Web 2.0 for teaching: wishy-washy or nitty-gritty?

A useful report, summarising Web 2.0 and some of the perspectives in literature about Web 2.0 and teaching, was recently produced by Susan A. Brown of the School of Education at the University of Manchester: The Potential of Web 2.0 in Teaching: a study of academics’ perceptions and use. The findings were based on a questionnaire (74 respondents across 4 Faculties) and interviews (8 participants) with teaching staff from the University of Manchester. It is available on request, so let us know if you would like a copy.
Some of the points that came out of the report:
  • It is the tutors’ own beliefs about teaching that are the main influence on their perceptions of Web 2.0
  • There is little discussion about Web 2.0 amongst colleagues and the use of it is generally a personal decision
  • Top-down goals and initiatives do not play a major part in use of Web 2.0
  • It may be that a bottom-up experimental approach is the most appropriate, especially given the relative ease with which Web 2.0 tools can be deployed, although there were interviewees who argued for a more considered and maybe more strategic approach, which suggests something that is more top-down
  • There is little evidence that students’ awareness of Web 2.0 is a factor, or that students are actively arguing in favour of its use:
“This absence of a ‘student voice’ in tutors’ comments on Web 2.0 is interesting given the perceptions of ‘digital natives’ – the epithet often ascribed to 21st Century students – as drivers for the greater inclusion of digital technologies. It may shore up the view that epithets such as ‘digital natives’ and ‘Millennials’ to describe younger students over-simplify a complex picture where digital/Web technology users do not necessarily see the relevance of Web 2.0 in education.”
  • The use of and familiarity with Web 2.0 tools (personal use or use for research) was not a particularly influential factor in whether the respondents judged them to have potential for teaching.
  • In terms of the general use of Web 2.0 tools, mobile social networking (e.g Twitter) and bookmarking were the tools used the least amongst respondents. Wikis, blogs and podcasting had higher use.
  • In terms of using these tools for teaching, the data was quite complex, and rather more qualitative than quantitative, so it is worth looking at the report for the full analysis. There were interviewees who felt that Web 2.0 is not appropriate for teaching, where the role of a teacher is to lay down the initial building blocks of knowledge, implying that discussion can only follow understanding, not be used to achieve understanding. There was also a notion that Web 2.0 facilitates more surface, social interactions, rather than real cognitive engagement.
“A number of…respondents expressed the view that Web 2.0 is largely socially orientated, facilitating surface ‘wishy-washy’ discussion that cannot play a role in tacklinkg the ‘nitty-gritty’ of ‘hard’ subject matter”.
Three interviewees saw a clear case for the use of Web 2.0 and they referred to honing research skills, taking a more inquiry-based approach and taking a more informal approach and tapping into a broader range of expertise.
In conclusion “The study indicates that there are no current top-down and bottom-up influences operating that are likely to spread Web 2.0 use beyond individuals/pockets of users at the UoM [Universtiy of Manchester]”. The study recommends working with a small group of academics to get a clearer understanding of the issues they face in teaching and how Web 2.0 might offer opportunities, as well as providing an opportunity for more detailed discussion about teaching practices and thinking about how to tailor Web2.0 for this context.

Archives 2.0 Conference report

Archives 2.0: Shifting Dialogues between Users and Archivists was the culmination of a programme of events held by the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change, based at the University of Manchester. The Archives Hub were very happy to be co-organisers and I certainly got a good deal out of the four seminars that I attended and this two-day conference that drew together archivists, academics and other information professionals.

The first session was called ‘Whither Archives 2.0’ (named in honour of ye olde archivists I feel!). Well, I’m not entirely sure that we could answer the ambitious question of where archives 2.0 may be going, other than in the general sense that social networks and user engagement in a broad sense is only going to gather momentum.

I think that presentations on difficult subjects often have a tendency to provide a list of challenges and issues, without necessarily providing much else. There was a danger that we would all talk about the problems and challenges, which are of course important to think about, but in fact there was a good mixture of setting out the landscape, considering the broader philosophical implications and thinking about the issues as well as presenting practical projects that have really borne fruit.

