New digital spaces - pushing the boundaries into the
unknown; trajectories of user behaviour in new frontiers
Paper for Ascilite Keynote Presentation,
Auckland, 8th December 2009
Gráinne Conole, The Open University, UK
In this paper and associated keynote presentation I want to explore new digital
spaces through the lens of analysis of the patterns of user behaviour which are
emerging in a new social networking site (Cloudworks) for sharing and
discussing learning and teaching ideas.
I will begin by casting an eye over the current digital landscape and will argue
that we need to redefine our understanding of ICT (Information and
Communications Technologies). I will argue that we are seeing changes in
practice arising as a result, which have profound implications for education. I will
focus on some paradoxes caused by the nature and underlying force of change
inherent in this digital landscape and then consider the specific educational
dilemmas, which arise as a result. I will draw on a range of recent foresight and
future trend reports, case studies of web 2.0 practices in education and a number
of theoretical commentaries on cyberspace.
Having set the scene, I then consider a case study intervention, which is
attempting to harness the power of new technologies and in particular web 2.0
practices for an educational context; specifically as a means of facilitating greater
discussion and sharing of learning and teaching ideas. The case study is the
Cloudworks site, which we have developed as part of our broader OU Learning
Design Initiative (http://cloudworks.ac.uk). An overview of Cloudworks will be
provided, along with a definition of key concepts associated with the site. I will
argue that Cloudworks is occupying a new niche in the landscape of web 2.0
technologies and that we are seeing new emergent patterns of behaviour on the
site. Finally I will consider the theoretical basis underpinning the development of
the site and will introduce the evolving theoretical framework we are using to
describe and understand patterns of behaviour in the site.
The case study provides an instance of practice; the issues and themes
associated with it are however transferable and give us insights into how we
might more generally harness new technologies in an educational context. To
conclude I will outline what I think are some of the grand challenges associated
with this area of research. Challenges we need to address if we are to keep
abreast of the pace of technological change and colonise these new digital
territories before others colonise them!
A changing digital landscape
There can be little doubt that digital technologies now infiltrate all aspects of our
lives; electronic plane tickets, ubiquitous wifi, and the miraculous i-phone are
basics not luxuries. Most of us have an expectation of a certain level of digital
connectivity; and indeed rely on it, feeling cheated and feeling that we are
working below par without it. The annual Horizon reports (L. Johnson et al. 2009)
show that the pace of change is unlikely to slow down, and arguably there are
more fundamental changes coming as the true impact of embracing cloud
computing (see http://cloudworks.ac.uk/index.php/cloud/view/2430 for a
discussion of the implications of cloud computing for education and a
comprehensive set of links and references) hits. A cyberlearning report from the
states (Borgman et al. 2009) considers the implications for learning and makes a
series of recommendations that have far reaching consequences for education if
they are taken up. Two recent reviews by the Institute of Perspective
Technologies Studies considered the impact of web 2.0 technologies on formal,
informal and non-formal learning contexts. This includes a database of case
studies, associated theoretical perspectives and recommendations (Redecker
2008) (Ala-Mutka 2009). De Freitas and Conole (De Freitas & Grainne Conole)
consider some of the key characteristics and trends associated with new
technologies and demonstrate how these relate to different types of pedagogical
drive (Table 1).
Table 1: Technologies and associated pedagogies (reproduced from De Freitas and Conole,
Trends in the uses of applications and tools Pedagogical drive
New Web 2.0 practices From individual to social
Location aware technologies Contextualised and situated
Adaptation & customisation Personalised learning
Virtual and immersive 3D worlds Experiential learning
Google it! Inquiry learning
User generated content Open Educational Resources
Badges, World of Warcraft Peer Learning
Blogging, peer critique Reflection
Cloud computing Distributed Cognition
They argue that:
The description above paints a picture of a rich and exciting technological environment to
support learning; with a multitude of mechanisms for: rendering content, distributing
information and communicating. There seems to be a tantalising alignment between
many of the social capabilities of the tools and practices evident with new technologies
and what has emerged as ‘good’ pedagogy in recent years.
In trying to understand and discuss these trends I adopt a socio-cultural
perspectives (Vygotsky 1978) (M. Cole et al. 1997) (Engeström et al. 1999)
(Daniels et al. 2007), as I believe the concept of mediating artefacts can help us
describe and understand how technologies are being used in mediating our
practice. Figure 1 shows a simplified representation derived from Vygostky’s
original idea of mediation; a user intent on achieve a particular goal has a range
of mediating artefacts they can draw on. Pea and Wallis (Borgman et al. 2009,
p.13) illustrate five stages of user/tool co-evolution from basic human interaction,
through the introduction of symbolic and iconic representations (such as writing
and mathematics), through the various waves of technological interventions
(radio, telephone, TV, the Internet) and finally to the current, as they describe it,
Figure 1: Mediating artefacts guiding practice
Closer scrutiny of modern technologies makes it clear that there are a plethora of
technologies that can act as Mediating Artefacts (MA); both in terms of
‘information’ and mechanisms for ‘communication’. Alongside the established
communication channels of the telephone, email, forums and texting, the
emergence of web 2.0 technologies in recent years has added blogging (and
microblogging), wikis, social networking sites and virtual worlds but also free
internet-based Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) and in particular popular tools
such as Skype which enable virtually free, internet-based communication.
Similarly information can now be distributed in multiple locations, and packaged
and presented using a range of different multimedia and visual representations.
