10 Red Flags: Things to know before you go…

red flags

Warning: Consider the following 10 flags before climbing up the ed tech ladder

Some advice from below to my ed techie friends above. Career climbing involves risky routes. Without clear boundaries, an unending 24/7 passage awaits the enthusiastic networked sherpa. The online world, with all its advantages, has little respect for the traditional pathways that once characterized the standard 9-5 job.

Watch where you place your feet. Before moving anywhere, inspect the stability of the ground. In this any-time any-place world, make sure that you know the up and coming terrain. Slipping unexpectedly where the tread is uneven or unsure can be sore. Be aware. Read the warning signs. Notice the red flags before you press on upwards and apply for a new position.

The flags relate particularly to eLearning positions in an academic environment. But they might apply elsewhere. Before you fill in that application form, ask yourself these 5 questions.

  • Flag 1: Why is the position vacant?
    How long was the previous incumbent in the advertised position? Are other potential colleagues in acting positions? How long has senior management been there? Have there been unexpected departures or a high staff turnover?
  • Flag 2: Are you going to be working for a boss?
    Bureaucrat, boss or leader? Does the head of the academic unit have any credibility among his/her academic peers? What does his/her academic profile look like? Have you spotted his/her digital footprints? Don’t be confused by his/her electronic puffery. Expect at least a national leader with peer recognition and academic substance.
  • Flag 3: Does the institution understand their users?
    What’s it like from the bottom up? Pretend to be a student who has lost a password. Phone the helpdesk with a query. See how they respond. Find out what the LMS is called. Then search for mentions on Twitter. Look for support materials authored by the unit. Are there genuine attempts to communicate urgent information to all students, academics, support etc?
  • Flag 4: Does the unit make regular attempts to communicate with their stakeholders
    How transparent is the unit/department? Website? Social Media Account? What’s the balance between marketing and communication content? Any recent collaborations within the institution or beyond? Do they disclose any details or are they just releasing press statements?
  • Flag 5: Do the people that work there make attempts to reflect and research their practice?
    Can you find blog posts, academic policies, peer reviewed journal articles or conference paper pertaining to the unit’s focus? Check out the advert again. What’s the job focus? Combine the focus with the institution’s name on Google scholar. Any papers? Any substance? If they are thinking and researching their work, then they’ll be sharing it with others and glad to share with you.

My listicle consists of 10 red flags. The first five (see above) are for ed techies to consider before they take the job. And the second five (to be added later) are intended for shortlisted ed techies, considering whether they should move on up and accept the job offer.

Next five flags will follow

#DigitalInclusion & #FeesMustFall

Digital_Inclusion Internet access does not guarantee Digital Inclusion

E-learning has been repeatedly invoked by certain friends, colleagues and practitioners as a “solution” to the #feesmustfall campus shut down. The logic, to them, is clear. If students can’t attend lectures on campus, then let’s capture the content with a video recorder or webcam and then post them onto YouTube or the LMS. Students will then be able to watch the lectures using their cell phone, tablet or laptop (if they have one). Putting classes online (according to this line of reasoning) will allow students an alternate route to progress with their studies.

I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable with this argument. While lecturers are to be commended being proactive and offering alternate routes to teaching and learning materials, creating “Plan B” and expecting students, without the means, to access rich learning resources on the web, simply re-enforces and perpetuates certain students sense of inequity.

Initiating “Plan B” is probably not intended to provoke a reaction among students  But before putting your videos online, get to know the access constraints facing your students. Remember, you (and I) are on the connected side of the digital divide. With our uncapped WiFi in our homes, our coffices with cappuccinos and contract cell phones with data plans, video seems like an obvious solution. Students with the combination of academic ability and “wealthy” parents will probably also be able to afford access to online course materials. But not all students are on the connected side of the digital divide. For capable students that come from homes where loans have been taken and income is already stretched, only putting lectures online in a video format will not necessarily assist, it simply creates another barrier to learning.

Data is expensive for the pay-as-you-go student.  Try it yourself. Buy a pre-paid data bundle and use it instead of your contract data or home Wi-Fi. See how much you’ve got left of your bundle the next day. Putting work online with no other additional measures (zero rating, data bundles) benefits those that have the money to pay for access. Yes, there are many ways to connect. And students that have the ingenuity and gumption to make use of these different routes are to be commended. Lectures that want to reach out and use online to teach also deserve recognition. However, expecting stressed and cash strapped students to follow your Plan B may unintentionally reinforce the current inequalities that students experience daily, add another financial burden when they are cash strapped and further alienate them from the inclusive learning and teaching culture that academics intend to create.

Plan B, i.e. only putting resources on the web, without considering the costs that students have to bear, is not going to address the various issues that have been highlighted by the #feesmustfall movement. Creating a digitally inclusive learning environment requires that we go beyond simply using videos as a replacement for lectures.

Can tech innovations save education in S.A.?

Education & Innovation

Education & Innovation

I’m going to be facilitating a conversation today (Wed 24 August) at LeaderEx about education and innovation. Will be asking questions about high tech tools and whether they are the solution to South Africa’s education crisis. Will be chatting to Warren Hero, Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft, Enoch Thango, Deputy Principal of Sunward Park High & Mfanelo Ntsobi, Chief Director: School Support, Gauteng Department of Education (our panelists).

Our panel will also discuss the pros and cons of implementing a #paperlessclassroom.

You can expect to hear opinions about the following.
What does it mean to teach and learn is this digital age?
What are some of the threads that will weave themselves into classrooms of the future?
Why do we want to innovate with education technology?
Is ed tech having the impact on education that we hoped for?
How do we go about scaling up successful innovations?

Interested? See you at Leaderex Conference at Sandton Convention Centre at 14h30 – 15h30.