In my talk (slides available on Slideshare) I referred to Kate Theimer’s Archives 2.0 manifesto that she published on her ArchivesNext Blog a while back. There were no radical dissenters from this idea of a more open, participatory and collaborative approach in principle, but I certainly felt that there were differing levels of acceptance. There were certainly assertions that professionalism and the rigour of standards are still appropriate and necessary, and so maybe the balance is difficult to achieve. There were also some references to control – the need for the professional to have a certain level of control over the archive and over the metadata – a fascinating area of debate. Interestingly, we didn’t spend much time defining what we meant by ‘Archives 2.0’ (I think that I was the only one who did this to any extent). In principle I think this is a good thing, because it’s too easy to get bogged down with definitions, but maybe there were differences between those who would define it in the broader sense of an open and collaborative mindset and those who were more focused on the current popular tools that are on offer – Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, etc.

Michael Kennedy, presenting on Documents on Irish Foreign Policy was particularly resolute that for diplomatic archives such as those he has responsible for, integrity is uppermost. He was cautious of adopting an Archives 2.0 approach that might allow users to interfere with the text. He seemed to feel that this meant that he was to some extent rejecting an Archives 2.0 approach, but we don’t want to end up taking a draconian approach to what Web 2.0/Archives 2.0 means for archives and archival finding aids – we don’t have to let users add to the text just in order to tick the right box.

One thing that struck me about some of the projects that were presented was that they seemed very self-contained and very much to operate within their own defined space. It reminds me of the ‘walled garden’ analogy that Ewan McIntosh talked about at the JISC Conference this week. We are still tending to build our own environment in our own space and asking people to come to it – to come to a destination that we prescribe for them. Ewan talked about VLEs and how students are forced to go to them for course materials, but usually dash in and out and then go back to more comfortable and happening environments. To me, Archives 2.0 is partly about thinking out of the box – maybe thinking beyond the confines of a project website and considering dissemination more broadly. Its hard though, because I think it brings us back to that thorny issue of control, or lack of it. It means considering dropping traditional practices and ways of doing things that we are comfortable and familiar with. It means venturing into other spaces and in these other spaces we aren’t necessarily in control. But this can bring great rewards. I think that this is amply demonstrated by ‘Revisiting Archive Collections’ – an MLA project that Jon Newman spoke about and that I have referred to in a previous Hub blog. I will come back to this in another blog post, because I thought it threw up some interesting notions of context which will make this post just too long!

Derek Law, from the University of Strathclyde, talked about re-framing the purpose of the library. He wasn’t necessarily stating anything we haven’t already heard, but he did effectively drum home the message that libraries (and archives??) are simply not meeting the current challenges that the online world is throwing up. It reminded me of a recent Horizon programme on the BBC about how people react to disasters. Whilst the threat to libraries may not be quite of that magnitude, Derek did paint a picture of librarians staying stubbornly rooted to the spot in the face of rapid changes going on around them that are going to change the very nature of librarianship and what a library is…if libraries exist at all in 10-20 years time. Whilst Derek was very convincing, I can’t help reflecting that there is another more optimistic side to this. In the UK we apparently publish more books than in any other country (sorry, can’t find the source for this, but I’m sure I heard it on good authority!). So, whilst the environment is changing and libraries do have to adapt, the ‘paper free’ world that has been predicted is not looking very likely to happen in our lifetimes.

Brian Kelly from UKOLN talked to us about the risks associated with implementing Web 2.0 type features (talk on Slideshare), and emphasised that there are risks in everything and sometimes it’s worth taking a certain level of risk in order to gain a certain level of benefit. We need those who are prepared to be early implementers and early adopters, but if we take a measured approach we can avoid the all to familiar trough of despair that often follows excessive levels of expectation. Brian referred to a framework that could be used to consider and manage risk. This does seem like a sensible approach, although I guess that we started the Archives Hub blog, created Netvibes and iGoogle widgets and started Twittering without really analysing the purpose, benefits, risks and costs in any great detail. Maybe we should’ve done this, but then I like to think that we have an admirable sense of adventure, a sense of the missed opportunities that too much naval-gazing can bring about and also a general appreciation that if something takes relatively little time to do or to set up then it might be worth taking the plunge and seeing how it goes. I echo Brian’s reference to the wonderful comic strip by Michael Edison – well worth watching.