Sophisticated repositories now exist for everything from shopping categories to
repositories of good practice and free resources. RSS feeds and email alerts
enable users to filter and personalise the information they receive. Social
bookmarking and tagging means that collective value can be added to digital
objects, concept and mind mapping, tag clouds and data-derived maps are only
some of the ways in which information can be presented in rich and multifaceted
Within this context we are seeing a number of trends:
• A shift from the web as a content repository and information mechanism to
a web that enables more social mediation and user generation of content.
• New practices of sharing (see for example: images: flckr; video: YouTube
and presentation: slideshare), and mechanisms for content production,
communication and collaboration (through blogs, wikis and micro-blogging
services such as Twitter). There are also social networking sites for
connecting people and supporting different communities of practice (such
as Facebook, Elgg and Ning).
• A network effect is emerging as a result of the quantity of information
available on the web, the multiplicity of connectivity and the scale of user
participation. New possibilities for sharing and 'network effects' that are
emergent from this new scale.
Much has been written about the characteristics of these new technologies and
in particular so called web 2.0 practices (OReilly 2005) (Alexander 2006)(P.
Anderson 2007) but for the purposes of this paper I want to focus in particular on
• Peer critiquing – the ability to openingly comment on other people’s work.
This has become standard practice within the blogosphere for instance
and is being used in general society (for example many journalists are
now active bloggers, traditional book writing is being supplemented by
writers’ blog inviting potential readers to comment on the evolving plot), by
academics (through self-reflective blogs on digital scholarship and
research ideas) and in a teaching context (with students keeping their own
reflective blogs or contributing to a collective cohort blog).
• User generated content – there are now many different tools (many free) for
creating content (ranging from those which are primarily text-based,
through to rich multi-media and interactive tools), meaning that the web is
no longer a passive media for consumption but an active, participatory,
productiion media. Sites such as YouTube, Flickr and Slideshare facilitate
simple sharing of user-generated content and embedded code
functionality means this content can be simultaneously distributed via a
range of communication channels.
• Collective aggregation - hierarchy and controlled structures make little sense
in an environment that consists of a constantly expanding body of content
that can be connected in a multitude of ways. Collective aggregation
refers both to the ways in which individuals can collate and order content
to suit their individual needs and personal preferences, as well as the
ways individual content can be enriched collectively (via tagging, multiple
distribution, etc.). Social bookmarking, tag clouds and associated
visualisation tools, tagging, RSS feeds and embedding code all enable
collective aggregation to occur.
• Community formation – clearly the connectivity and rich communicative
channels now available on the web provide an environment for supporting
a rich diversity of digital communities. Boundaries of professional and
personal identity are eroding and the notion of tightly knit Communities of
Practice (Wenger 1998) are giving way to a spectrum of communicates
from individualistic spaces through loosely bound and often transitory
collectives through to more established and clearly defined communities
(See (Dron & T. Anderson 2007) for a more specific discussion of
collectives, networks and groups in social networking for e-learning).
• Digital personas – each of us is having to define our own digital identity and
how we present ourselves across these spaces. The avatars we choose to
represent ourselves, the style of language we use and the degree to which
we are open (both professionally and personally) within these spaces, give
a collective picture of how we are viewed by others and can have
Paradoxes created by the digital
This section considers some of the paradoxes which arise as a result of new
technologies; for although clearly they have affordances which can offer new
ways of interacting and communicating, they often have unintended
consequences associated with them as well. To illustrate this subtle balance of
tensions Table 2 looks at five common effects associated with new technologies
and suggests some of the consequences or paradoxes that arise as a result.
Knowledge expansion. Firstly, it is a fact of modern society that knowledge is
expanding. Digital technologies amplify this effect by providing easy access to
information, new ways of aggregating resources and multiple ways of
disassembling and recombining information. In a world of increasing complexity
and knowledge, it is no longer possible to know everything about a domain.
Whereas a century ago a professional Chemist could have a pretty good grasp
across all the main sub-domains of Chemistry; today’s Chemist struggles to keep
up with their own area. Some celebrate this expansion, pointing to the wisdom of
the crowds where everyone had the potential to be an expertise to access and
use knowledge. Why seek the advice of a doctor, when information on any
particular set of symptoms is available in abundance on the net, from multiple
sources, described in a variety of ways? Surowiecki coined the term ‘wisdom of
the crowds’ (Surowiecki 2004) arguing that collective aggregation of information
can lead to better decisions than those any individual might make. Others caution
against this, lamenting the death of expertise. Keen in particular cautions against
the ‘cult of the amateur’ (Keen 2007):
I call it the great seduction. The Web 2.0 revolution has peddled the promise of
bringing more truth to more people – more depth of information, more global
perspective, more unbiased opinion from dispassionate observes. But this is all a
smokescreen. What the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial
observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion
rather than considered judgement.
He talks of the ‘sheer noise of a hundred million bloggers; simultaneously talking
about themselves’ and argues that we are decimating our ‘cultural gatekeepers’
(critics, journalists, editors, etc.)
Expansive knowledge domain Death of expertise/everyone an expert
Hierarchy & control less meaningful, content can be Multiple (co-)locations/loss of content integrity
distributed and located in different ways
Increasingly complex digital landscape Beyond ‘digital space’/New metaphors needed
Power of the collective, collective intelligence Social collective/digital individualism
Free content & tools, open APIs and mash ups Issues re: ownership, value, business models
Figure 2: Cause and effect in digital space
No hierarchy or control. Secondly, given the above it is also not longer possible (or
advisable) to try and categorise and control. The long held tradition of catalogues
is being eroded. It no longer has meaning or value in a fragmented digital space.
