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April 10, 2008

5 Years as a Web 2.0 University, presentation at Shock of the Old 7, Oxford University

Follow-up to See me live at Shock of the Old 7, Oxford University, April 3rd 2008 from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

I recently gave a presentation at the Shock of the Old 7 conference, summarising the progress made at Warwick in adopting the use of a set of web base tools and practices that could be classed as “Web 2.0”. This is the first part of a report on the presentation and the response to it. This might be of interest to anyone concerned with understanding the effects of such new technologies, as well as the viablity of a web development and e-learning support approach like that employed at Warwick.

1. The presentation

1.1 Context

Now in its seventh year, Shock of the Old has established itself as the most interesting and productive annual learning technologies conference in the UK. As usual, attendees came from many of the Russell Group universities. Oxford was of course well represented, along with delegates from Cambridge, LSE, the Institute of Education (London) and more. The theme this year was ‘Web 2.0 and the Connected Future’, with a second day follow up event on ‘Beyond Digital Natives’ (the second day has a more discursive format). I last gave a presentation at Shock in 2005, introducing the then new and quite revolutionary Warwick Blogs, with the concept of ‘guerrilla PDP’ (personal development process). In the three years since then, we have moved on considerably, with many such technologies having now become widely accepted and well used. Many other universities are only now introducing such things, perhaps with a plug-in module added to their VLE, or with semi-official support for the use of a free online service. Many more are only tentatively pondering the posibilities, still concerned about how these tools might be used by students and by staff. The conference programme brought together conservative elements with more radical propositions. Several papers and discussions expressed the common misgivings:

  • Are we overloading people with unnecessary shiny new objects?
  • How can institutional IT support such an outbreak of freedom?
  • How can we stop students saying bad things about us, doing things that are bad (for us or them)?
  • Surely all evidence demonstrates that Web 2.0 tools are leading students into making terrible mistakes?

My presentation, and several others, went some way to calming any reactionary voices. We’ve already been there, done it, and it really didn’t hurt. Furthermore, it’s worth the effort. During my talk I realised that I was saying something even more exciting: web development and Web 2.0 has matured, along with the competencies of our staff and students and our ability to support them, so now is the time to really get to work on developing web based services that work for your university. The second day of the conference ended with a debate and a vote on the proposition: ‘too many new features are being introduced too quickly’. During the debate I expressed my opinion that we are getting good at innovation. The nagative proposition was rejected by a significant majority.

1.2 An evaluation framework

My first move was to introduce the ‘evaluation framework’ that I have been developing over the last couple of years. I had expected this to polarise the audience to some degree, between two tendencies. On the one hand, asserting that a technology should simply be evaluated functionally: does it do what it’s supposed to do? Obviously that is important. The antithesis to that position maintains that things are always more complex than they seem: a technology has a non-linear relationship to the social, institutional, personal and cultural contexts within which it used, and therefore its positive or negative effects are dynamic and often intangible at the time of its use (this is a standard argument for historians and philosophers of technology, the big issue today is the speed and intensity of the dynamic). When considering a functionally broad technology with a lower degree of deterministic constraints, a technology that can be used and adapted for a wide range of purposes, clearly the latter position is more appropriate. As I argued latter in the presentation, a key aspect of Web 2.0 technologies is that people transfer them across domains (for example, a personal blog being used in formal teaching). The process of transference may have both negative and positive side-effects. For example, it may lead to a more effective and more critical understanding of a specific tool and a whole class of technologies. In most cases the side-effects are as important, if not more important, than the actual intended functionality. For example, we can ask of a tool: how does it raise the individuals competency in acquiring and applying new skills? My answer to the ‘too much new stuff’ charge is that change is good because of this side-effect (amongst others).

The evaluation framework consists of a series of four non-definitive lists, aiming to give a simple but powerful way of assessing the impact of a technology on people and the university:

1. Web 2.0 design patterns – concrete patterns of person-system-person interaction;
2. Competencies of a digital native – abilities that we can expect people to have so as to operate successfully in an environment that spans between offline and online;
3. Learning design patterns – typical patterns of activity that are employed by teachers and learners;
4. Enabling activities – a set of things that we can do with technology to positively extend the capabilities of people in a university (and beyond).

My suggestion is that we can use lists 2, 3 and 4 to evaluate the effects of real instances of 1 (and other technologies). Although I didn’t have time to carry out a comprehensive evaluation in the alloted 35 minutes, my handout containing the lists did indicate which of them were clearly supported by Warwick Blogs or Sitebuilder, and where there might be some scope for debate.

1.3 Some evidence

The introduction of the evaluation framework was followed by a screening of the 4 minute long interview that I recently carried out with Peter Kirwan, a student from the English Department who has used Warwick Blogs successfully ( he video can be viewed online ). Peter’s example demonstrated how many of the ‘enabling activities’ are possible with blogs. For example, the technology had helped to form a mutually beneficial collaboration (4.10), with Peter being invited to take part in a high-profile conference debate. The example of Peter’s blog can easily be used to show how Warwick Blogs implements most of the ‘enabling activities’ as well as sthome of the ‘learning design patterns’ whilst having the side effect of encouraging people to develop the ‘competencies of a digital native’.

