Category Archives: netskills

Reflections on the Next Generation Environments Conference 2008

Last week I was at the second Next Generation Environments Conference at Aston Business School, Birmingham. (Was it really only last week!?) It was an interesting, enjoyable and social event, and here are a few of my thoughts/reactions…

The set-up for the conference was excellent. As someone who’s been involved in the organisation of a number of conferences in the past, I know how hard this can be. But all at Aston and the JISC organising team are to be commended. The acoustics in the plenary room were excellent and the use of fixed and lapel mics was without fault – and much appreciated by me, as someone with less than perfect hearing! The use of music between sessions and during coffee was an interesting and effective addition.

One thing surprised me though… there didn’t seem to be any attempt to ‘amplify’ the conference. Perhaps this was intentional, but i’d have expected the conference to have a publicised tag to tie together any blogs, slides, podcasts, bookmarks etc. One thing that’s been emphasised to me by the development of the social web is that we all take away a different perspective to events we attend and sharing those phenomenological experiences enhances the experience. Also, given that the main session was mic-ed up, how hard would it have been to capture the audio?

Mark Schofield from Edge Hill acted as convener for much of the conference, and i’d be interested to hear more of his thoughts on users and innovation. His mention of “people in dialogue” and the benefit of “listening to other people’s voices” (users, evaluators, researchers) struck a chord with me. I know i’m energised by taking part in dialogue on a topic, forming (and re-forming) my opinions and stances based on those of others, either in agreement or not. At least Mark’s reference to the U&I programme being based around the suggestion that “smart people in dialogue get smarter” made me want to feel part of the community, if only as a desire to be included in his reference to ‘smart people’!

Many attendees at the conference were glowing about the two panel sessions, particularly the one with four current students. Their perspective was indeed interesting, but certainly not revelatory. From the practitioner’s perspective, i’d be really interested to hear more of Terry Wassall’s thoughts. Terry is a Principal Teaching Fellow in Sociology at the University of Leeds and talked lucidly and insightfully about his experiences with emergent social technology. What I liked was that he’s clearly aware of the bigger picture, noting how his initial use of another channel of communication and engagement with social media, has affected him, his identity, his writing style and other people’s perceptions of him.

I also attended a session on the TicTOC / GoldDust projects and one on the OpenHabitat project. The later was excellent, thought provoking and energetically delivered by Dave White. They clearly have sound research questions they intend to address regarding Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVEs) and Dave gave some interesting pilot examples from people’s initial reactions to SecondLife and World of Warcraft. Early days, but i’ll be following this project with interest.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned that Steve Boneham and I ran a session too, titled ‘Too much of a good thing? Individual and institutional responses to emergent technologies’ … more on that in another post perhaps, (although see the News article on the Netskills website).

The main plenary was given by Eric Hamilton (Pepperdine University, USA). Someone commented to me that they hadn’t learnt anything from his session, saying “how are you meant to remember 8 principles?” But I reckon that a good plenary session should be more about challenging the (smart?!) audience to consider a new or innovative angle to a topic, prompting re-evaluation of their models and methods, more than learning something new. So, how was I challenged? Well, first of all, before I share what resonated with me from Eric’s talk, i’ll admit that i’m not heavily into pedagogy or e-learning. That’s not to say i’m not interested, just that learning theory isn’t one of my research interests. I am however, deeply interested in social interactions and the dynamics involved, whatever the environment (learning, social, collaborative…). Eric talked a bit about the “human craving for social knowledge, meaning and connections” in relation to the ever-popular Facebook. It’s easy to dismiss Facebook as being a time-wasting activity, but there’s a growing range of interesting research into the social meaning of its use, particularly given that you could argue that Facebook is an extension of our daily lives; (most of the time) we are who we say we are in Facebook, and don’t hide behind pseudonyms. (‘funkychic233’ etc.)

Eric also talked about “fluid contextual activities” from a social vs. solitary perspective as well as a virtual vs. IRL (‘in real life’) one. I need to do some reading to understand this more, but the example of getting a group of people to virtually mimic a a traffic jam made sense, highlighting the role of the individual in the process. My attention was also grabbed by Eric’s description of ‘collaborative flow’, the individual ‘in the zone’ needing to maintain awareness of the phenomenological* situation, giving the example of an orchestra – “losing a sense of time, whilst maintaining timing”.