Weinberger’s book ‘Everything is Miscellaneous’ (Weinberger 2007) describes
how we have shifted from physical objects, which require space and a unique
location to digital objects, which can be fragmented and multi-located. So for
example a physical book has to be stored in one place, on one shelf at any one
time, the digital equivalent can not only be located in multiple places, but can be
disaggregated and indeed partially combined with other digital artefacts. This
offers greater flexibility in how the ‘book’ can be used and how it can be located.
A downside is the increased complexity this brings, and in particular there is a
danger that content will lose its integrity.
Thirdly, the general increasingly complex digital landscape is challenging our
existing vocabularies and means of description. The very terms digital spaces
and landscapes hark back to a time when the digital was considered as a mere
extension of the real. Terms such as ‘virtual universities’ and ‘virtual cafés’ give
the impression of the digital as a ‘bounded place’. Whereas the kinds of patterns
of behaviour we are now seeing in the digital realm, the distribution of content
and tools, the multi-faceted and inter-connected nature of the digital means that
the vocabulary of ‘time’ and ‘space’ is no longer adequate. We need new
vocabularies and metaphors to describe what is happening. I have argued
There is a need for new approaches to help navigate through the digital
environment and also to help make sense of it and the impact it is having on our
lives. Simplistic descriptions of the digital environment replicating physical
spaces are no longer appropriate, it is necessary to take a more holistic view and
describe technologies and users together emphasising the connections between
them (Conole, 2008).
And put forward two addition dimensions to the existing use of spatial and
temporal concepts; namely functional and connected (Gráinne Conole 2008).
Fourthly, as touched upon above, a key feature of web 2.0 technologies is the
power of the collective; the potential to tap into a collective mass. This suggests
‘expertise at one’s fingertips’ as well as a collective endeavour to tackle
problems, where the ‘sum will be greater than the individual parts’ – why tackle
an issue with one mind, when one can use hundreds or thousands, with different
perspectives and different types of expertise? This gives rise to the concept of
‘collective intelligence’ i.e. a shared or group intelligence that emerges from the
collaboration and competition of many individuals. Although this is a well-
established field of enquiry, the sheer capacity of the Internet means that huge
numbers of people can now work together on a shared problem, as the same
time utilising the vast quantity of information and tools available on the Internet.
Levy for example argues that
The evolution of contemporary technology, primarily communications
technologies, suggests other approaches [to maximising the enhancement of
human quality’s], which were inconceivable ten or twenty years ago. This will
profoundly affect the range of possible solutions to the problems of managing the
social bond and maximizing human qualities. (Levy 1997, p.40)
However this social collective co-exists with what Wellman terms networked
individualism (Wellman 2001), i.e. the notion that there is a shift away from tightly
bound groups to loosely knit networks of individuals.
Finally the apparent utopian drive towards an internet where tools and content
are free, and where open source principles, Application Profile Initiatives (APIs)
and mash ups appear to offer an evolving, collectively improved set of content
and tools, which can be used in a multitude of ways, may not be all that clear cut.
Such practices challenge existing ideas around quality and ownership and do not
fit in with current Business Models for commoditising knowledge. This suggests
there is far more to do in terms of understanding these and redefining our ideas
around ownership, quality and business models.
Having given a general overview so far, I now want to concentrate on what are
the implications of all this in an educational context. I argue in this section that
the above trends and paradoxes give rise to some specific dilemmas for
education. Table 3 reconsiders the causes outlined in the last section, but now
focuses specifically on what educational dilemmas arise as a result.
The expansion of the knowledge domain and the consequential ‘death of the
expert’ naturally challenges the traditional role of a teacher. It can no longer be
assumed that the teacher is expert or that the focus should be on transmission of
knowledge. Whilst such a shift away from didactic to constructivist approaches
has been a dominant discourse in education for many years, the Internet as
amplifier of this cannot be underestimated. Multi-located/fragmented content and
the potential for multiple pathways through content have an impact on how
educational interventions are designed. And although such multiplicity offers
increased choice, in an educational context this also has the potential to lead to
confusion. Hence there is an opportunity for teachers to play an important new
role in terms of providing pedagogically grounded learning pathways, to help
learners navigate their way through this complexity. The digital divide has long
been a prominent topic of debate in educational technology research
(Warschauer 2004) (P. Norris 2001)(C. Norris et al. 2003). However with the
increasingly complexity of the digital landscape the gap between the ‘tech savvy’
teachers and students and those who are not engaged is ever deeper. This is
exacerbated particularly because you don’t really ‘get’ web 2.0 technologies
without engaging with them. A definition of Twitter and even a hands-on
demonstration does not really help you fully understand the power of the tool.
Technically Twitter is simple; type in 140 characters and press return, but in
reality practical use of Twitter requires you to understand how to appropriate it for
your own use, to adapt it to your own style or ’digital voice’. Twitter is also about
being part of a wider network, so is only any use if you are connected to
(following) people you are interested in.
The power of the collective has clear potential in a learning context. The ability to
connect with others opens up the potential for dialogic and situated learning, but
also inquiry-based learning. Twitter for example enables you to have ‘just-in-time’
learning moments. As a learner of Spanish this has happened to me on
numerous occasions. I can post a query – such as ‘Should I use estar or ser
when saying I am a teacher?’ and in moments I am likely to have 3 or 4 good
explanations of which is correct. Similarly aggregating tools such as social
bookmarking can be used collectively by a student cohort to gather and comment
on course-related resources. The user-focussed, participatory nature of web 2.0
practices has immense potential educationally, for shifting the locus of control
from the teacher to the learner, and for enabling constructivist pedagogical
approaches. Finally a paradox; despite the wealth of free educational resources
and tools that are now available it is sobering to note that in reality these are not
used extensively. It seems that the web 2.0 revolution has not yet hit education.
