October 25, 2010

A few brief thoughts on iTunesU

The use of iTunesU by UK universities has come up in discussions a couple of times recently, on Brian Kelly's UK Web Focus blog (What Are UK Universities Doing With iTunesU? and iTunes U: an Institutional Perspective) and on the closed ALT-C discussion list. In both cases, as has been the case in previous discussions, my response has been somewhat cautious, an attitude that always seems to be interpreted as outright hostility for some reason.

So, just  for the record, I'm not particularly negative about iTunesU and in some respects I am quite positive - if nothing else, I recognise that the adoption of iTunesU is a very powerful motivator for the generation of openly available content and that has got to be a good thing - but a modicum of scepticism is always healthy in my view (particularly where commercial companies are involved) and I do have a couple of specific concerns about the practicalities of how it is used:

  • Firstly that students who do not own Apple hardware and/or who choose not to use iTunes on the desktop are not disenfranchised in any way (e.g. by having to use a less functional Web interface). In general, the response to this is that they are not and, in the absence of any specific personal experience either way, I have to concede that to be the case.
  • Secondly (and related to the first point), that in an environment where most of the emphasis seems to be on the channel (iTunesU) rather than on the content (the podcasts), that confusion isn't introduced as to how material is cited and referred to – i.e. do some lecturers only ever refer to 'finding stuff on iTunesU', while others offer a non-iTunesU Web URL, and others still remember to cite both? I'm interested in whether universities who have adopted iTunesU but who also make the material available in other ways have managed to adopt a single way of citing the material that is on offer?

Both these concerns relate primarily to the use of iTunesU as a distribution channel for teaching and learning content within the institution. They apply much less to its use as an external 'marketing' channel. iTunesU seems to me (based on a gut feel more than on any actual numbers) to be a pretty effective way of delivering OER outside the institution and to have a solid 'marketing win on the back of that. That said, it would be good to have some real numbers as confirmation (note that I don't just mean numbers of downloads here - I mean conversions into 'actions' (new students, new research opps, etc.)). Note that I also don't consider 'marketing' to be a dirty word (in this context) - actually, I guess this kind of marketing is going to become increasingly important to everyone in the HE sector.

There is a wider, largely religious, argument about whether "if you are not paying for it, you aren't the customer, you are part of the product" but HE has been part of the MS product for a long while now and, worse, we have paid for the privilege – so there is nothing particularly new there. It's not an argument that particularly bothers me one way or the other, provided that universities have their eyes open and understand the risks as well as the benefits. In general, I'm sure that they do.

On the other hand, while somebody always owns the channel, some channels seem to me to be more 'open' (I don't really want to use the word 'open' here because it is so emotive but I can't think of a better one) than others. So, for example, I think there are differences in an institution adopting YouTube as a channel as compared with adopting iTunesU as a channel and those differences are largely to do with the fit that YouTube has with the way the majority of the Web works.

October 13, 2010

What current trends tell us about the future of federated access management in education

As mentioned previously, I spoke at the FAM10 conference in Cardiff last week, standing in for another speaker who couldn't make it and using material crowdsourced from my previous post, Key trends in education - a crowdsource request, to inform some of what I was talking about. The slides and video from my talk follow:

As it turns out, describing the key trends is much easier than thinking about their impact on federated access management - I suppose I should have spotted this in advance - so the tail end of the talk gets rather weak and wishy-washy. And you may disagree with my interpretation of the key trends anyway. But in case it is useful, here's a summary of what I talked about. Thanks to those of you who contributed comments on my previous post.

By way of preface, it seems to me that the core working assumptions of the UK Federation have been with us for a long time - like, at least 10 years or so - essentially going back to the days of the centrally-funded Athens service. Yet over those 10 years the Internet has changed in almost every respect. Ignoring the question of whether those working assumptions still make sense today, I think it certainly makes sense to ask ourselves about what is coming down the line and whether our assumptions are likely to still make sense over the next 5 years or so. Furthermore, I would argue that federated access management as we see it today in education, i.e. as manifested thru our use of SAML, shows a rather uncomfortable fit with the wider (social) web that we see growing up around us.

And so... to the trends...

