All entries for Friday 04 November 2011

November 04, 2011

Using Webex desktop video conferencing in a seminar with Monash

Earlier in the week I helped Nick Monk of IATL to include a video conference with Sarah McDonald (Monash) in a seminar for his Forms of Identity module. This was Nick's first use of video conferencing in teaching. We began with a simple approach, with Sarah giving a presentation and answering questions. However, we are going to integrate video conferencing into Nick's open-space learning workshop approach. That's why we held this session in the CAPITAL Studio (a large black box theatre studio). The module will soon be taught jointly by Warwick and Monash.

Sarah joined the Webex conference at 8am GMT (7pm in Australia). I had two 24" iMacs set up, one running the video conference (with its excellent built in camera and mic), the other playing the video clips to accompany Sarah's presentation. It's best to avoid playing videos over a video conference link, so I got Sarah to upload them in advance using Sarah used her own Mac Book in her office (most straight forwards). I've since realised that a good approach would be to use two screens for the video conference, running from one computer. The slides could be displayed full size on one screen, with the speaker on another.

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The sound quality was very good, with just the occassional squelchiness and echo. The students did have to make an effort to speak loudly and clearly when asking questions. There was only a slight delay in the transmission. Sarah displayed a visually interesting Keynote based slide show. We had the slides taking up most of the screen, and Sarah's face in a small inset. When showing the slides, Webex noticeably drops the refresh rate on the video of the speaker, but that's not a problem. I played the videos as required, and found that I didn't have to mute the mic on the conferencing iMac.

At the end of the session (I think it was over 1 1/2 hours), the students reported that it was really good. The technology was "brilliant" and having an expert from Australia in their seminar was great.

As an experiment, I also joined the conference using the Webex app on an iPad. The quality was superb, and I moved around with the iPad camera to get a different perspective on the Warwick participants. For the OSL integrated video conferencing, we will use the iMacs, Macbooks and the iPads to get closer to the action as it happens in small groups around the CAPITAL Studio. The next step is to set up a trial run for that configuration.

This is a screenshot of the iPad app. It will by default display an inset of the person who is currently speaking. Webex detects when someone else starts to speak and displays their video instead. It's possible to hide the video inset to see the slides fully, or to expand it and see a strip containing all of the participants (and to use the touch interface to skim through it).

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Adopting and embedding Sharepoint in higher education

In November 2011, I visited City College in Coventry to look at how they use Sharepoint (with Chris Coe and Rob Batterbee from Theatre Studies, a Sharepoint user). Rob Talbot gave us a good overview of their quite substantial achievements. They have made significant progress in four years (having been an early adopter of Sharepoint, they stepped-up their use of it in 2007).

I had two principle questions in mind:

  1. What have they achieved by using Sharepoint?
  2. What has been the secret of their success?

Here are my answers.

Sharepoint is commonly described as a “collaboration tool”. So one might say that they have achieved “better collaboration”. But that is far too vague and hence unhelpful (as are many descriptions of IT enhancement projects). We need to get more precision if we are to understand their achievements and the role of Sharepoint in their work.

Here’s a more helpful headline:

City College have used Sharepoint for more effectively working with information, using the best possible means for constructing and using information, individually and collectively.

That’s still very much at a high level. But it does helpfully name a virtue that may or may not be present in an institution (or individual), and suggests a broad project of improvement to which Sharepoint might contribute.

To get little more precision we should operationalize that virtue into a range of significant technology-practices. What might we mean by “constructing and using information”? Here are some patterns and examples:

Pattern Example
1. Adding a new object to a collection of similar objects. Complete a form to create a new record in a list of records.
2. Completing a series of distinct stages in a sequence, each building on the last. A workflow in which person A completes a form, person B reviews the information and adds to it, person C reviews and adds to it (perhaps making a decision).
3. Composing an object by adding and positioning parts of the object (in no particular order). Several people, over time, add text to a document.
4. Creating distinct components of the product according to a plan and assembling them together, with an additional process of integrating the parts. Writing the distinct sections of a funding application and then constructing the finished application from the parts.
5. Adding a distinct layer of commentary to an object. Reading and reviewing a document as it is read.
6. Creating and comparing alternate versions of an object. Each person reviews and annotates their own copy of a document. They then meet, compare and discuss their notes.