The reasons for this lack of uptake are complex and multi-faceted but to a large
extent are because teachers do not have the necessary skills to take advantage
of the affordances of new technologies. The next section considers what these
skills are and what it means to be digital literate.
Cause Educational dilemma
Expansive knowledge domain Challenges the role of the teacher
Hierarchy & control less meaningful, content can be Need to rethink the design process, offers the
distributed and located in different ways potential for new learner pathways,
Increasingly complex digital landscape Widening skills gap between ‘tech savy’/others
Power of the collective, collective intelligence Potential for new forms of learning
Free content & tools, open APIs and mash ups Little evidence of uptake
Figure 3: Education dilemmas arises as a consequence of new technologies
Lankshear and Knobel provide a useful summary of the way in which the term
‘digital literacies’is being used. (Lankshear & Knobel 2006). Definitions include ‘
the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide
variety of sources when it is presented via computers’ (Gilster cited in Lanksear
and Knoble, 2006). Goodfellow argues that this is much more complex term:
with strands and tribes like: multiliteracies, situated literacies, new literacy
studies, academic literacies, digital literacies, etc. etc. (See broader discussion
of which this is part at http://cloudworks.ac.uk/cloud/view/2669)
John Seely-Brown has written extensively on the topic of digital literacies (Brown
2000)(Brown 2001). He describes a number of shifts in terms of the nature of
how digitally savvy kids learn (Figure 4) (Brown 2001, p.71).
Figure 4: Reproduced from Brown, 2001: 71
The first is concerned with the evolving nature of literacy, from text-based
through to rich multimedia environments. This includes not only being able to
interpret these multimedia environments but also being able to interact with them
and to navigate around them. The second is the shift from authority-based
learning to learning through experiential learning and discovery. The third is
about reasoning, young leaner have a rich array of resources available to them
via the web and so can use these to develop their understanding. They can
triangulate different definitions of a concept with concrete examples. The final
dimension is related to the fact that young learners tend to learn by doing; they
don’t read a manual, instead they learn by trial and error, by trying things out. In
other words they learn in situ, with and from each other.
Therefore it is evident that ‘digital literacies’ are much more than simply being
about understanding information available in a digital context. It is also about
skills of interpretation of multiple representations, the ability to develop a holistic
and interconnected perspective and to understand how to be part of and interact
with a wider participatory community.
In a recent white paper, ‘Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture:
Media Education for the 21st Century’ Jenkins argues that there are twelve skills
needed for full engagement in today's participatory culture:
• Play - the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of
• Performance - the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of
improvisation and discovery
• Simulation - the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world
• Appropriation - the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
• Multitasking - the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed
to salient details
• Distributed Cognition - the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that
expand mental capacities
• Collective Intelligence - the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with
others toward a common goal
• Judgment - the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different
• Transmedia Navigation - the ability to follow the flow of stories and
information across multiple modalities
• Networking - the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
• Negotiation - the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and
respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative
• Visualization - the ability to interpret and create data representations for the
purposes of expressing ideas, finding patterns, and identifying trends (Jenkins
This list clearly shows the multifaceted nature of digital literacies. Jenkins defines
participatory culture as being about involvement and participation, about being
able to create and share work and about peer mentorship and support. He goes
on to suggest that this has immense potential educationally; providing
opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, diverse cultural expression, skills
development across different contexts and a changing attitude to the notion of
intellectual property. Furthermore he indicates that embracing this participatory
culture is essential:
Access to this culture functions as a new form of the hidden curriculum, shaping
which youth will succeed and which will be left behind as they enter school and the
Cloudworks: a case study intervention
Having set the scene in terms of the nature of today’s digital landscape and the
implications for learning and teaching, I now want to focus on one of the most
fundamental challenges facing education. How do we bridge the gap between
the potential of new technologies and their actual use (or lack of use) in practice?
I am going to do that by describing a case study intervention which is attempting
to bridge this gap, namely the development of a social networking site
(Cloudworks) for supporting sharing and discussion of learning and teaching
The site is attempting to address three inter-related issues:
• The lack of uptake of technologies for learning and teaching (despite the
fact as outline above that they have immense potential)
• The new skills needed for engaging in a participatory digital landscape
• When asked the question ‘what do you need in order to make better use
of new technologies in your teaching?’ teachers invariably say they want
examples and they want to be able to share and discuss their ideas with
Cloudworks has been developed to attempt to tackle these issues and to bridge
the gap between the potential of technologies and their actual use in an
educational context. Our overarching research question is: Can we harness web
2.0 practices to foster better sharing and discussing of learning and teaching
ideas and designs? Development of the site began in February 2007 with a
vision statement of what we were trying to achieve:
We plan to develop a website to foster the growth of an evolving set of user-
contributed learning design tools, resources and examples of learning activities.
We aim for the site to be used by Open University course teams who want to
collaborate on aspects of the design of their courses as well as by people
outside. We want to promote the community-based aspect of the site both as a
place for people to showcase their designs and related work, and also as place
to obtain inspiration and share advice when creating new designs. We believe
that different people will want to use a variety of different tools for designing
learning activities in different contexts and at different stages of the design
process, and therefore that the site should not be tied to any specific tool but
allow people a choice of formats for design (such as CompendiumLD maps,
LAMS sequences and text-based formats).