The most obvious trend is the current financial climate, which won't be with us for ever of course, but which is likely to cause various changes while it lasts and where the consequences of those changes, university funding for example, may well be with us much longer than the current crisis. In terms of access management, one impact of the current belt-tightening is that making a proper 'business case' for various kinds of activities, both within institutions and nationally, will likely become much more important. In my talk, I noted that submissions to the UCISA Award for Excellence (which we sponsor) often carry no information about staff costs, despite an explicit request in the instructions to entrants to indicate both costs and benefits. My point is not that institutions are necessarily making the wrong decisions currently but that the basis for those decisions, in terms of cost/benefit analysis, will probably have to become somewhat more rigorous than has been the case to date. Ditto for the provision of national solutions like the UK Federation.

More generally, one might argue that growing financial pressure will encourage HE institutions into behaving more and more like 'enterprises'. My personal view is that this will be pretty strongly resisted, by academics at least, but it may have some impact on how institutions think about themselves.

Secondly, there is the related trend towards outsourcing and shared services, with the outsourcing of email and other apps to Google being the most obvious example. Currently that is happening most commonly with student email but I see no reason why it won't spread to staff email as well in due course. At the point that an institution has outsourced all its email to Google, can one assume that it has also outsourced at least part of its 'identity' infrastructure as well? So, for example, at the moment we typically see SAML call-backs being used to integrate Google mail back into institutional 'identity' and 'access management' systems (you sign into Google using your institutional account) but one could imagine this flipping around such that access to internal systems is controlled via Google - a 'log in with Google' button on the VLE for example. Eric Sachs, of Google, has recently written about OpenID in the Enterprise SaaS market, endorsing this view of Google as an outsourced identity provider.

Thirdly, there is the whole issue of student expectations. I didn't want to talk to this in detail but it seems obvious that an increasingly 'open' mashed and mashable experience is now the norm for all of us - and that will apply as much to the educational content we use and make available as it does to everything else. Further, the mashable experience is at least as much about being able to carry our identities relatively seamlessly across services as it is about the content. Again, it seems unclear to me that SAML fits well into this kind of world.

There are two other areas where our expectations and reality show something of a mis-match. Firstly, our tightly controlled, somewhat rigid approach to access management and security are at odds with the rather fuzzy (or at least fuzzilly interpretted) licences negotiated by Eduserv and JISC Collections for the external content to which we have access. And secondly, our over-arching sense of the need for user privacy (the need to prevent publishers from cross-referencing accesses to different resources by the same user for example) are holding back the development of personalised services and run somewhat counter to the kinds of things we see happening in mainstream services.

Fourthly, there's the whole growth of mobile - the use of smart-phones, mobile handsets, iPhones, iPads and the rest of it - and the extent to which our access management infrastructure works (or not) in that kind of 'app'-based environment.

Then there is the 'open' agenda, which carries various aspects to it - open source, open access, open science, and open educational resources. It seems to me that the open access movement cuts right to the heart of the primary use-case for federated access management, i.e. controlling access to published scholarly literature. But, less directly, the open science movement, in part, pushes researchers towards the use of more open 'social' web services for their scholarly communication where SAML is not typically the primary mechanism used to control access.

Similarly, the emerging personal learning environment (PLE) meme (a favorite of educational conferences currently), where lecturers and students work around their institutional VLE by choosing to use a mix of external social web services (Flickr, Blogger, Twitter, etc.) again encourages the use of external services that are not impacted by our choices around the identity and access management infrastructure and over which we have little or no control. I was somewhat sceptical about the reality of the PLE idea until recently. My son started at the City of Bath College - his letter of introduction suggested that he created himself a Google Docs account so that he could do his work there and submit it using email or Facebook. I doubt this is college policy but it was a genuine example of the PLE in practice so perhaps my scepticism is misplaced.

We also have the changing nature of the relationship between students and institutions - an increasingly mobile and transitory student body, growing disaggregation between the delivery of learning and accreditation, a push towards overseas students (largely for financial reasons), and increasing collaboration between institutions (both for teaching and research) - all of which have an impact on how students see their relationship with the institution (or institutions) with whom they have to deal. Will the notion of a mandated 3 or 4 year institutional email account still make sense for all (or even most) students in 5 or 10 years time?

