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Conole Keynote Ascilite 2009 Conference


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Conole Keynote Ascilite 2009 Conference

  1. 1. 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 Email: Introduction 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 ( An overview of Cloudworks will be provided, along with a definition of key concepts associated with the site. I will 1
  2. 2. 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 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 2
  3. 3. 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, forthcoming) 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, 3
  4. 4. 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, cyber infrastructure. 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 ways. 4
  5. 5. 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 the following: • 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 5
  6. 6. 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 unintended consequences. 6
  7. 7. 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. 7
  8. 8. 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.) Cause Effect 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 8
  9. 9. the vocabulary of ‘time’ and ‘space’ is no longer adequate. We need new vocabularies and metaphors to describe what is happening. I have argued previously that: 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) 9
  10. 10. 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. Educational dilemmas 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 10
  11. 11. 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. 11
  12. 12. 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 Digital literacies 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 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). 12
  13. 13. 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 13
  14. 14. needed for full engagement in today's participatory culture: • Play - the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving • 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 processes • 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 information sources • 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 norms • Visualization - the ability to interpret and create data representations for the purposes of expressing ideas, finding patterns, and identifying trends (Jenkins 2009) 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 14
  15. 15. 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 worksplace. 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 ideas. Introduction 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 others. 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 15
  16. 16. 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. 16
  17. 17. Methodology 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 (, 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 Phase 1 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 repository Phase 2 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 Phase three 17
  18. 18. 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 18
  19. 19. our overall strategy. We keep detailed observation notes and reflective diaries to capture this aspect. Theoretical perspectives 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), (bookmarks/urls) and sites such as ‘Eventful’ ( where the objects are events. He puts forward object-orientated sociality as a mechanism 19
  20. 20. 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 20
  21. 21. 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 activity stream. 21
  22. 22. Figure 6: The Cloudworks homepage Key concepts 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 22
  23. 23. 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 23
  24. 24. 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 activity stream. 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. 24
  25. 25. Principles 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 25
  26. 26. 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 ( The th- st 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, 26
  27. 27. aggregate resources and summarise the reflection evaluation of the workshop. • 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 ( 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 ( 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 27
  28. 28. 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 specific situations. • 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 28
  29. 29. explaining how cloudworks is being used in ‘learning events’ such as workshops, conferences or the use of the site specifically for formal learning contexts. Conclusion 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 evolving. 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 site. 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 29
  30. 30. 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? Acknowledgements The work reported here is part of two inter-related research areas at the Open University UK. The OU Learning Design Initiative ( and OLnet ( I would like to thank the OU for strategic funding for aspects of this work and also the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) 30
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