Three principles have guided our work. Firstly that it was essential that the
ongoing development of the site should be user-centred. This is because
participation in web 2.0 environments is still very much in its infancy. Patterns of
user behaviour are constantly changing, as users and technologies co-evolve.
Therefore we need to also co-evolve the site; to focus on how users interact in
Cloudworks and to watch and analyse emerging patterns of behaviour. Secondly,
we began with a clear theoretical underpinning to guide our developments. We
reviewed existing web 2.0 technologies and distilled out the fundamental patterns
of behaviour. We looked to research commentary in educational technology on
the changing nature of digital spaces, as well as more broadly at relevant socio-
cultural literature. Thirdly our approach is ethnographic in nature. We want to
gain a holistic understanding of the use of the site, in situ. We are part of the
evolving development of the site, acting as both researchers and participants.
Critically reflecting not only on the way others are engaging in the site, but also in
the way we ourselves are using it and what our associated perceptions are.
Our methodology is essentially rich evaluation with elements of virtual
ethnography. In terms of the development of the site we are adopting an agile
development approach (Cockburn, 2001). The site was initially developed in
Drupal, a content management system (http://drupal.org), but in June of this year
it was completely rebuilt using a PHP framework called Codeigniter. To date we
have undergone three design phases. Each has been associated with a series of
design decisions. Further information on this and on the associated evaluation of
each design phase is available in a recent Computers and Education paper
(Gráinne Conole & Culver n.d.). Table 5 summarises the design decisions for
each phase, along with highlights from the evaluation.
Design decision Key evaluation points
1.1 Cloud metaphor • Issues around privacy and provenance of
1.2 Initial content population of the site content on the site
1.3 Include social features • How is the site going to become self
1.4 Tagging within categories sustainable? What will motivate people to use it?
1.5 Low barrier to entry • Insights into some of the barriers to sharing,
1.6 No private content people were reluctance to add in their own
1.7 User profiles designs
1.8 Cloud types • There was little evidence of spontaneous use of
the site, it was essentially acting as a content
2.1 Amalgamate cloud types • Still a lack of spontaneous used, but more
2.2 Increase social features evidence of activity when the site was used for a
2.3 Cloudscapes specific event such as a conference or a
2.4 Follow functionality workshop
2.5 My cloudstream • Navigation of the site was becoming a real issue
• There were still concerns about how the site was
going to be quality controlled and managed
3.1 Add RSS feeds • Beginning to see new patterns of user behaviour
3.2 Integrate streams from other web 2.0 sites • Still divided views on adopting an open approach
3.3 Merge the tag categories • Cognitive barrier to getting use to and then using
3.4 Make the home page more visible it
Significant increase in use of the site as a result
of new look and feel and increased functionality
Figure 5: Design decisions and associated evaluation for Cloudworks
In terms of data collection we are using a rich set of data to capture the
experiences and patterns of behaviour occurring on the site. This includes web
stats across all the activities occurring on the site (total number of registered
users, number of clouds, number of cloudscapes, number of links, references
and embedded content added, and number of comments posted. For each of
these we differentiate between the activities we as a research team have created
and activities generated by other users of the site. This enables us to track the
extent to which we are directing site activities. Ultimately the aim is to achieve
self-sustainability on the site, such that on going user is directed by those others
than us. Encouragingly we are see positive evidence that this is indeed
happening. In addition to the stats we generate ourselves about specific features
of the site, we are also using google analytics. Amongst other things this enables
us to track usage of the site over time, as well as the total number of unique
visitors, pages visits and requests made, and the origin of those using the site. At
key points in the development of the site we have undertaken interviews and
focus groups around specific themes and also run a series of specialised focus
groups, which we term ‘cloudfests’. These are sessions where users evaluate
existing clouds in the site and then discuss barriers and enablers to getting
greater uptake and use of the site. We are using the site extensively at a range of
workshops and conferences and using feedback from these events to improve
the site. We have a critical friend group who meet with us once every six months
and a broader expert group of peers who we bring together periodically to
discuss some of the wider challenges with trying to do this type of research. Our
own use of the site and critical reflection on this use is also an important part of
our overall strategy. We keep detailed observation notes and reflective diaries to
capture this aspect.
Our approach is fundamentally socio-cultural in nature. We see cloudworks as a
valuable mediating artefact to help guide discussion and sharing of learning and
teaching ideas. Adopting a socio-cultural approach also helps clarify that we
recognise the importance of the situated nature of use and ongoing evolution of
the site. It emphasizes both the context and constraints associated with the site.
Initially we drew on two theoretical insights to help framework this work (See
(Gráinne Conole & Culver 2009) for a more detail account of this.
The first is the notion of ‘social objects’ put forward by Engeström. We wanted
Cloudworks to be object-centred rather than ego-centred, i.e. that the focus
should be on the topic/the learning and teaching idea or design rather than on
people. This is in contrast to ego-centric sites such as Elgg. Engeström (2005)
argues for the need to adopt an approach to social networking based on ‘object
orientated sociality’. He focuses on the notion of social objects, arguing that:
The term 'social networking' makes little sense if we leave out the objects that
mediate the ties between people. Think about the object as the reason why
people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone…
Engeström contends that the definition of a social network as ‘a map of the
relationships between people’ is inadequate.
The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They're
not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.
He argues that this can be used as a basis for understanding why some social
networks are successful whilst others fail. He provides examples of successful
social networking sites built around social objects – such as Flickr (photos),
Del.icio.us (bookmarks/urls) and sites such as ‘Eventful’ (eventful.com) where the
objects are events. He puts forward object-orientated sociality as a mechanism
for helping us to identify new objects that might be used as the basis for
developing new social networking services.