In a similar way, there's the changing customer base for publishers of academic content to deal with. At the Eduserv Symposium last year, for example, David Smith of CABI described how they now find that having exposed much of their content for discovery via Google they have to deal with accesses from individuals who are not affiliated with any institution but who are willing to pay for access to specific papers. Their access management infrastructure has to cope with a growing range of access methods that sit outside the 'educational' space. What impact does this have on their incentives for conforming to education-only norms?

And finally there's the issue of usability, and particularly the 'where are you from' discovery problem. Our traditional approach to this kind of problem is to build a portal and try and control how the user gets to stuff, such that we can generate 'special' URLs that get them to their chosen content in such a way that they can be directed back to us seemlessly in order to login. I hate portals, at least insofar as they have become an architectural solution, so the less said the better. As I said in my talk, WAYFless URLs are an abomination in architectural terms, saved only by the fact that they work currently. In my presentation I played up the alternative usability work that the Kantara ULX group have been doing in this area, which it seems to me is significantly better than what has gone before. But I learned at the conference that Shibboleth and the UK WAYF service have both also been doing work in this area - so that is good. My worry though is that this will remain an unsolvable problem, given the architecture we are presented with. (I hope I'm wrong but that is my worry). As a counterpoint, in the more... err... mainstream world we are seeing a move towards what I call the 'First Bus' solution (on the basis that in many UK cities you only see buses run by the First Group (despite the fact that bus companies are supposed to operate in a free market)) where you only see buttons to log in using Google, Facebook and one or two others.

I'm not suggesting that this is the right solution - just noting that it is one strategy for dealing with an otherwise difficult usability problem.

Note that we are also seeing some consolidation around technology as well - notably OpenID and OAuth - though often in ways that hides it from public view (e.g. hidden behind a 'login with google' or 'login with facebook' button).

Which essentially brings me to my concluding screen - you know, the one where I talk about all the implications of the trends above - which is where I have less to say than I should! Here's the text more-or-less copy-and-pasted from my final slide:

  • ‘education’ is a relatively small fish in a big pond (and therefore can't expect to drive the agenda)
  • mainstream approaches will win (in the end) - ignoring the difficult question of defining what is mainstream
  • for the Eduserv OpenAthens product, Google is as big a threat as Shibboleth (and the same is true for Shibboleth)
  • the current financial climate will have an effect somewhere
  • HE institutions are probably becoming more enterprise-like but they are still not totally like commercial organisations and they tend to occupy an uncomfortable space between the ‘enterprise’ and the ‘social web’ driven by different business needs (c.f. the finance system vs PLEs and open science)
  • the relationships between students (and staff) and institutions are changing

In his opening talk at FAM10 the day before, David Harrison had urged the audience to become leaders in the area of federated access management. In a sense I want the same. But I also want us, as a community, to become followers - to accept that things happen outside our control and to stop fighting against them the whole time.

Unfortunately, that's a harder rallying call to make!

Your comments on any/all of the above are very much welcomed.

June 10, 2010

Is the e-book glass half full or half empty in UK academia?

There was a article about e-book uptake in the (US) university sector in the THE the other day, re-printed from Inside Higher Ed, The E-Book Sector.

The piece suggests that uptake might be less than the general hype around e-book indicates except in the world of for-profit online education (I'm not sure how that applies in the UK?):

Among the respondents to a 2009 Campus Computing Project survey of 182 online programmes at non-profit universities, 9 per cent said e-textbooks were “widely used” at their institutions, while nearly half said electronic versions were “rarely used”. Even fewer brick-and-mortar institutions are deploying e-books in lieu of hard copies, with fewer than 5 per cent citing e-book deployment as a key IT priority in the short term, according to another Campus Computing Project Survey. And according to data from market research firm Student Monitor, e-textbooks accounted for only 2 per cent of all e-textbook sales last autumn.

In the UK, the final report from the JISC-funded National e-Books Observatory Project apparently paints a rather different picture:

E-books are now part of the academic mainstream: nearly 65% of teaching staff and students have used an e-book to support their work or study or for leisure purposes.

My initial reaction was that these two statements seem at odds with each other but on reflection I think not - "nearly half said electronic versions were 'rarely used'" isn't that different from "nearly 65% of teaching staff and students have used an e-book", it's just got a different emphasis.

