This event took place in London on 8th May and its theme was “What do current Web trends tell us about the future of ICT provision for learners and researchers?”
My colleague Ale Fernandez has already blogged at length about the symposium. I disagree with his downbeat assessment of the Guardian and BBC speakers, and also with his (poetically expressed) negative assessment of the live use of electronic discussion. I was also interested to read some reflections by Mary Burslem at Intute. Here are the points that stuck out in my mind from the event.
Andy Powell of EduServ started off the day with some provocative questions: why should institutions provide email to students, given that Google or Yahoo will do that for free? New technologies can totally disrupt an entire industry (just look at the music industry) – are educational institutions next? Larry Johnson (CEO of the New Media Consortium) asked why institutions should renew their Microsoft Office licences when Google Documents does just about everything you want. There are arguments for the status quo in each case, but the fact that these have become matters of debate shows how far the landscape has changed.
Audience question: “Is it sustainable or right that we should jump on the back of generosity?” (i.e. free services from the commercial sector). This was not fully answered by the day’s debate, but it was essential that it be posed.
Johnson’s history of technological change in the 20th Century was inspiring. He went on to make a spread of predictions about the future, but it was not clear why these should be any more reliable than those of any other futurist. He also claimed that there was some meaningful comparison between rates of technological change in different eras: specifically, since printing took a few centuries to mature as a medium, so will the Web. I don’t know if anyone was convinced: it seemed obviously fallacious.
The Guardian is not your typical commercial enterprise. It is owned by a trust whose goal is to keep a distinctive journalistic voice available to the public in perpetuity. In this respect it’s fundamentally similar to a university. They have reacted to the current revolution by fundamentally changing how they see their operation. From being a newspaper, they have become a digital media operation that produces a paper publication “on the side”. Since users can comment and stories can be altered after publication, there is much more possibility of stories being corrected by user feedback. (Slideshare)
Geoffrey Bilder of CrossRef talked about the need for trust metrics (the “kitemarks”) for the web: users need to know whether what they are reading has been peer-reviewed, fact checked and so on, just as they have information about the provenance of food they buy in a supermarket (slideshare). These are points I remember hearing ten years ago, but that doesn’t make them any less valid. He showed that scholarly trust (based on authority and global standards) is different in nature from trust on the internet (based on peer relations and local connections). Trust systems are integral to the success of some of the web’s biggest names (Slashdot, eBay, Amazon).
The message of the BBC presentation (Slideshare) is that the brand is now much more important than the site. It is not enough to have a site with documents that people can come and view. Your users are engaging with all the Web2.0 services and communities, so that’s where you need to be. Radio 1 has a staggering 350 such presences on MySpace, Facebook, Flickr and so on. Funded by the public, the BBC also feel an obligation to open their data and APIs, though speaker Jem Stone admitted that do far they have not done nearly as much as users want. He said he wanted the BBC web service to be more like a software company, regularly “shipping” new functionality. The intellectual culture of the organisation has had to change along with the technology: management have had to make it clear that they are happy for people to criticise the BBC in blogs or other sites that are provided by the corporation.
Chris Adie of Edinburgh University is my ShorDurPerSav, since his presentation on risk assessment for engagement with commercial services (slideshare). His work on this is admirably clear and comprehensive. He listed some rules – data protection, long-term maintainability – that we typically honour in the breach rather than the observance. He warned about the risks of making your service dependent on some venture capital-driven dot-com which goes bust the next month. However, he had a punchline. Most of the issues with handing your data to an external service are also risks with using local solutions. The biggest risk of all is not engaging with the changing landscape, so “feel the fear and do it anyway”.
David Harrison from the University of Cardiff explained how that institution is providing an integrated set of information systems to provide for the various needs of researchers, lecturers, students and other staff. The scheme he described had a beautiful completeness to it, clearly the result of some admirable planning. I hope the user experience lives up to the promise of the diagrams.
Gráinne Conole’s presentation dealt with the new pedagogical opportunities of the current trends. I didn’t get as much out of this as my colleagues did: it floated on a layer of abstraction far above any concrete examples of learning, so the experience was like watching a helium balloon disappear into the sky.
Having discussed the content, I want to comment about an aspect of presentation. Larry Johnson’s slides were in Second Life rather than in presentation software. This meant he had to move his avatar in front of the board, orient his point of view so that the board was visible within it, activate the board, bring up the menu of actions associated with the it and select “next slide”: all this to achieve something that the rest of us do with a single key press. This was a clear example of getting computers to make an easy thing difficult, rather than vice versa. As I’ve said before, SL seems to be one of those technologies where “cool” trumps “useful”.