Many other patterns and examples are possible. This is just a sample of the kinds of behavior that would be enhanced by the project to More Effectively Use Information.

Some variation is introduced by various forms of collaboration. The construction process might be a collective act (with conscious collaboration between a group of people), multi-user (without the participants consciously co-operating as a group) or individual. The construction process will often happen over a distinct set of engagements (for example, several people adding contributions at different points in time). Individuals might collaborate synchronously or asynchronously, from the same location or remotely.

At City College we looked at a range of cases in which these technology-behaviours had been enhanced through the use of Sharepoint. The platform, when combined with the right kind of design, implementation, support and skills infrastructure, is capable of all of this and more.

The behaviours were enhanced along three dimensions:

A. Management Dimension

Sharepoint is used to optimize existing practices: repeatable and regular, quicker, more reliable, traceable etc. For example, purchasing data is entered by several people onto a single table, using a form that includes drop-down lists of suppliers. Reports can be automatically generated and people notified, thus guaranteeing that the right people get the right information as quickly as possible.

B. Creative Dimension

Entirely new ways of working are made possible. An aspect of the organization is redesigned to meet otherwise un-achievable objectives. For example, teachers create lesson plans, course specifications etc as part of their usual work. Sharepoint has been configured so that they can select some of their plans for inclusion in the audit process. Each individual teacher contributes to the assembly of their department’s auditable selection.

C. Networking Dimension

People work together better, share skills, using common practices and protocols. Where appropriate, they adapt the common practice for their own local requirements. For example, teaching materials are defined globally as a specific “content type” with a set of appropriate meta-data fields. This is used and understood across the whole institution. Departments and other groups can adapt this, adding additional fields and descriptors that make sense in their own area.

To achieve these enhancements, basic design values must be applied. The process of construction should be orderly, clearly stated and visible, signifying progress and other key indicators, manageable, efficient (in design and implementation) and not requiring more effort than is justified by the end product. Participants shouldn’t have to acquire new skills and understandings unless they will easily transfer and reapply to other cases.

Sharepoint is far from perfect on these terms. Very few actions are possible using Sharepoint without either context-specific training or an ability to understand and to think-through its particular interface and workflow logic. At City College this has been a challenge but not a barrier. IT skills, and more specifically Microsoft Office skills, are relatively well developed across the board. All members of staff are expected to undertake formal training in Office and Sharepoint. The similarities between the two have also been exploited.

As an approximate benchmark guide to how easy Sharepoint adoption would be for an organization, we can use comparable Microsoft Office skills. On this basis, City College were able to adopt Sharepoint at a fairly high level of sophistication, across the whole college.

A more fundamental design question must also be addressed. Does the pattern of construction afford all of the necessary attention to detail, considerations, variations and opportunities to differentiate and extend the product to the best possible or best required result? For example, when adding a record to a list of records, is there an opportunity to create additional new fields or accommodate additional and potentially useful information in other ways? Constraints are important for the sake of clarity and efficiency, but in some cases opportunities for more free-form work are also essential. The pattern must be designed so that the desired result is achieved. And it must therefore be possible to adapt the platform to meet these needs. The consequence of failure in design is that people will just stick to their existing habitual practices.

How well does Sharepoint do on this consideration? Again it’s not simply a technical matter. We need to consider the full platform: Sharepoint + design + implementation + support + skills + development.

There are 7 common levels of sophistication, all of which are possible with Sharepoint as a starting point:

  1. The participants use a familiar, habitual, un-examined approach to a new problem.
  2. They make ad-hoc adaptions, modifying a familiar approach as required.
  3. They select the most appropriate approach from a range of possibilities.
  4. They choose from a range of pre-existing approaches and make ad-hoc modifications.
  5. An expert designer makes the required modifications.
  6. An expert designer creates a new approach to meet the new needs.
  7. The participants themselves are able to create a new approach to meet their own needs.

In an ideal world, more effectively working with information, levels 3, 4 and 7 would occur most frequently. The habitual unexamined adoption of a pattern of working is avoided. Experts (5, 6) are required only for very difficult cases.