1.4 Web 2.0 design patterns in Sitebuilder and Warwick Blogs

The main body of the presentation consisted of a series of ScreenFlow video screen captures, each illustrating how a different feature of Sitebuilder or Warwick Blogs implements one of the web 2.0 design patterns that I listed. For example, ‘read/write’ web was simply illustrated by the Sitebuilder WYSIWYG editor (although even that basic feature impressed the audience). Each ScreenFlow was introduced, accompanied by a commentary, and concluded with some points relating it to the evaluation framework (although in no real depth due to the time constraint). Two of the design patterns were used to raise interesting questions about the fit (or lack of) between the new technologies and the practices of academia.

Sitebuilder can be used as a Wiki, but rarely is. In fact there’s still not much application of the wiki pattern in teaching and learning at Warwick. Wikis, I suggested, employ a membership model in which the content of a page belongs to all of the participants, who are themselves ‘members’ of the page or more widely the site. The traditional (and very successful) read/write web pattern tends to see a page as belonging to an individual. Indeed its hard to think of any pages in Sitebuilder (beyond department home pages) that are not the work of a single author (perhaps with a few minor corrections and updates from others). Furthermore, few knowledge objects in a traditional university are authored through a membership model rather than an ownership model (or an author/editor model). Our assessment and authorisation processes tend to focus on the individual owner-author.

Another challenging pattern is the ‘folksonomy’ or ‘tagsonomy’: collaborative tagging. I demonstrated an instance of collaborative tagging using Sitebuilder. The History department created a schema of tags that they then applied to all of their many web paged. I then created a keyword search interface. Here is the video that I used to show this:

I suggested that the rather high number of distinct tags used in Warwick Blogs (almost 19,000) might actually be a bad sign. There are few instances of collaborative tagging, and certainly no instances that I know of where a whole schema has been used. This prompted an interesting discussion (see questions below).

My intention had been to spend some time examining another impressive example of how these design patterns are enhancing the epistemography (knowledge-landscape-process) of students at Warwick: ePortfolios. Unfortunately, I had to skip this part of the presentation, as it looked as if a longer than expected discussion was being prompted.

1.5 Impressive results

I ended with the conclusion: Warwick has become a Web 2.0 university. What do I mean by that? Not simply that we have a love of shiny objects, or even that we have implemented Web 2.0 design patterns as central to key activities, or that we have made them available to the entire university membership. Rather, it is the way in which we have grown a digitally native membership, capable of taking these tools and using them in their own ways for their own purposes; but more, they then pass on those results through their own networks, and back to the developers/designers/advisors with ideas for new directions; and the developers/designers/advisors themselves go further, learn more, find new and better ways of doing the ‘enabling activities’. That level of engagement seems to be unique in a UK university. I ended with statistics: the thousands of Sitebuilder editors, the 105,000 blog entries, the 80 members of staff who came to a podcasting workshop last year, and most importantly, the extraordinarily low incidence of problems generated by that mass of activity.

1.6 Questions

Having blasted through quite a lot of material in half an hour, the discussion that followed is now a bit of a blur in my mind. I recall a lively discussion, and some really good questions. I do remember that the questions led me in to making more explicit the benefits of doing it the Warwick way. I repeated my belief that the investment has been worth it, given that we have generated a huge amount of knowledge, established a world-class development team, and created a population of digital natives. Three questions were particularly memorable:

Why did you build it yourself? Why not use the many free services now online? Or why not open source? – I will answer this fully in the second part of my report (coming soon).

How do you provide training for these thousands of people? Answer: we provide a range of training and consultation services, including formal training sessions, departmental sessions and individual task-oriented consultations. However, many thousands of people have acquired their skills independently, or within their own informal networks. Three factors contribute to this being a viable approach. Firstly, the software is really well designed. It uses familiar and usually intuitive design patterns. It separates out the basic functionality required to get important tasks done from more complex advanced functionality. Secondly, the abilities of our members has grown progressively with the web applications – they are attaining the digital native competencies and hence becoming more independent and capable. Finally, we have encouraged our members to help each other, to share their learning, to develop support networks within their own groupings (for example, at the departmental level).

Does 19,000 Warwick Blogs distinct tags really indicate a problem? I was challenged on my claim that a large number of tags means little collaboration. I responded by saying that I know of very few instances in which a tag has been consciously created by a group (there are a few cases where we have invented a tag to be used in a teaching context). I’m sure there are no cases in which a schema of related tags, forming a taxonomy, has been invented or even used. Taxonomical classification is important in many academic subjects. My presentation was followed by Dr Annamaria Carusi of the Oxford e-Research Centre. Annamaria concentrated upon the sciences, and demonstrated some subject specific systems that use keyword tagging. However, she seemed to confirm that it is a complicated and diverse business, requiring more research to understand current practices and possible developments.

In part 2 of this report I will look in more detail at the question: why do it yourself?