As with our own snapshots of 3-D virtual world usage in UK education, carried out on our behalf by John Kirriemuir (a project which has coincidentally just come to the end of our funding though John plans to continue the work in other ways), stats are easy to play with. Whilst it may be technically correct to say "all UK universities are active in virtual worlds", doing so isn't particularly helpful since the uptake may be extremely patchy across each institution.

Nonetheless, the 65% figure quoted by the JISC-funded study seems very high to me (based on my very limited experience of the uptake of these things). Are e-books really gaining ground in UK academia that fast?

(I note that the JISC study doesn't actually define what it means by e-book, other than to say "it refers to generic e-books available via the library, retail channels or on the web". I'm assuming that the study uses that term in line with the Wikipedia definition:

An e-book (short for electronic book and also known as a digital book, ebook, and eBook) is an e-text that forms the digital media equivalent of a conventional printed book, sometimes restricted with a digital rights management system.

but I'm not sure.)

May 25, 2010

The implications of mobile... or "carry on up the smart phone"

This is the second of my two posts on the Eduserv Symposium 2010: The Mobile University, this one focusing on the day's content.

I'll start by revisiting the sound-bites that I used in my brief summing up at the end of the day. I'm not totally sure how useful these are but I wrote them down as things I would have tweeted, had I been on Twitter during the day (which I wasn't, for the reasons outlined in my last post). I'm not going to analyse the talks in detail - all the material is now available (slides and video) so you can watch/listen to it all in any case and various other people have written their own summing up of the day - Marieke Guy, Mike Nolan, Christine Sexton, Paul Sweeney, Chris Thomson and Mike J for example. [Who have I missed?]

Paul Golding kicked the day off with a great overview of the mobile space.  He provided all sorts of facts and figures but added, "It [mobile] is not just about the tech, it's about how it changes behaviour" and I think this theme re-emerged at several points during the day. The key point, for me, is that mobile is different this time round and it is different because mobile technology now allows us to do things we couldn't do before, to work, communicate, socialise, play and relax in different ways, and that is being recognised not just by the geeks but by all sorts of ordinary people.  So what is different? Paul's key drivers for smartphone adoption are worth re-iterating:

  • "faster access,
  • rich user-interfaces,
  • sensor proliferation,
  • cloud computing,
  • social computing,
  • real-time web"

and it strikes me that one of things that is really interesting here is the coming together of handheld devices with the social web.

Christine Sexton re-iterated the cultural change aspects of mobile anecdotally by noting that students now turn up at university not with questions like, "how do I get a username and password?" or "where are the computers?" but with "where's the Internet?". She went on to outline the implications on support models for universities - control, choice, innovation and hands off - before ending with a nod to the business model drivers at play in this space... something that I'll return to in a moment. Christine ended with a call for universities to build 'mobile' into existing strategies and policies around delivery, infrastructure and support and to "carry on innovating".

Andy Ramsden drew an analogy between change in universities and 'soil creep' (a slow underlying process where you can't tell if much has really changed, where the changes themselves are quite variable across the landscape and where it's not clear what the underlying processes are). He was talking specifically about moves towards the greater use of mobile in teaching and learning within the HE sector, though I suspect that the analogy works just as well more generally!  Andy also characterised two kinds of mobile adoption - the first being "more of the same but on your phone" (continuing the trend from desktop to laptop) and the second being the "new learning landscapes" that the use of mobile enables.

Simon Marsden ended his lightning talk by suggesting that we (as providers within universities) need to "lighten up" - again a strong reference to the cultural changes that are happening around us but also, I suspect, echoing Christine's anti-"we don't support that" approach and hinting instead at a 'just do it' kind of mentality.

Tom Hume's talk was very pragmatic, coming from years of experience of building mobile apps on various platforms.  It struck me that much of what he talked about concerned quite generic 'agile' approaches to software development ("release early, release often"), rather than being specifically about mobile but it was very interesting nonetheless. For example, I really liked his case-study where a mobile app was built around the hypothetical needs of a bunch of named but imaginary "real" people. He noted that one of the key things that Apple had done with the introduction of the iPhone was not the handset itself but the fact that they managed to force mobile operators to move to flat-rate data tarrifs (he used the phrases "more fragmentation, simpler tarrifs" and "commoditisation of access" both of which I quite like), a fundamental part of the cultural shift we have seen happen since.

