend which is that I’ve noticed now that I’m CATEGORISING my online persona and using different media to reflect different parts of myself and to interact in different ways with different groupings of people. In Facebook the club of followers is quite narrow and when people are flagged to me as “mutual friends” that perhaps I should friend, I don’t tend to do that unless I have a close connection with them in the real world.

So Facebook is, for me, only a group of real friends and close colleagues, and where I feel safe to share personal information.

Twitter on the other hand is more like a pub where I have some close friends that I’m out with and where there are various other interesting people who I know or ‘follow’, some of which are celebs and where listening to them is amusing. The pub persona also means that I do a bit of boasting and bragging and ‘hyper-reality’ is the norm.

Blogging for me is that part of me that wants to remember things which I find useful and may also be useful to others, so my use of blogging is a kind of therapeutic method for me to relieve myself of some thought that I’ve been struggling to articulate. It is like revision classes where I’m repeating stuff that I may have mentioned in class (in a tweet or on Facebook) and trying to explain it, mainly to myself, so that I can work out if it’s got any validity.

This persona building is happening constantly and it’s evolving over time. I also have my “linkedIn” and my “academia.edu” and various other elements of myself expressed online.

How much though is the media I’m engaging in changing me? …am I becoming ‘hyper-real’?

Hidden Influence of Social Networks

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

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

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

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

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

Hmm. Ripples in the pond.

Clowning Around?

I’ve hardly blogged at all recently (been on twitter lots) – There’s a debate raging about whether twitter kills blogging. We’ve been having the debate using cloudworks which is our very nice home grown system and I intend to give my opinions of that in another post, but suffice to say I love it.

…anyhow back to my point. By far the most traffic to my blog was generated from my post about Why Clowns are Dangerous. This has in fact also spawned a lot of quite vitriolic and IMHO (!) self opinionated comments, these tend to be light on research and factual evidence but heavily packed with personal insults.

From this I summise:-

1. Michael Wesch is spot on in his analysis about behaviours around anonymity and rage. Particularly people  think they know me from what is a very incomplete set of criteria by which to judge….and for the record my sister runs a circus troupe and regularly dresses in a clown costume. There is a recognised condition around clowns and their fear. Stephen Kings “IT” is directly playing on that association.

2. Clowns are not something to make fun of. Clowns take themselves very seriously.

3. My sister runs a circus troupe (performing arts and trapeze and the works) so there is a clown in my family 🙂

4. The more bizarre the blog post the more traffic it generates. My second most popular post is on silent vacuum cleaners. Therefore ridding the world of scary clowns and noisy vacuum cleaners is likely to make someone very popular.

5. Most people don’t get irony. Or humour. Going back to 1, this is probably to do with the other 55% non verbal communication. Or it could be that people only expect blogs to be ‘either’ comical or serious and not a mixture.

6. People make assumptions. All the time. We forget past things that don’t fit those assumptions and concentrate on the latest things that do. Derren Brown would have a field day. Or am I making assumptions?

Plurk and Twitter

I’m plurking a bit now (is that the correct adjective?) and Twittering (or tweeting?) a bit more but my twitter use is sporadic. I’m finding that I need reason to do both and I found that reason most recently when I went over to Ireland. The wait in the airport was a great opportunity to network and I really enjoyed the ‘conversation’. I have to say that I don’t use them much at work except to track other peoples movements. It is also possible that I’m not getting the most from Twitter because I’m spending a lot of time in meetings which are not twitterable (too boring or confidential) and also not the type that I can lose concentration on (lest I get roped into doing something).

I also find I twitter about stuff like strangling my cat (not literally but metaphorically although I had to scrape up mice innards and cat sick from the patio this morning so I wasn’t far off the literal!) and I sometimes feel like being in a pub and suddenly finding my boss has turned up and is listening in to my rant. People express the same view about the new open plan building that we’re moving in to. They say that they forget they’re in open space and someone calls up about something like booking a holiday and they go into intimate detail forgetting that they’re being overheard by half the department.

I will try harder though as I think I’ve nearly reached the point where I could get addicted to twitter given the right set of circumstances. In my case being stranded somewhere without a book to read.



I see that Tony Hirst has added a post showing some nice graphs showing the trends showing potential growth of Twitter. What is they say about lies, damn lies and statistics? – It’s interesting to note trend data like this because things such as Secondlife get big blips in popularity and I think it’s when something new has been created within the space. Twitter shows steady growth but as Tony says the figures lie. Twitter is certainly filling a gap that existed as judging by the response to my recent post and the number of people who arguing very strongly in favour if it.

I’ve been recommended by a friend to read a book called “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It” (Jonathan Zittrain). There’s a review of it in this months BBC Focus magazine too. According to the review he argues that the end of the internet as we know it will be because of the lack of creativity and people turning away from the web because of the lack of control and the prevenlence of malware and viruses, moving to more ‘locked down’ solutions. I haven’t read it yet but it does sound like an interesting read. I’m off to get it.