The Archives 2.0 Hub

No…we’re not thinking of changing the name…but I am thinking about a presentation that I’m giving on the Archives Hub in the context of ‘Archives 2.0’.

We’ve been doing a great deal of work recently that relates to the interoperability of the Hub. As part of an Enhancements Project taking place at Mimas, we are promoting data sharing, and an important part of this is work on import and export routines between services. Ideally, of course, it would be great to share data without any need for complex routines that effectively alter the structure of the data to make it suitable for different services, and remote searching of other data sources is something that we are also going to be looking at. But I guess that whilst we like to think of our service as interoperable, it’s currently still within certain limitations. It is problematic even sharing data held as EAD (Encoded Archival Description XML for archives) because EAD is really quite a permissive standard, allowing a great deal of flexibility and thus in some ways inhibiting easy data exchange. It is even more challenging to share data held in different databases. Many archives use the CALM system or the AdLib system, and we are working towards improving the export option from these systems, thus allowing archivists to have all of the advantages of an integrated management system, whilst at the same time enabling them to contribute to a cross-searching service such as the Hub.

I firmly believe that Archives 2.0, as an implementation of Web2.0 for archives, should primarily be viewed as an attitude rather than a suite of tools or services, characterised by openness, sharing, experimentation, collaboration, integration and flexibility that enables us to meet different user needs. Whilst widgets and whizzy features on websites are certainly a way to work towards this, I do think that more fundamentally we should be thinking about the data itself and how we can open this up.

Archives 2.0

I’ve just been reading the excellent entry (with many interesting comments) on the ArchivesNext blog on the subject of ‘Archives 2.0’. I agree with Kate’s position, that ‘Archives 2.0’ should be about our mindset – the principles of participation, openness, experimenting with new technologies, collaboration and exploration. Whilst we can argue over various tools that may or may not be ‘Web 2.0’ and how we might or might not integrate these into our work patterns, surely taking a more open and participatory approach should be something we can all agree on?

At the Archives Hub our raison d’etre is dissemination – we want to improve access to archives through providing an effective cross-searching service. I see ‘Archives 2.0’ as very much in line with what we are doing – implementing standards, looking at interoperability and taking a collaborative approach. As a community, we are entirely at liberty to shape ‘Archives 2.0’ ourselves, to make it something relevant to us – the label is, after all, just a label until it has an agreed meaning behind it. It should not be seen as something forced upon us, but as something that we create and progress for our own benefit and the benefit of our users.

I’ve kept an eye open for good examples of more interactive and participatory websites relating to archives, but they seem to be a bit thin on the ground in the UK. I think that the archives community might be a bit behind the Library community in this respect, although maybe that is hardly surprising given the resources that most of us are working with and the fact that many archivists are lone practitioners. It’s not easy to embrace new technologies and new ways of working when you’re struggling to accomplish the basic tasks – acquisition, cataloguing (backlogs!), preservation, etc.

I think that some of the work that we at the Hub are doing with The Women’s Library (Genesis portal) and AIM25 in terms of interoperability and data sharing is very much ‘Archives 2.0’ but the benefits of this won’t be obvious to the outside world because its not about whizzy new user interfaces, but about sharing descriptions, rather than asking archivists to create several descriptions for different services. So this brings benefits of efficiency and more content and reduces problems of version control. We’ll post more about this work as we progress it!

I think that if we can work together as a community, then the benefits of a more open and collaborative approach can be widely shared. Certainly at the Hub we are keen to share our experience and any expertise that we might have for the benefit of the wider community, and we are also keen to find out about any other projects that we might learn from – no point in trying to work out everything for yourself if you can benefit from the experience of others.

Personalisation and Resource Discovery (Or, Can the Archives Hub Learn a Few Lessons From Amazon?)

As the team thinks carefully about the future of the Hub, we are pressed to examine current trends and developments surrounding the UK (and broader) Information Environment, and to make sure our long-term strategic aims are in line with those trends. In other words, we need to predict which technologies and user-expectations are going to take a hold, and make sure the Hub is in step with that future. Understanding those trends and these possible futures is no simple matter, and the trend of ‘Personalisation’ is a perfect example of a seriously complex area that we must examine with real scrutiny.

