The medium is not the message

What’s the difference between someone standing in front of a live audience reading aloud a pre-prepared paper, a video or audio recording of the reading and the paper itself?  That was one of the questions asked during the stimulating Q&A session that followed Andrew Feenberg’s opening keynote at our 2008 JISC CETIS conference, and one that I feel is important to our conceptualising of online and offline teaching and learning.

There’s generally assumed to be some kind of difference between traditional f2f T&L and other approaches, and often an unstated but apparent assumption that f2f is superior.  We discuss the use of educational technology (and other less technologically advanced approaches such as correspondence courses) in terms of them being enablers, opening up opportunities to those who might otherwise be denied access to educational opportunities through personal circumstances, geographic location, disability, etc.  Yet there often appears to be an underlying assumption that these are somehow second best solutions, the ideal still being that medieval phenomenon of seekers of knowledge travelling to where academics congregate to sit at their feet and become ‘educated’ by osmosis.

Andrew answered the question that opens this post by suggesting that the live delivery of the paper can be distinguished from the other forms in terms of retrievability and repeatability.  The artifact forms of the lecture (video, audio, printed page) are texts which can be retrieved and re-experienced, while the reading itself is a unique performance that, although repeatable, is transient and irrecoverable in its original form.  A performance’s only permanence is in its audience’s memory, and as our own conference showed, such memories can differ drastically from participant to participant.  Obviously all texts are subject to interpretation and challenge, but working from a shared basis is surely a better way to start discussion and debate.

Several participants suggested that the value of the f2f lecture is that it is a group activity and that there is interaction between the performer (lecturer) and audience (students), even if it is limited to occasional nods of understanding, blank looks or patently evident boredom, as well as occasional opportunities for Q&A sessions during or after lectures.  Such sessions are, however, notable for their rarity, and what value is a nod of understanding if it’s really a nod at a misunderstanding?  One participant even suggested that ‘physical proximity validates our presence’ within a field, a suggestion with which I wildly disagree: that might well be – in fact, self-evidently is – the feeling of someone keen to participate and be heard, and confident in f2f environments, but what about the people who are more confident in online contexts, who feel unable or unwilling to participate actively in f2f contact but are very willing to do so virtually?  I’d suggest that it is actually mental engagement which ‘validates our presence’, whether that is f2f or online, actively or by passively lurking – and it’s perfectly possible to lurk in a f2f context.

Andrew suggested that what we consider ‘a[n academic] course’ is really the interaction between teacher and learner, not the learning materials themselves in whatever format they are presented, an argument I find extremely compelling.  The emphasis on the medium by which information is communicated can obscure the importance of that information, the message it is ultimately intended to deliver.  As learning technologists and interoperability experts, I guess we at CETIS could be more guilty than many of focusing on the medium: is it a SCORM package, is it ‘good’ QTI, can my tool open your Content Packages?  And while these are all undoubtedly important issues for the practicalities of teaching and learning, do we really want to limit the ways in which we assess students, for example, to those that are facilitated by the standards and technologies we use?

Lively limps out of the MUVE game

I blogged about Lively, Google’s browser plugin-based take on virtual worlds, when it went live back in July, thinking that it offered an interesting ‘entry level’ approach to customising 3D spaces and online interaction. Google have now announced that they’ll be closing Lively at the end of December, pretty unambiguously stating that it was simply a bet that didn’t pay off.

There’s no real information yet about why exactly it didn’t work out, although not being available on Mac or Linux, or even Google’s own browser Chrome, couldn’t have helped. Techcrunch reproduce a Google Analytics graph showing just how transient interest in Lively really was, and I know that my own use of it exactly mirrored the inital spike of interest followed by never returning to it.

Like the FaceBook groups and protest sites that sprang up when FaceBook’s News Feed feature was announced, there are some rooms on Lively aimed at protesting the closure, but unlike the more than 500,000 people who signed an online petition protesting against News Feed, the two rooms I’ve linked there have had less than 200 visitors between them. It’s always sad when something doesn’t work out, but is there really any point in a virtual world where the only person there is to talk to is yourself?