The second is the work of Bouman et al. who have developed a design
framework based on sociality. We are using their work as a means of supporting
user engagement on the site and long-term sustainability. They argue that
sociality cannot be designed but only designed for, and offer the framework as a
checklist for guiding the design process. Core to their approach are a number of
assumptions. Firstly, that the system needs to accommodate both the evolution
of practices and the inclusion of newcomers. Secondly, that individual identity is
important so there needs to be a mechanism to enable the development of
identities. Thirdly they argue that people are more inclined to use software
systems that resemble their daily routines, language and practices than to adopt
whole new concepts, interfaces and methods, which suggests that metaphors
and structures that mimic real life practices are likely to be more successful. The
framework is based on four design domains: enabling practice, mimicking reality,
building identity and actualising self.
In the realm of enabling practice, a designer is faced with the task to create
facilities that enable the support of a practice that exists or could exist within the
social group that is the intended audience of the social software system. In the
realm of mimicking reality, a designer faces the challenges of finding or creating
metaphors that relate to the empirical world. In the realm of building identity, the
designer’s job is to provide the user community with the mechanisms that allow
for the development of an online identity. Finally, in the realm of actualizing self,
a designer needs to create the mechanisms that allow users to tap into the
collective wisdom and experience and use it for their own benefit, learning
processes and actualization. (Bouman et al., 2007: 14)
For each of these domains there is a set of design criteria, principles and
parameters. For example in terms of enabling practice the design criteria are
based around the fact that users value social software that adds value in terms of
enabling or creating practices that are important to them. The design criteria for
mimicking reality are about use of mechanisms and metaphors associated with
ordinary real life. For building identity social criteria are important – in terms of
building trust and creating a sense of belonging. Finally for actualizing self it is
about aligning with individual interests, addressing the question ‘what does this
software do for me?’ They also suggest that there are associated design
dilemmas for each of the domains, for example whilst it is useful to mimic existing
practices and use real life metaphors, there is also a need to shift and change
practice. This is particular pertinent to our work.
An overview of the Cloudworks site
Having described our methodological approach and theoretical basis
underpinning Cloudworks, this section will give a brief overview of the site.
Figure 6 shows the homepage of the site. In addition to the navigation panel at
the top there are four main areas. On the right hand side active ‘clouds’ (Clouds
are the core of Cloudworks, a Cloud can be anything to do with learning and
teaching; key concepts associated with the site will be given below) are listed.
These are topics that have been particularly active in the last two weeks, with lots
of discussion or addition of links and resources. You can see that the list of topics
is wide ranging from the role of backchannels such as Twitter at conferences to a
description of an icebreaker activity. Below this recent postings to the
Cloudworks blog are listed, this include articles on current development activities,
as well as accounts of how the site is being used. On the left hand side there is a
section called ‘Featured Cloudscapes’ (these are groups of Clouds around a
particular purpose or community interest). Underneath this is the activity stream
for the site. This shows the latest activities on the site, new clouds or
cloudscapes, recent comments or links/references which have been added. The
navigation panel at the top includes links to a browsable list of clouds,
cloudscapes, tags and people. Underneath this is a red box. If the user is logged
in this has their name on it. This enables a user to edit their profile, set the level
of email alerts they want to receive from the site and access their own personal
Figure 6: The Cloudworks homepage
There are four key concepts associated with the site:
• Clouds are the core objects of the site. A cloud can be anything to do with
learning and teaching. So it might be a short description of some teaching
practice. ‘Last week I had my students working in a wiki; the aim was to
collectively produce a report. Each student researched different aspects of
the topic and then they came together collectively to produce the report on
the wiki’. This kind of short description mimics the ‘coffee conversations’ that
is such a core part of teacher practice. Sharing ideas, short snippets of
practice is a very valuable way that teachers get new ideas and develop their
practice. A cloud could also be a more detailed case study or design. It could
include some form of formal representation such as a visual learning design
or a pedagogical pattern. A cloud can also be a description of a resource or
tool and how it can be used in learning and teaching. For example at the
moment there are a lot of clouds in the site about Twitter and how it can be
used in teaching. When the Google Wave invites were circulated a cloud
discussion on first impressions about Google Wave and how it might be used
in teaching quickly emerged. Finally a cloud could be a question or a problem.
This might be in the form of a problem someone is seeking answers to or a
more general statement opening up debate. Clouds are social, they can be
commented on. Clouds can be collectively developed in a number of ways.
Firstly anyone can add additional content or embedded content (such as
YouTube videos, Slideshare presentations or Flickr images) to the core cloud.
Links and academic references can also be added and the cloud can be
improved through the descriptive tags associated with it. So clouds are social,
collective and cumulative in nature.
• Cloudscapes are collections of clouds around a particular purpose. This could
be associated with an event – for example a conference or a workshop.
Alternatively a cloudscape might be around a particular community of interest
– a research theme, a student cohort or a course team. Clouds are mobile, so
a cloud can belong to more than one cloudscape. For example, a cloudscape
might be set up for a conference on mobile learning. A cloud might be created
and added to the cloudscape on a session at the conference where someone
is describing how they are using say iphones with students. Someone else
might set up a cloudscape for a workshop on mobile learning and add this
cloud. A third cloudscape on issues to do with researching mobile learning
might also include the same cloud. So the same object appears in three
different places, serving different purposes. But all the collective intelligence
associated with the cloud travels with it; i.e. all the comments, embedded
content, links and references.