JISC (our funders) are investing a lot of time and revenue into personalisation — funding several studies in the area, including this one — Developing Personalisation for the Information Environment and encouraging its services to consider ways in which users might have personalised experiences when accessing and using content. The first of these studies has specifically looked at the relation of JISC services to social-networking and collaborative environments, surveying all ‘web 2.0’ implementations currently in effect within JISC services. The second study, still underway, continues this scoping work, but aims to look specifically at ‘opportunities to personalise sites adaptively in a way that is transparent to the user’ (see page 1 of their interim report).

What is ‘adaptive personalisation’ and what might it mean for services like the Hub? Many JISC services offer some sort of personalisation where users can customise their experiences — for instance Zetoc’s RSS alerts, Copac’s search RSS, or Intute’s bookmarking tools — but adaptive personalisation is different in that the system uses information it knows about a user to ‘push’ content. This technique is already used to great effect by commercial organisations, the most obvious being Amazon and eBay, who collect usage data (what you searched, what you clicked on, what you bought) to suggest or ‘recommend’ items to you.

This is a rather clever marketing technique, but of course from a resource discovery standpoint, there is a great deal of potential — notwithstanding the fact that you need a vast amount of usage data to make this form of personalisation meaningful. In my days slogging through the Ph.D., I often found Amazon a useful research tool for discovering books that my library searches had not uncovered — I would search for a book that I already had, and scavenged the ‘people who bought this, also bought this’ lists. (I suppose this might be cheating, but I prefer to call it ‘enterprising’!) In the interdisciplinary field I was researching (history of technology) this was a highly productive method of surfacing relevant records, as the library metadata might not necessarily reflect the subject matter.

More interestingly, however, is the fact that not only was I finding content, I was also — if on a very peripheral level — engaging with a community of peers. People ‘like me’ who were also interested in the same research questions (or, in more mercenary terms, I knew what the competition was up to).

So what will the Archives Hub of the future look like? More to the point, what will be the experience of Archives Hub users? These are questions that form the focus of a think-tank meeting we are holding next week here in Manchester. Our Steering Committee, along with some other stakeholders, will be joining us to think collaboratively about our future, and we’re very much looking forward to it. Will personalisation (in its many forms) or social networking have a role here? And if so, in what ways? Will the Hub users of the future find records ‘recommended’ to them? Will they be able to share, comment, or annotate records (will they want to?) All of these questions, of course, get at the very heart of what it is we do as a profession (archivists, information professionals, researchers) and in some ways begin to undermine some of our traditional practices or assumptions about cataloguing and standards — what it actually means to describe something. Who gets to describe (and who doesn’t)? For what purposes?

It’s tricky territory, for sure, but exciting and challenging nonetheless. We’d be curious to hear your thoughts about these issues, and especially in terms of the Hub’s future. In turn, we’ll look forward to sharing with you what we learn from our day.

It’s a matter of trust

I attended the Eduserv 2008 Symposium recently. The theme was ‘What do current Web trends tell us about the future of ICT provision for learners and researchers?’. The day provided a good mix of speakers, and for me one in particular stood out, Geoff Bilder from CrossRef. His talk was intriguingly entitled ‘Sausages, coffee, chickens and the web: Establishing new trust metrics for scholarly communication’.

Whilst writing this blog I visited Geoff’s blog Louche Cannon (very entertaining it is too) and there he refers to his feelings about the thorny issue of trust:

“It may sound incredibly un-hip and reactionary, but to hell with the wisdom of crowds. Watching the crowd might be entertaining, but when I need to work, I can get far better results if I constrain that crowd to a few people whose opinions I have reason to respect.”

Geoff’s main point was that we are really continuing to underestimate the importance of trust. It is often implicit but rarely explicit. He referred to what he called the ‘Internet Trust Anti-Pattern’ whereby a system is set up by a core of self-selecting high-trust technologists. Then the masses, for want of a better expression, start to use the system and as it becomes more successful the risk grows that a strain will be placed on it by untrustworthy users. Think of spam, viruses, phishing, and generally dodgy content – we are all well aware of these things and find them a real nuisance on a daily basis. There is undoubtedly a trust problem and users are often uneasy, though generally we have not reached the point where systems are widely declared to be ‘untrustworthy’.