Finally, Eric talked a fair amount about his passion for baseball, giving a number of interesting examples. Sorry Eric, but you lost me a bit there; baseball will always be a poor man’s cricket! 😉

So, at the conference there was lots of talk about ‘identity’, ‘social identity’ and ‘communities of practice’ but I was often left wanting to respond … “but this isn’t anything new, it’s what we do all the time!” What’s really interesting, and what we’re only just starting to explore, is the impact of a more connected, technologically enabled world, where we have the ability to be social more often. Do we need to learn how to switch from one identity to another? In fact, the question for us attending the conference is more, “do we need to re-learn how to switch from one identity to another? Answer – yes! During a discussion at a sociolinguistics conference about six years ago, regarding my research into language and identity amongst adolescents, a former colleague (Joan Beal) said to me:

“The thing is Will, adolescents are constructing and re-constructing their identities all the time … just like they try on Ben Sherman shirts!”

And I suggest that students are extending, expressing, massaging, constructing and re-constructing their multiple identities in online spaces right now, switching seamlessly from one identity to another. They engage in the practice of ‘doing’, so central to Community of Practice theory, with many of their communities extending over both a virtual and physical world.

* I’m distinctly aware that i’ve used the word ‘phenomenological’ twice in this post … and also that i’m not entirely sure what it means. If anyone (Aruna?) who knows more on the subject reads this post, please comment!

Learning to love snails

I was fortunate enough to go on a trip to Cuba last October. What a fantastic country; such warm, friendly people with a thirst for life and incredible resourcefulness, fabulous and varied scenery and an abundance of Mojito!

Polymita PictaBefore setting off i’d arranged to visit La Universidad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba and offered my services to deliver some training for researchers (postgraduates and lecturers) on writing basic web pages and the potential of online tools for collaboration. I was traveling with my father, accompanying him on his second fieldtrip to Cuba, hunting down his chosen subjects – snails. Now, searching for snails isn’t one of my preferred pastimes, arousing childhood memories of being coaxed out on the odd dark, damp snail-hunt through the Hampshire countryside in the very early hours. But these are Polymita picta – brilliantly bright and colourful and found only in the sandy, palm-fringed eastern corner of Cuba. Perhaps that explains my sudden attraction!

So, i’d arranged to deliver some training… kind of … well I wasn’t really sure what i’d arranged or what to expect, but was taking a “go with the flow” attitude. I’d sent a number of emails to my contacts at the University in Santiago de Cuba. Just a relaxed Cuban attitude to email, I thought, no worries. But eventually, a reply:

“Sorry for my delay. Many rainy days (18 days!!!) on Santiago de Cuba… and we have been off-line a lot of time.”

And more the next day:

“It is raining… again!!! (19 days). Frogs and snails are very happy…”

But not internet connections it would appear! I was to find out more on arrival; tropical rainfall and web servers don’t go hand-in-hand. In fact, the servers are turned off to protect them when it rains, which it does a lot during the rainy season. Thoughts of home and our reaction to the briefest lack of connectivity… Hmmm, first lesson learnt I think!

Life’s a beachWe arrived in Cuba to sweltering, sweaty, sunshine; such a glorious change to the fast approaching UK winter. After a night in Holguin we traveled to Santiago de Cuba where we rested, slept and headed the next day to the University. My first session was to be at 8am, definitely the earliest start to a Netskills workshop i’ve delivered. However, due to the rains there was no connection, so my workshop was postponed – for a week! – and I was taken on a tour round campus. It was immediately evident that there was an extremely open approach to teaching, learning and working. Seminars were being held outside and there was a general hubbub of noise as lecturers lectured, students discussed, and staff held meetings. Not so different to home, but I got the distinct impression nobody was ever going to be shusshed or caught sending an email to a colleague down the corridor in shouting distance!

“The Googleroom”I was taken to the library which had also been shut for a number of days due to the downpours, but seemed well stocked and with plenty of open areas for self study … Just watch out for the puddles and the damp tables by the open windows! Downstairs in the library is the Laboratorio de Información, more commonly referred to as “the googleroom.” Unfortunately it was also shut due to the power outage but I was told (by the slightly scary Library manager – no comment!) that it’s an extremely popular room; inside are ten networked computers that can be booked for use in thirty minute blocks.