• Activity streams are dynamic filters of new activity. There are four types of
activity streams. The first is the public activity stream, which is shown on the
homepage of the site. This lists all recent activity on the site. There is a tab
view of the activity stream so that you can see everything or just the latest
activities around a particular aspect of the site (i.e clouds, cloudscapes,
comments, links, references and extra content). The second type are the
activity streams associated with cloudscapes, again these are tabbed and
they show all the latest activities associated with a particular cloudscape. The
third type are the activity streams associated with an individual and their latest
activity on the site. These appear on a user’s profile page. The final type is an
individual personal activity stream, this shows any activities associated with
things (cloudscapes and/or people) that a person has chosen to follow.
• Follow and be followed – it is possible to ‘follow’ both people and cloudscapes,
this has a duel function in terms of acting as a form of peer recognition in the
site and also technically anything a user follows is added to their personal
We want to ensure that the site can be tailored to an individual’s personal
preference but also want to encourage serendipity, the accidental coming across
things. In terms of filtering or personlisation there are a number of mechanisms
for achieving this. Firstly there are RSS feeds associated with both people and
cloudscapes. Secondly it is possible to set up different levels of email alerts,
ranging from being emailed when there is anything new on the site to being
alerted to changes on clouds you have created. As described above the different
types of activity streams are another way of filtering what you look at on the site.
We have included four mechanisms for encouraging serendipitous engagement
with the site. The ten most active clouds are listed on the home page. These are
clouds that have had the most activity in the last two weeks. They give an
indication of what are current topics of interest. We also include feature
cloudscapes on the homepage, these are picked based on areas of the site that
we know have a lot of current activity and/or interest. It’s also possible to browse
around the site – to browse clouds, cloudscapes, tags or people. Finally content
can be found via a simple search box.
In addition to our original vision statement discussed earlier there are a number
of principles and a particular culture of participation associated with the site.
These have helped to shape our focus and give the site its own distinct identity.
Firstly, we adhere strongly to the notion of openness, there are now closed,
private spaces on the site, everything can be viewed by anyone, without them
even having to log into the site. We believe this is important if the site is to truly
harness the full potential of web 2.0 practices. We also feel that there are already
numerous mechanisms for having private debate – forums, password protected
blogs and wiki, etc., so why replicate these spaces in cloudworks? We started
with the notion of the site being object- rather than ego-centred with clouds as
our core social objects. This is probably the most fundamental design principle
associated with the site. Coupled to this is the idea of clouds growing and being
collectively improved by the community. So clouds are social, cumulative and
intelligent. We have intentionally built the site around the notion of ‘communities’
or ‘clusters of interest’ with the cloudscapes functionality. This enables clouds to
be aggregated together in different ways for different purposes. The cross-
boundary nature of the site is we think one of its distinctive features – we are
seeing dialogue occurring across different ends of the educational spectrum and
between different disciplines; the duality of filtering and serendipity helps develop
this cross-boundary behaviour. The site is designed to be dynamic and evolving
(and hence self-sustaining). It’s used around both real events as well as virtual
ones is particular valuable in this respect. And finally although we are seeing a
variety of different types of activities and uses of the site (some of these will be
discussed below), it is encouraging to note that the generic focus of these fits
with our original vision statement, i.e. that the site is a place to share and discuss
educational ideas. This focus has emerged naturally, we do not have to police or
monitor the site in any way.
Some statistics and use of the site
We have over 26,000 unique visitors to the site, with about 1,600 registered
users from an impressive 143 countries! Users come from across the educational
spectrum (K-12, the tertiary sector and independent). They include teachers,
researchers, educational technologists, support staff, policy makers, researchers
and learners. As is typical with other social networking sites there is an inverse
exponential curve of use; the majority of users lurk (and may not even register
with the site), the next level of participation is creating an account, the next
adding links or comments, then creating clouds and finally cloudscapes. Table 7
provides a snapshot of some recent statistics for the site.
Aspect Everyone Team Non-team
Cloudscapes 142 58 84
Clouds 1557 1014 543
Comments 2378 786 1592
Links 2021 1371 650
Figure 7: Some statistics on use of the site
Use of the site has really taken off since we launched a new design in July 2009
and included a whole set of new functionality (such as the ability to add links and
academic references and the various activity streams). Over the past few months
we have started to see really interesting new patterns of user behaviour emerge.
There are four in particular I will draw out here:
• Events: conferences and workshops. The use of cloudworks around events has
been a strong feature of the site for some time, but has really picked up in
recent months. A nice example is the cloudscape that was set up and used
for an Educational Technology User Group (ETUG) Learning Design
workshop (http://cloudworks.ac.uk/index.php/cloudscape/view/1903). The
workshop ran over two days (20 21 October 2009). The cloudscape was
used as a pre-conference space to aggregate workshop resources and
provide shared space for the presenter and the organisers to co-construct the
workshop. It was used extensively during the workshop, to live blog sessions,
summarise discussion, answer questions around workshop activities,
aggregate resources and summarise the reflection evaluation of the
• Discussions: Flash debates. Since September the site has been used to support
what we are terming ‘flash debates’. The first of these was a cloud ‘Is Twitter
killing blogging?’ This was set up following a tweet on this topic. Quickly the
cloud became a shared space for people to discuss the topic and to
aggregate resources. Many of them then went to their own personal websites
such as blogs to write more individual reflective pieces, posting links back in
the cloud. So cloudworks acted as a valuable connector between twitter and
individual blogs and seem to fill a new niche space to complement other web
2.0 tools. A cloudscape of flash debates has now been set up and there are a
number of very interesting discussions, including one on the changing nature
of conferences (http://cloudworks.ac.uk/cloud/view/2577) and another on
backchannels at conferences.