When we think about how we establish trust, it may be through personal acquaintance, perhaps we trust someone because someone we know trusts them. It may alternatively be through a proxy, where trust is effectively extended to strangers. Looking at trust from a different perspective, we can think in terms of trust among equals, where coercion cannot really be applied, as opposed to trust where coercion can enforce behaviour. The traditional scholarly publishing domain works largely through personal trust and there is the possibility of the use of coercion. The internet works largely in the sphere of strangers and there are few means to know whether something is trustworthy or to enforce behaviour.

Geoff argued that the success of eBay, Amazon and Google is partly about their understanding of the importance of trust. Right from the outset eBay thought about how to ensure that people would trust the mechanisms that they had for buying items online – they built in a trust metric. Amazon implemented uncensored reviews, lowering the risks of buying something online. Within Google the page rank is an implicit trust metric that works extremely well.

Web 2.0 is very much about trust. We can pretty much subscribe to someone else

The technology horizon(s)

The Horizon Report (2008) from the New Media Consortium provides a well-worth-reading and considered opinion on ’emerging technologies likely to have a large impact on teaching, learning or creative expression within learning-focused organizations.’ It lists the six main technologies considered to be key emerging technologies within the next 1-5 years, as well as looking at some challenges and overall trends.

The two technologies that are first on the horizon, likely to be in mainstream use in the next year, are grassroots video and collaboration webs. Grassroots video is something that anyone can do easily at very little cost. The feeling is that learning-focused organisations will want their content to be where the viewers are – so there will be more tutorials and learning-based content alongside music videos and the huge raft of personal content available on the vast number of video-sharing sites.

Collaboration is now facilitated by flexible and free tools that use the Web 2.0 concept of the Web as the platform – so collaboration without the need for downloading an application. It is simple to edit documents, hold meetings and swap information whilst never leaving one’s desk (although I’m not sure being even more desk-bound is such as good thing…).

The second horizon, so to speak, heralding technologies that will be mainstream in two to three years, brings mobile broadband and data mashups. Mobiles are clearly going to become more important as a means to stay networked whilst on the go (so encouraging us away from our desks!). New displays and interfaces are being developed. Indeed, at Mimas, we have been involved in developing mobile hairdressing training – so students can learn to cut and style with their scissors in one hand and their phone in the other :0)

The Horizon Report states that there is growing expectation to deliver content to mobile and personal devices. It seems clear that archival finding aids fit comfortably into this category – enabling people to use their mobile phones to search for archival sources, locate their whereabouts and find out about access and opening times. At the moment, i’m not sure that there are high expectations for this amongst researchers, but this may change over the next few years.

Data mashups combine different sources of data in customised applications. Here, we can point to a fine archival example of this – the Archives Hub contributors map . This is something we would like to develop further – maybe adding images or large-scale maps for areas where we have a large number of contributors. It does seem clear to me that this sort of combining of data could really be of benefit for archives. Maps showing the location of repositories is a clear winner, and maybe also some kind of combining of travel or transport data.

In four to five years, according to the report, the horizon will have brought us collective intelligence and social operating systems. I think that collective intelligence is certainly very pertinent for us. Wikipedia has been an outstanding example of success in this area and we now have some initiatives in the archives world, although it is early days yet. Archivopedia is the main example I can think of. When looking for this I found Archipedia – so I can only assume there will eventually be a ‘pedia’ for every subject (…yes, I just tried gardenpedia and there it was!). There must be some mileage in the idea of collective intelligence being applied to archives, and this is the sort of thing that we would like to look at in future in relation to the Hub.

Social operating systems form part of that shift in focus that is happening from content to people. This chimes in with the whole concept of Web 2.0 as putting people at the heart of the Internet – a change from an emphasis on sharing files and applications to creating and sustaining relationships. Systems should be people-led, and not the other way around. Take a look at Katherine Gould’s blog on The Social Catalog for an example of a potential social operating system.

Experimentation in the use of these technologies and practices should reap benefits, but this needs to be supported by policy and given the proper resources. Clearly collaboration is key, enabling the risks and workload to be shared, as well as the outcomes. We need to be able to create meaningful content and relevant and valuable learning opportunities with the tools that are available to us.