On its own, Sharepoint does not do well at helping people to make good informed choices (level 3). An additional supportive and guiding environment must be created. Sharepoint can be modified (by an expert) to make the options more explicit and meaningful (along with help materials). Or consultancy services can be made readily available in person. City College has chosen the latter option, with 3 people supporting an institution of equivalent size to one of Warwick’s faculties. Network effects also play a part once that a growing number of people have made choices and successfully used the system.

In addition, more advanced Office skills (for example creating Access databases) transfer across to some extent, meaning that advanced Office users can become advanced Sharepoint users at level 4, 5, 6 and perhaps even 7. City College has benefitted from this, along with providing an expert design, implementation and support team to work at levels 5 and 6.

Recommendations for Warwick

Good or advanced Microsoft Office skills are less evenly distributed amongst staff at Warwick. There is less likelihood that we can train all staff to this level. There is less commonality in the activities that could be enhanced with Sharepoint. The success of City College would therefore be harder to replicate. However, we could:

  • Initially target groups who are proficient in Office and do share a commonality (across the university, so as to build a distributed embedded user community).
  • Create a few useful Sharepoint based applications to significantly improve common practices for many people. Extra customization could be done to make the interface and workflow more intuitive and less dependent upon advanced skills, understanding or time spent in training.
  • Over time introduce more sophisticated functionality, depending more upon user-skills and effort.
  • Provide more local support (and customization).
  • Create an easy access, low cost (time and money) training channel for basic Office and Sharepoint skills.
  • Create a larger scale project to More Effectively Use Information across the university.

Future learning technologies (ELE not VLE)

People keep asking me if I think that Warwick should have a VLE. I keep answering NO!! – or at least nothing that looks like a conventional VLE (browser-based content transmission). My justifications: 1. VLE technologies are about to become obsolete; 2. the “environment” metaphor is a mistake. We need to think about extended learning ecologies (ELE) not virtual learning environments (VLE).

This vision of the near future illustrates some of the technologies and practices that will be common place very soon.

We’re in a high-tech open access learning centre. We walk over to a collaboration space. The large touch screen lights up, having recognized the members of the group (our mobile devices have already connected to it). Our shared notebook is on the screen, displaying the contents that we are likely to be using for this session (it already knows which seminar, which module etc). It is a version of the digital course-pack for this module, but with our seminar group’s additions and customizations. Our tablet computers and laptops (some of us are using the iPad 4) have also opened up the notebook in sync, with the same contents.

We can work on documents, and see our updates replicated across all the devices. On the big screen we create a mind map together. It is instantly replicated onto our own individual devices, so that later on we can carry on using it individually.

During the session, someone mentions that a useful documentary will be on tonight. Some of us add it to our personal calendars. But it clashes with a dinner that I’m going to. No problem, the calendar has already set up whatever is required for me to record the programme and watch it at a later date (it’s been added to my to-watch list, when I get to my television I see it listed there).

Part way through the seminar, one of the students does a short talk, pushing a sequence of slides (containing text, images, audio and video) from her iPad onto the screen and onto our own tablet devices. If we want, all of the audio of her presentation and our discussion is recorded along with the slides. We can also annotate them in our own digital notebooks.

As she talks, a resource finder identifies keywords that might be relevant to our work. It uses in-built intelligence and previous experience with the group to search for and make available (to the whole class) relevant resources. There’s a mention of the Port Royal Logic in the discussion. Instantly it’s there ready to use. As she starts to talk about the PRL, I realize that it’s really interesting to me. I start recording what she is saying into an audio note, but did I miss the bit just before I pressed record? No, the system was pre-emptively recording that, so I can include a few minutes pre-record in my note. The resource finder also knows about articles and books that will be of use to follow up after the session, some of which have been manually chosen, and some of which are intelligent suggestions.

Later, when I get back to my study, I’m able to access all of this as a timeline of events and as a collection of resources, replicated and presented onto my desktop. I can pick out key ideas, develop them, link to other resources, and build them into a more considered, more complete product – almost a complete essay, which might form part of my assessed work – I’m not sure. So I sleep on it. Then over the next few days, I revisit the essay (on my iPhone when I’m on the bus, on my iPad when I’m in a café, on my desktop computer, and even as audio read back to me as I exercise in the gym).