Finally, John Traxler rounded off the day with a wide-ranging keynote about the use of mobile in education. He noted that "mobile doesn't necessarily mean free[dom] - there are a new set of affordances but also a new set of tetherings" - something that we would all do well to remember the next time we are tempted/forced to make work-related use of our smart phones outside of working hours... which reminds me of Dick's regular calls back to the office in Woody Allen's Play it Again Sam (1972):

Making telephone calls from landlines wherever you are such as "This is Mister Christie. I'm at the Hong Fat Noodle Company. That's er, 824-7996." are probably lost on the mobile phone generation. Infact, there were barely any people like this in the early seventies but this running gag is a classic addition to this great movie anyway.

John hinted at three problem areas:

  • "Lack of scale,
  • lack of sustainability, and
  • lack of evidence of effectiveness."

Which brings me back to those business-model issues...

Towards the end of her talk, Christine considered the financial situation. She said (words to the effect of), "the question is not, 'can we afford to support mobile?' but, 'can we afford not to?'" - not an unusual sentiment where new technologies are concerned, particularly where uptake outside education has been widespread.  But it is an interesting statement and I can think of two reasons for making it - either that there will be financial penalties for not adopting/supporting it or that universities will be failing in their mission to deliver learning and research effectively unless they do (or both). Note that this is my interpretation, Christine may have meant something completely different. However, given that the assertion was made in the context of money, I assume that the former was intended.

Which makes me wonder...

In financial terms, how significant are the drivers for universities to adopt 'mobile', or any other form of ICT for that matter? The implication is that prospective students and/or prospective staff and researchers will not bring their funding to a university that is perceived to be lagging behind others in ICT terms. Speaking as a parent of one actual (and two potential) university student(s), I'm not convinced we are at that point yet. Provision of (and use of) ICT is a factor in the overall perception of what makes one university a better choice than another one but it is only one such factor and (I suggest) still a relatively small one. Coupled with the lack of evidence for the effectiveness and sustainability of mobile in both teaching and learning and research I'm not sure how much of a watertight business case could be made for significant investment in 'mobile' currently?

Now, of course, a similar lack of business case would have existed around the adoption of the Web at the end of the last century (I love being able to say that!) and there would have fairly rapidly come a point (though I don't recall exactly when it was) where any university that didn't have a website would have looked very out of place, probably to the point of having a negative impact on staff and student recruitment. Are we at that point yet with mobile? No, I don't think so. How quickly will we reach that point? I don't know, though I guess it will be reasonably soon. But I also think we need to understand the issues about the effectiveness and sustainability of 'mobile' and the perception and decision-making factors within our target audiences rather better than we do currently in order to be able to make more balanced decisions in this area.

At the start of the day I suggested that the symposium had two objectives from an Eduserv perspective... Firstly, to help us understand the impact that 'mobile' might have on both our current services (single sign-on, licence negotiation, web development and hosting, and the data centre) and our potential future services. Secondly, to help the HE community in thinking about how it responds to an increasingly mobile world.

I find it hard to comment on whether we succeeded in the second of these two aims, other than to note that all the talks seemed to me to be both relevant and helpful in that context. In terms of our own services, it seems clear to me that we have to take 'mobile' on board in everything we do, whether that's in the way our access management services work on smart phones, the relevance of our licence negotiation services to the mobile space, the kinds of web solutions we build for government and other clients and the kind data centre services we offer.

Or, as Christine put it, we have to build 'mobile' into everything we do and carry on innovating.

May 20, 2010

Audiences and chairing events in a 'social media' world

This is the first of two blog posts about the recent Eduserv Symposium 2010: The Mobile University, which took place last Thursday at the Royal College of Physicians in London.

My next post will take a look at the content of the day, including my take on what it all meant. For this post I want to think more about mechanics - not of the "did the streaming and wifi work?" kind (actually, we did have some problems with the streaming early on in the day but Switch New Media, our streaming partner, and the venue's networking staff acted swiftly to resolve them by and large, for which I am very grateful) but thinking about my role as chair of the event.

Before doing so, let's think a little bit about the nature of conferences, and conference audiences, in the new 'social media' world (I'm using social media here as a shorthand for the use of those technologies that allow people to collaborate online in a real-time, relatively open, and social way with their peers, colleagues and friends - I'm including both the live-streaming of the event and tools like Twitter).