• Eliciting expertise and open reviews. People are also beginning to use cloudworks
as a space for undertaking initial desk research. A recent example is a
cloudscape that has been set up around a literature review of Web 2.0 use in
Higher Education (http://cloudworks.ac.uk/index.php/cloudscape/view/1895).
The research focus for the review has been outlined and individual clouds set
up for each specific aspects. The cloud owner uses the space to add relevant
references as she finds them, but others are also adding references and
some rich debates are also happening around some of the questions.
• Aggregating resources. In a simple way cloudworks is also being used as an
alternative social bookmarking tool, as a space to aggregate relevant
resources around a topic. See for example the cloudscape on ‘Personalising
formal learning with technology’
Evolving theoretical framework
As a result of the emergence of these new patterns of user behaviour we have
returned to our theoretical basis and although the concepts of ‘social objects’ and
‘the framework for sociality’ are still proving useful we have found that we want to
explore additional theoretical perspectives in order to gain a richer insight into
what these patterns of behaviour mean. Recently we have submitted a paper to
next year’s Networked Learning Conference (Alevizou, et al. n.d.) that is
exploring three theoretical perspectives in particular:
• Ritual performance (Goffman, 1974). In the paper we argue that
Participants within Cloudworks come to the site through a range of
communicative tools (IM, twitter, blogs, institutional sites, public and private
mailing lists), and interact in several physical and virtual spaces (workshops and
conferences). While examining the detail of the media ecology that promotes
‘traffic’ and supports development within the site is beyond the scope of this
paper, here we would like to draw attention to possible directions that could
analyse the ways in which participants frame their communication based on their
perceived audience, contexts of interaction/contribution and the dynamics of
• Collective intelligence (see for example Lévy, 1998). In the paper we argue that:
The idea of collective intelligence (CI) as a social pool for mobalising the sharing
of resources, perceptions formal and informal knowledge(s) is also seen as an
alternative source to the power or mainstream media, both in terms of
interpretation and production: Inspired by Lévy, Henry Jenkins, the new media
and digital literacies scholar, argues that collective intelligence involves
‘consumption as a collective process’ – a process that involves ‘learning to use
that power through our day-to-day interactions with convergent culture’ (2006: 4).
Most importantly CI is part of a new set of critical literacy skills for navigating and
participating in digital networked landscapes.
• Expansive learning (Engeström, 1987). As outlined above we adopt a socio-
cultural perspective. In the networked learning paper we are beginning to
explore in particular how Engeström’s notion of expansive learning might be
applied to cloudworks. Specifically we think this could be helpful in terms of
explaining how cloudworks is being used in ‘learning events’ such as
workshops, conferences or the use of the site specifically for formal learning
The case study provides a contextual example of application of web 2.0 practices
in an educational context. What is particular interesting to me is the way in which
we are beginning to see new patterns of user behaviour, but also that
Cloudsworks appears to have colonised a particular niche in the dynamically
evolving ecology of web 2.0 space. As described in this paper understanding
such a complex and evolving system is both methodologically and theoretically
challenging. We have to adopt a multifaceted rich approach to date collection.
Theoretically we are beginning to explore a range of perspectives and beginning
to bring these together to provide new insights about the site and how it is
It’s certainly very satisfying to see the way in which the site has taken off in the
past few months and to see evidence to suggest that it is genuinely becoming
self-sustaining and acting as a valuable (and distinct space) for people to share
and discuss learning and teaching ideas. We are also pleased to see that it is
finding a space alongside other tools such as twitter and blogs. There appears to
be a genuine buzz around the use of the site now and we are seeing the
emergence of ‘Cloudworks champions’ who are colonising particular parts of the
We have a long list of developments planned, including making the site open
source, developing a cloudworks API, including some form of voter or
recommendation system and having a version for mobile devices. We will
continue to extensively research the use of the site and intend to work up and
test out our evolving theoretical framework.
So broadening the debate out again, what are some of the grand challenges that
face education within this context of an ever richer technologically enhanced
context? The following five I think are particularly important:
• The digital divide between the tech savvy and non-tech savvy is ever
increasing. How do we deal with this? How can we bring the majority on
board or should we even try?
• To what extend are we seeing evidence of Jenkin’s twelve digital literacies?
How can we help those in education develop these more? How might we
facilitate the development of these skills in learners?
• How can we study these kinds of complex, fast evolving technological
systems? What new methodologies might be needed?
• What theoretical insights should we be drawing on to make sense of the co-
evolution of tools and users that we are increasingly seeing?
• Is there evidence of new pedagogies emerging?
The paper has described a specific case study intervention of the application of
web 2.0 practices in an educational context. I have attempted to show that there
is a range of interesting theoretical and methodological challenges in this work,
but also that we are beginning to see the emergence of new social practices
within sites like this. Reflecting back on the initial list of digital paradoxes and
associated educational dilemmas I content that we are poised on the brink of
potential radical change in education. New technologies have much to offer, but
harnessing them effectively is a true challenge. The question is are we capable
and willing to rise to this challenge?
The work reported here is part of two inter-related research areas at the Open
University UK. The OU Learning Design Initiative (http://ouldi.open.ac.uk) and
OLnet (http://olnet.org). I would like to thank the OU for strategic funding for
aspects of this work and also the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC)
and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. My particular thanks go to Juliette
Culver who is the lead technical developer of the site and Rebecca Galley who
has been facilitating and supporting a lot of users on the site. Others involved in
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