Next we popped into the Centre for English Studies where I had an interesting chat with a professor of English and his linguist colleague, whose eyes lit up when I mentioned my former research areas; phonetics and sociolinguistics, talking about second language aquisition and various models of language representation that I really should remember more of. Actually the professor’s original field was Russian Studies, but demand dwindled after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s. I asked if they had any partnerships with Universities outside Cuba, but no, they said, unfortunately not.

Puncture at Guantanamo Bay

After a week away from Santiago snail hunting near Baracoa on the far east of the island, and after an eventful return journey including a puncture two kilometres from Guantanamo Bay(!), we returned to fine weather, no rain and a 100% intermittent internet connection – quick, time to deliver my training!

Training at La Universidad de Oriente, Santiago de CubaThe sessions were a great success and thoroughly enjoyable to run. Attending were a mixture of staff and research students, keen to learn and also to cascade knowledge to colleagues and friends. The main focus of the sessions was on creating structured HTML content for teaching and research purposes, attendees keen to know how to keep file sizes and images small for quick transfer. Interestingly demand for our ‘Web Pages From Scratch’ workshop, popular pretty much since Netskills started, has dipped over the last year or two, probably as we see people move towards more sophisticated web-based tools and services. But the framework for any website, whatever your connection, however elaborate your design, and wherever you are around the globe, is provided by a sound structure. Another lesson for us back home, where we tend to be wowed by the (admittedly exciting!) possibilities provided by faster and faster network connections.

Know your audience when writing web content

I’ve run our Writing for the Web (WFTW) workshop a number of times over the last few weeks, in Dublin, Edinburgh and Huddersfield. All three were excellent days, each taking its own natural course and ending up completely different to the suggested blueprint in the workbook.

Last week I was at the University of Huddersfield, running a workshop for members of their central marketing department and others responsible for web copy from around the University. Much of the morning was focussed on identifying and understanding the different audiences for the University website as well as for individual schools and services. We had interesting and revealing discussions about the information required by a particular audience, from overseas students to parents to staff, and the best way to communicate directly to them. As with so many tasks, it pays to spend some time planning before actually putting pen to paper (should or shouldn’t that be finger to keyboard?!) – if you know who you’re writing for and why, it sure does focus the mind and make writing that quality web content easier!

I always find I pick up excellent examples and ideas from attendees when running WFTW; it’s that kind of day. At first glance each could be overlooked or thought trivial, but undoubtedly highlight the need to give considered thought to both the target audience and the author’s intention when crafting content for the web.

First, one from someone who attended the workshop in Dublin. A well known low frills airline started off referring to “budget fares” but soon realised this wasn’t appealing to their audience. Obviously their intention is to sell tickets, but for this to be effective the customer needs to be enticed by the benefits to them. They soon made changes and “cheap flights” works so much better.

Second, an example from the Edinburgh workshop I ran for NHS National Services Scotland in November. During the afternoon, we examined the written content on a number of attendees’ sites, including the website for the Scottish National Blood Transfusion service. Again there were more interesting discussions highlighting the importance of considering your audience. For a blood transfusion service, who’s the patient? From the perspective of the donor it’s certainly not them – they’re giving blood to help ‘patients’!

Travellers’ tales…

I must’ve been living a charmed life. Either that or this workblog is a curse!? Up until last week all of my journeys as a Netskills trainer over the past two and a half years have been relatively straightforward. I haven’t suffered horrendous delays, the feared connecting bus between stations, or a cancelled flight. The worst i’ve experienced is standing cramped on trains between Manchester and Leeds, or a tedious couple of hours’ wait at Chesterfield station, passing the time observing the obsessive rituals of trainspotters. Actually I did have the Mallaig-Armadale ferry cancelled on route to Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye, but received the call before the crux of the journey soon after Fort William. Many of the locals might not welcome the permanent connection to the mainland, but that stormy February in 2006, I was everso thankful for the bridge connecting ‘The Winged Isle’ to Kyle of Lochalsh.

But then I missed my flight back from Dublin last week… Never have I seen such traffic – utter chaos! And yesterday I arrived at Edinburgh Waverley Station just in time to hear the tell-tale whistle as I hopped down the bottom two steps and turned to see the doors shut on the 19:00. It was mostly my own fault, attracted to the celebratory fireworks over Princes’ Street Gardens, accompanied by the Red Hot Chilie Pipers to turn on of the Christmas lights. I hadn’t realised there wasn’t another train until 21:00 though … but no problem, a quick call and I was up at the German Market, catching up with my cousin over a Mulled Beer (seriously!) and Bratwurst. All in a day’s work!