Let's start by partitioning delegates at conferences into three broad groups:

  • Firstly, there is the local physical audience - the people who are in the venue, watching and listening live to all the talks, asking questions, collaring speakers after their talks, and drinking the coffee at the breaks but who are, critically, not taking part in any digital activity during the event. This is what you might call the 'traditional' audience I guess.
  • Secondly, there is the local virtual audience - those people who, like the first group, are physically in the venue but who are also using their mobile devices and social networking services (such as Twitter) to discuss what is going on in the room. This discussion is typically refered to as the 'conference back-channel' though it is worth noting that it might start well before the event ("I'm on the train") and continue well after it ("presentation slides are now available"). In my experience, this group is usually smaller than the first group (often much smaller) and is often mis-understood or unrecognised by the people in the first group. It is perhaps also worth noting that this group tend to create a disproportionately large amount of the wider online buzz around an event.
  • Finally, there is the remote virtual audience - the people watching the live video stream from their office or home and who are typically also an active part of the event's back-channel.

This is not a perfect partitioning of the audience, and the names aren't quite right, but bear with me for a moment...

Increasingly, I think that event organisers need to strive to bring these three groups together, i.e. to maximise the interaction that takes place in the middle of the diagram above. That responsibility can be shared of course. For example, at the symposium this year, my colleague Mike Ellis had primary responsibility for encouraging the two virtual groups to gel effectively. However, I also think that the chair of the event increasingly has to be fully engaged with all three groups in order to properly do his or her job... and that, in my experience at least, is not an easy thing to do well. In short, it's not enough just to 'chair' what is going on in the room.

It is interesting that we use the term 'back-channel' for the virtual groups above (the right-hand side of the diagram), which implies there is also a 'front-channel' (the left-hand side). The labels 'front' and 'back' seem to me to be somewhat pejorative of what I'm labelling 'virtual' and I tend to think that, for all sorts of reasons, we need to get over this. I also think there are some barriers that currently get in the way of maximising the interaction between the three groups and it is perhaps worth outlining these briefly.

For those people physically in the room there are some very practical issues around the growth of 'virtual' activity - ownership of appropriate mobile devices, availability of power outlets (still a regular issue at events), good 3G coverage, and confidence that the wifi will be good enough spring immediately to mind. There are also problems of 'attitude' to the virtual activity. How many events still ask people to turn off their mobile devices at the start of the day? At this year's symposium we offered a quiet area for those delegates who did not want to sit next to someone who was using their laptop and, as reported previously, this was reasonably popular. My suspicion is that those people who don't use mobile devices and social networks at events see them only as a distraction, as being somewhat trivial ("oh, they're just reading email"), or perhaps even as being rude to the speakers on the day. Clearly, these views would not be shared by those people who see great value in a vibrant back-channel. There is a cultural shift going on here... and such shifts take time and happen at different rates across different parts of the population and I think we are still in the relatively early stages of this particular one.

For those people in the back-channel (both local and remote) I think there is generally a good 'coming together' of the two groups and Mike's work on the day helped this to happen at this event. Clearly though, those people who are actually in the room are able to engage directly with the speakers (they can put up their hand or interrupt or whatever) in a way that remote delegates can not. Remote delegates can usually only engage with speakers via an intermediary. Admittedly, there are some speakers who do appear to be able to stay on Twitter even as they speak but these are still few and far between and so, for the most-part, the lack of direct engagement by remote participants remains. For our symposia, we channel questions from remote delegates thru a designated person in the room (Mike Ellis in this case) but for this to work properly the chair has to give that person special attention and I think that, by and large, I failed to do so on the day this time round. Even where such attention is given, it still feels like something of a second-class experience for those delegates that choose to make use of it.

There is also the cognitive barrier of doing two things at once (perhaps it's just me?) - i.e. listening to the speaker and engaging in the back channel. This is partly device dependant I think. I can live-blog an event without difficulty using my laptop - indeed I strongly suspect that doing so actually improves the way I listen to the speaker - but I can't do the same on my iPhone (largely because the soft keyboard is too fiddly for me to use without thinking).