Update: Jason Calacanis asks why Google didn’t sell off Lively and wonders if its closure is a prelude to layoffs. Google’s announcement does state that Lively staff will be redeployed on other projects, for what that’s worth :) but Valleywag, who aren’t slow to point out where signs of the recession are evident within the Silicon Valley giant, have a pretty unambiguous view of why Lively, and by extension Second Life, just aren’t that appealing to that many people. Massively also offer their own interpretation of the closure.

Maximising the effectiveness of virtual worlds in teaching and learning

That’s the title of a joint JISC CETIS and Eduserv event we’re running on Friday 16 January here at the University of Strathclyde, and it’s an event I’m looking forward to enormously.  If you fancy coming along I’d advise you to register as soon as possible, as places are already filling up rapidly and if you’re not on the list you ain’t getting in.

Although there is an understandable emphasis on Second Life, the event will look beyond that particular environment to consider some of the issues and barriers to the use of virtual worlds in general in education.  It should be a hugely interesting and valuable event.

All your tweets are belong to us!

Did you notice a lot of Twitterank announcements on Twitter yesterday?  Were you one of those broadcasting your rank to your followers?  I can smugly say I wasn’t, but social media star Louis Gray was one of many, and he’s completely unconcerned at having supplied the service with his Twitter login details.  Oliver Marks on zdnet, however, has a less rose-tinted view of the whole affair and links to a screenshotof the Twitterank sourcecode that should make people feel slightly uncomfortable – particularly those of us who use the same username on every site we sign up to and lazily use the same password too…

It’s still not terribly clear, but it seems as though this was a bit of a publicity stunt to promote calls for Twitter to adopt OAuth.  It does highlight how much we can both value and be careless about our online identities, and illustrate the increasingly compelling case for OAuth adoption.

I’m very tempted to say that Twitterank set us up the bomb, but as the US Army apparently believes that Twitter is a terrorist tool, I’ll just keep quiet :-)

Update: Gray is rather less impressed with Twitterank’s leaderboard feature which has some odd results in it, including (currently) twelfth place for the unused account @google.  I still think it’s all a gigantic hoax, but I guess we can only wait and see…

It’s only a game

Well, I could hardly let today go by unmarked after all: at 00:01 this morning the latest World of Warcraft expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, officially launched.  Currently played by over 11 million people worldwide, and by far the most successful MMO ever, the launch provided an ideal opportunity for the BBC to film girls dressed up as elves and turn concerns that a few people may deal with real life difficulties by becoming addicted to the game into a hand-wringing breakfast time piece featuring a ubiquitous, apparently publicity-addicted psychologist.

Despite the discredited claims of flawed studies, eccentric opinion pieces and extremist activists that computer games cause real life violence and social problems, there is significant evidence that they can actually improve skills and academic performance.  JISC have funded a significant amount of work in this area, and it’s been a popular theme at our own conference.  Multiplayer gaming, with the social and mental engagement it involves, seems to me to be a far more worthwhile activity than passive television watching, and as Mark Barrowcliffe says in his wonderful memoir, The Elfish Gene, ‘much less dangerous than horse riding or wind surfing, and no one seems to bother too much about those’.

Wikipedia as a teaching aid

There’s been a fascinating discussion on the use of wikis, particularly Wikipedia, as a teaching aid on the Association of Internet Researchers discussion list over the last few days.  A number of courses are already active in Wikipedia, and some useful guidance is available on the site together with sample learning activities and a list of projects.

One aspect of suggesting or requiring that students become involved with Wikipedia that seemed to cause some surprise was the extreme unwillingness of many students to engage as authors with the encyclopedia.  One possible reason suggested for this, that students don’t yet have confidence in themselves as ‘producers of knowledge’, is compelling and I sympathise with those students who were uncomfortable with the ‘public nature‘ of Wikipedia editing.  There were also some entertaining stories of students blithely vandalising Wikipedia pages as the class viewed them and an audacious attempt to avoid an accusation of plagiarism by claiming that the plagiarist actually wrote the Wikipedia entry that raise questions about how so-called ‘Generation Y’ learners relate to crowdsourced content.