I believe that archivists need to embrace technology and appreciate the need to become technically literate to a level required for our work, just as for teachers and students. As the report says, ‘fluency in information, visual and technological literacy is of vital importance…We need new and expanded definitions of these literacies that are based on mastering underlying concepts rather than on specialized skill sets’.

I feel I should end on a pithy and insightful statement about new dawns and beautiful sunrises! But instead I’ll take the opportunity to mention the photo, as for a change I’ve used one of my very own…Norfolk, county of flat land and huge skies, provides a sense of never-ending horizons, and here I am on my very own path to the horizon! (…ending in a very sociable and collaborative cream tea.)

People Power

I’ve been reading with interest some posts on the EAD list about user-generated content.

Bob Kosovsky, Curator, of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts asks “It is possible to envision a platform where an EAD finding aid can be accepting of user-generated content? Could there ever be a more wiki-like interface with EAD?

At the Archives Hub we’ve been toying with this idea of enabling users to contribute to the site in some way, although we haven’t really begun to actively explore the options yet. The Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections (http://polarbears.si.umich.edu) provides a good example of an interactive site, and there are certainly some useful comments provided that give users of the site additional information about the collections. I think the display could be improved – I’m not sure about the Link Paths section, which takes up quite a bit of room on each description page. This does raise the question of descriptions getting cluttered and maybe confused with different types of information or with too much information, but overall I think this is a great site.

The discussion on the EAD list points to the great advantages of using EAD, which does provide the flexibilty to introduce new ways of viewing, sorting and finding information. At the Hub we are keen to really make the most of the fact that our descriptions are encoded in EAD. However, there is one particularly important question to ask, as Michele Combs from Syracuse University Library says: “What new capabilities will be truly useful to the researcher?”

We ran a short online survey for the Hub last June in which we asked how interested people would be in having the ability to contribute comments. Whilst the results appeared to show that this was actually seen as a low priority, the way the survey was worded implied that the choice was between adding more descriptions, adding item-level descriptions, adding images or adding comments. Whilst in reality we can of course pursue any or all of these, it is worth remembering that with limited resources it is always the case that choices have to be made. Should we invest time and energy in creating a more interactive site when we could spend the time maybe promoting the site and getting more content and more users or improving the search and retrieve functionality?

Many users of the Hub are not regular users but visit only once or intermittently, and therefore I wonder whether we would get an active “commenting community” going. And if we did get plenty of comments would this in itself be an issue – we wouldn’t want to clutter descriptions and also we may find that comments are not always the sort of thing that would be helpful to others. For us, something like this would really have to be monitored and edited where necessary…again, a question of time and resources.

In addition, it may be worth thinking about whether this sort of functionality is appropriate for something like an archival site. It works well for leisure sites like the Internet Movie Database (http://imdb.com) where people are happy to spend time browsing and have their own opinions on films, directors, etc. Also it could be argued that there is less of an issue about contributors adding incorrect information, though of course this is still going to happen.

A post on the EAD list by Robert S Cox of the University of Massachusetts makes a pertinent point – they have a blog where users can supply comments (http://www.library.umass.edu/spcoll/umarmot/), but Robert says that “Thus far, the comments we’ve received have been restricted to spam, more spam, reference questions, spam, and pats on the back.” …oh dear!

Maybe a Wiki that is for the archive community is a better option? Archivopedia (http://archivopedia.com/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page) is “open to collaborators who wish to write, edit, and create articles about primary source materials”. I typed in ‘fonds’ and the disambiguation service suggested ‘folders’ (?) and most other articles I found were stubs (very basic and short). But its early days and something like this might take off if it gets a critical mass of archivists interested in contributing. (Please please get rid of the awful pulsing ‘Archivopedia’ that comes up at the top of a Google search page!).

So, the jury is still out I think…and certainly at the Hub we would want to get more user feedback on the usefulness of providing user-generated content on the site, but we’ll continue to monitor other examples of interactive sites and I do think that the UK National Archives Your Archives site does provide cause for optimism that users are often ready and willing to add worthwhile and valuable information – http://yourarchives.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php?title=Home_page.

Finally, there’s a good post on next-generation finding aids by Merilee Proffitt at http://hangingtogether.org/?p=278
Image: GeekandPoke image on Flickr (Creative Commons Licence) http://www.flickr.com/photos/geekandpoke/