Finally then, there's the intersection between the local physical audience (who are not using the back-channel) and the remote virtual audience (who are). It seems to me that these two groups are least engaged in any real sense. For those people who are remote, there is some sense of shared presence with those in the room by virtue of the shots of the physical audience being shown as part of the live stream. (Incidentally, this is the main reason why I actually quite like having such shots included in the stream, though this is not a view shared by some of my colleagues here, nor by part of the audience.) On the other hand, for those people in the room, it is probably quite hard to remember that there even is a remote audience (let alone the fact that such an audience might actually be bigger than the one in the room - this year, 691 visitors from 7 countries, in 93 cities, in 153 organisations watched the live stream).

The result is something of a disconnect between the two groups.

Interestingly, I think this might currently leave the local virtual group in the role of bridging the two other groups. I don't think this is done in an explicit or intentioned way but it is interesting to note it nonetheless. Of course, it is also part of the event organiser's and chair's roles to bring these two groups together in some way.

Thinking back to our 3D virtual world symposium a few years ago, we overcame the 'local audience not being aware of the remote audience' problem to a certain extent by actually showing the virtual audience to the real audience during the day. (As an aside, one of the advantages of hybrid real and virtual world events is the greater sence of presence that is generated for delegates in the virtual world.)

For this year's (non-3D virtual world) symposium, one way of highlighting the remote virtual delegates would have been to show the Twitter stream live during the talks. We took the decision (I think rightly) not to do so because of the distraction this might cause to the in-room audience. We did however try to achieve some of the same effect by displaying the event Twitter stream in the lunch/coffee/tea room. My suspicion is that this didn't work - the single screen which we used was probably too small and people were busy doing other things to notice.

So... a couple of recommendations (essentially in the form of notes to self for next year!):

Event chairs should engage as much as possible with all three groups above (preferably actively - i.e. by tweeting or whatever - but at least passively). At my age, this means having a screen in front of me for most of the day, showing me what is happening in the back-channel. This doesn't have to be projected for everyone else but trying to do it on an iPhone screen is too difficult with anything less than 20:20 eyesight!

Event chairs should speak directly to the remote audience as often as possible and should explicitly acknowledge the back-channel in their communication with speakers and audience. Oddly, I felt that I've done this better in previous years than I did this year. I'm not sure why, though the time that I gave myself to introduce the day at the start of this year's event, coupled with the fact that we had some early teething problems with the streaming, meant that I wasn't properly able to introduce the remote audience and back-channel as I would have liked.

To sum up then, a chair's role in this new 'social media' world is to actively engage with the whole audience, not just with those sitting in the room in front of him or her. This is not easy to do and I suspect it requires a slight change of mindset. The chair's role is quite complex, at least that is my experience, at the best of times, a situation made worse by the new environment. For this reason, I'm not convinced that it can easily be combined with other tasks (like keeping one eye on other mechanics of the event or preparing a final summing up). Such tasks are better handled by other people.

To a certain extent, the chair's role becomes rather like that of David Dimleby hosting BBC's Question Time. The bulk of his time is spent focusing on the local audience and speakers but the remote audience watching the TV is the real reason why the programme is being made at all and every so often he will speak explicitly to camera to address that audience.

Note that this post is not intended to be negative in any sense. I think this symposium was our best yet and I'm really pleased with the way it went both in terms of the coherence of the overall theme and individual speakers and in terms of the mechanics of the day itself. I also think that our decision to limit the back-channel to Twitter-only was the right one and actually resulted in less confusion about what should be discussed where - though there is a proviso that 140 characters is probably too short for asking serious questions (so this is something we will have to think about for next year). But one can always do things better and that only starts by acknowledging where there were areas of weakness. When I woke up the morning after the event I was concerned that I could, and possibly should, have done a much better job of embracing the true 'hybrid' nature of the symposium in my role as chair for the day.

And a final thought... I've written this post with a particular focus on the chair's role within an event. The reality is that embracing the hybrid nature of events is incumbent on us all. We are going thru a cultural shift that requires the development of new social norms, not just in the digital space but in the hybrid space where physical meets digital. My suspicion is that the groups above will remain for some time to come (probably for ever) and that we will all have to work to bring these groups together as best we can - chairs, speakers and delegates - even if that just means remembering that the other groups exist!