Finally, I decide that I like what I’ve written, and I submit it into the peer support app for my tutor group. Other members receive a notification (on their various devices) telling them that I’ve submitted an essay for consideration. They can access it and give me feedback, in the document’s workspace using whichever device (mobile, desktop etc) that is at hand. I receive notifications, and once I’m happy with it, I publish the essay to a couple of different “zones” – the module tutors, and also a student research network. It appears on their devices through the apps that they have subscribed to.

I’ve used a lot of new ideas in this work of fiction. But they are all things that are just becoming reality right now. Some of them are named by flashy buzz-words:

Ubiquitous computing: powerful, net-connected devices always at hand in an appropriate form, allowing immediate access to information, people, choices, productivity-functions etc, intuitively and unobtrusively. We can do sophisticated IT without interrupting the flow of ideas and events. Enabled by mobile web enabled devices like the iPhone and iPad, as well as smart connected devices (internet enabled printers, televisions etc).

Cloud computing: our data, files etc are stored over the network on servers, and replicated immediately across all of our devices (and potentially other devices such as presentation screens). Going further, the software that we use runs “in the cloud” and is replicated (in different platform-adapted forms) across all of the devices that we use.

Pre-emptive adaptive search: the computer listens to what I am saying, observes what I am doing, and makes guesses about what might help me – for example, by searching for and listing resources that might be relevant. If I start talking about Cezanne and Deleuze, having Cezanne’s paintings of apples ready at hand would be most useful.

Digital short term memory: the stream of events are constantly being recorded, but we don’t need a permanent record of everything, we just need to keep the important things. However, we often don’t realize that something is important right away. Having a digital short term memory allows us to at any point select the last few minutes to be permanently stored. The rest is deleted.

Digital cloud synced notebook: whichever device I am using, I can record notes, snap shots, audio recordings, links, videos into my note book. My notes are then replicated across all of my devices. I could take a snapshot on my phone, go back to my desktop, find it in my notebook, and add text to the note to expand upon the record. This is possible now using tools like Evernote.

Digital cloud synced course-pack: the resources for a course are packaged and available to students for download. The pack is then imported into their digital notebooks. They can use the materials, annotate, add to them, and share their additions. Again this is possible using Evernote, although not yet with all of the collaboration tools that we might desire.

Notifications: not a new idea, but one made more powerful as more devices become connected and access become ubiquitous. Notifications, and the ability to subscribe to channels of information are the basis for social networking (Facebook etc). We should see more flexibility in our ability to define what we want to be notified about, and how we want to receive notifications.

App-based channels: Starwalk is one of my favourite sources of information. It is an “app” (software designed to run on mobile platforms) that I have on my iPad and on my iPod Touch. It presents up-to-date astronomical information. I’m always interested to hear about new satellite launches. They get “pushed” into the app automatically over the net. I also get notifications on both devices, so I know that new information is there. The information is presented in the context of the app. I can view the locations of the new satellites in the night sky on its digital planetarium. I can use the information in ways appropriate to the field of study, afforded by the app. Increasingly, information will be presented in this contextually designed form.


That kind of rich interconnectivity, intelligence, adaptive flow, immediacy and collaborative productivity is from an entirely different world to the conventional VLE. But it’s not sci-fi. In response to the recession and to market-saturation, tech companies have been innovating with un-paralleled intensity. Who is driving these changes? Who are they targeting? Not geeks, not scientists, not James Bond. These are all consumer-oriented developments: students will become familiar with these tools in their non-academic activities faster than they are adopted in education.

These economic and competitive conditions have a second, perhaps more revolutionary potential. Consumers are becoming designers – that is to say, the rich range of options and interconnectivity means that ordinary people are starting to think about how they are constructing their information and technology capabilities. They are creating new species of cognitive agent, assembled from hardware and software choices. The success of these species is determined by many factors. They evolve and adapt, feeding back positively and negatively, and forming order through the operation of network effects. It’s not an environment. It’s a full-blown ecology, and should be treated as an Extended Learning Ecology not a Virtual Learning Environment.