May 11, 2010

Preparing for the mobile university

We're in the final stages of preparing for this year's Eduserv Symposium, The Mobile University, and now that the programme-setting, speaker-inviting, venue-finding, catering-arranging, badge-making, printing, courriering, hotel-booking and the rest of it are pretty much out of the way (I hope that isn't a case of famous last words) I'm hoping that I can relax slightly and look forward to the talks by Paul Golding, Christine Sexton, Andy Ramsden, Tom Hume and John Traxler as well as the lightning talks by Nick Skelton, Wayne Barry, Simon Marsden and Tim Fernando.

In short, I think we have a great programme.

We also have our biggest audience ever this year (around 280) and we are live-streaming all the talks as usual (done by Switch New Media as per last year) so I'm hoping that we will have a big virtual audience as well.  The stream is open to anyone, so feel free to watch and contribute - check your timings if you are joining us from outside the UK.

There are also a couple of minor changes to the way we have organised things this year:

  • In response to last year's feedback, we have set aside an area of the auditorium, designated as a 'quiet area', where we will ask people not to use laptops and where we will try and avoid capturing people in photos and on the video stream.  This dual use is slightly confusing I guess, but we felt it would be even more confusing to try and segregate people into separate 'no photos' and 'quiet' areas.  We'll see how it goes.  For info... about 20% of this year's delegates indicated that they would like to sit in this area, though it isn't clear whether the preference was primarily for the quiet or the lack of photos - my guess is that it is the former.
  • Last year we used both an online chat room and Twitter to encourage a symposium back-channel (with an emphasis on "use the chat room to ask questions" for remote delegates).  The back-channel was used both in the room and by remote delegates but we felt that the choice of virtual venues caused some confusion as to what was expected to happen where.  This year, we've decided to only use Twitter.  There's a cost to this (for delegates), in that everyone has to sign up to Twitter if they want to take part in the back-channel, but we felt that the time is right to make that particular move.  Again, we'll see how things work out.  If you want to take part in the back-channel, the hash-tag for the event is #esym10.
  • Last year (as in previous years) we set up a social network for the symposium using Ning before the event so that people could introduce each other. This year we sensed that people were feeling somewhat jaded about these kinds of meeting-specific social networks and so we decided against the use of one this time around.  To be honest, such networks rarely seem to get used for anything much in any case.
  • Finally, it wouldn't have been a 'real' mobile event without some use of QR Codes, so please remember to install a QR Code reader onto your smart phone before you leave home.  More info on the day itself.

From an Eduserv perspective the symposium has two objectives... Firstly, to help us understand the impact that 'mobile' might have on both our current services (single sign-on, licence negotiation, web development and hosting, and the data centre) and our potential future services. Secondly, to help the HE community in thinking about how it responds to an increasingly mobile world.

All in all, I'm really looking forward to the event on Thursday and I hope it proves useful to people.  I'll blog again after the event with my own thoughts on how it went and what it might mean.

March 30, 2010

Mobile use at Edinburgh

The IS team at the University of Edinburgh have released the results of their survey into Mobile Services 2010. The online survey was undertaken during a 16 day period in March this year and received 1989 responses - pretty impressive I think.

The headline results are as follows:

  • 49% of students surveyed have smartphones.
  • Apple accounted for 35% of smart handsets, followed closely by Nokia at 25% and Blackberry at 17%.
  • 68% of students have pay monthly contracts.
  • 39% have a contract that gives unlimited access to internet.
  • An average of 50% of students access Email and Facebook through their mobiles several times a day.
  • 25% claim to have no internet access from their handsets.
  • The top 3 potential University services which students would most like to see available from their mobiles would be;
    • Course Information
    • Exam and course timetables
    • PC availability in Open Access Labs.

The balance of handset manufacturers in the second bullet point (I assume the switch in language from 'smartphone' to 'smart handset' isn't significant?) doesn't seem too out of kilter with the figures reported by StatCounter (e.g. see their Top 9 mobile browsers in UK from Mar 09 to Mar 10) though I guess the lower figure for BlackBerry in the Edinburgh survey is indicative of the particular audience (and, in any case, StatCounter is measuring usage rather than ownership so I'm not sure it is meaningful to compare the figures anyway).

Not all that surprisingly, access to course information and timetabling is a winner in terms of desired mobile functionality for students.

It would be interesting to see similar data for staff.

And my favorite quote... "Can the wireless service be made to NOT log me out after like, 5 minutes of inactivity?" :-)



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