Open Access Week 2011

It’s the second year that Wits celebrates Open Access Week. Along with 2,000 individuals from more than 110 that have registered at openaccessweek.org, eLSI and the Library will be hosting two events.

24 October 2011 (Monday) 13.00-14.00
Wartenweiler Conference Room, 4th Floor
Theme: Open Access & Scholarly Communication

  • Prof. Yunus Ballim – “Wits and Open Scholarship”
  • Pierre Malan (Sabinet) – “The African Journal Archive”
  • Luci Abrahams (Wits LINK Centre) – “The OpenAir Project and South African Research”

26 October 2011 (Wednesday) 13.00-14.00
Wartenweiler Media Centre, 2nd Floor
Theme: Open Access Projects

  • Prof. Yunus Ballim – Welcome
  • Kerryn McKay – The African Commons Project
  • Shelley Nicholas – Neil Butcher & Associates
  • Barry Dwolatzky – Joburg Centre for Software Engineering

Three steps to a Twitter +

Wouldn’t be useful if public posts on Google +were also published on Twitter?

It’s helpful when platforms can talk to each other. My tweets with links, for example, are automatically stored in my delicious account, thanks to packrati.us Google + looks like it has a future with other Google sites, but I’d like it to connect further – with Twitter.

To get the two connected, follow these three steps

  1. You are just a number to Google + but your unique number is special. Find it when you click on your Google + profile, then take a look in the URL bar and note that number.
  2. Go to plusfeed and create an unofficial atom feed.  Just paste your Google + account number after the above URL and it will generate an atom feed of your public posts.
  3. Signup for a service like Twitterfeed that enables you to send RSS feeds to your Twitter (or Facebook) account.

There – Google + is linked to Twitter. Your thought stream is now available as an information stream. Now all my public posts on Google + are also published on Twitter.

A wet & soggy account of ANT

Wits has decided that if they are going to prepare students for a 21st century world, then they will have to equip their students with connected digital devices that enable 21st century thinking and work. Accordingly, they have embarked on a number of projects to wirelessly connect the campus and improve the ratio of students who have access to computing devices. In understanding how this project is going to play out, I propose that I use ANT as a lens to understand the process, identify the actors that play a role in ICT diffusion at Wits and investigate the relationship between them.

Two weeks of dipping in and out of Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT) has left my mind drenched with a new thought framework. Instead of looking for another article, I’ve decided to articulate what I have (and haven’t) grasped about material-semiotics. By straining my synapses through a textual sieve, I’m going to attempt to apply ANT to my area of study, and see what I’ve absorbed and what I need to clarify.

ANT is a reasonably established theory that has been used for understanding information systems. It avoids some of the common technology cliches; “ICT as an enabler” or “bridging the digital divide” . It supports thinking about the sociotechnical networks that incorporate people, computers, institutions, policies etc into ICT.

What is ANT
A repeated theme in the literature is that ANT refuses to be labeled as a theory or a methodology. ANT asks that the person to look at all “actants” (be they people or objects) and describe what they see. In this project at Wits, there are a range of different actants. Do I need to list all of them? Is it possible to list them all? No. I anticipate that what will emerge will be complicated, complex or chaotic. But the ANT lens says that we should resist the temptation to reduce what we see into natural, social, or discursive categories. Rather than reduce the various entities or see them as separate objects that can be manipulated, ANT asks the observer to note the actants and their relationship to each other.

How does ANT work?
The relationship between the heterogeneous actants interests is called a network. The formation of this network occurs by translation, not transmission. The stability of the network depends on the ability of the different actants to translate that is, re-interpret, re-present or appropriate, others’ interests to one’s own. There are four moments in translation; Problematisation, Intressement, Enrolment, Mobilisation of allies. In order to bring clarity – the focus on the process of translation is usually taken from the point of view of a single actor

What will the ANT framework accomplish?
Who shapes, enables and constrains change in an organisation? People or technology? The debate as to has agency swings between technology and society. ANT would argue that the relationship between technology and humans are interwoven. Although technology is changing rapidly, technology does not drive the development of an organizations’s values. But neither can an organization behaviors be entirely explained by social interactions and constructs. Rather, ANT argues that human and non human actors have agency and create a network that influences how things get done. ANT ask that we acknowledge the reciprocal and dynamic interaction between technology and humans.
This is by no means intended as accurate or authoritative account of ANT. It’s me squeezing my brain against words (much like a sponge against the palm of my hand), waiting to see if anything useful emerges. Please feel free to comment. Hopefully my mind will feel less soggy soon.

Digital Slates

Digital slates

Digital slates

So, you want to move from OHP transparencies, where you portably project the process of working through a problem to a class on a transparency, to a more modern device that should allow you to do the same…and more.

Projecting and recording the process of obtaining a solution on a data projector should be simple, portable and cost effective. Yes? Sadly no. This is technology. Things are not always easy to master or easy on the back pocket.

The OHP allows the process to be demonstrated in small or big steps in front of the class. A PowerPoint presentation is great for presenting a prepared show, but it does not really allow the teacher to modify the presentation on the fly and decide what size steps they will take as he/she presents the sums up in front of the classroom. So what other options are there.

Option 1 – Interactive Whiteboard
Go ahead, blow your budget and install a interactive whiteboard, and give your class a large monitor on which you can write, show and record. But whiteboards are costly, they re-enforce student passivity and carrying a white board around to your different lecture venue is fairly tricky.

Option 2 – A tablet computer
Be trendy and purchase a tablet computer (preferably an iPad 2) and a stylus and wirelessly connect with the data projector. Then demonstrate your working process on screen and walk around the class and show solutions to specific problems that students are facing. But tablets are expensive, the stylus may not be as precise (and using your finger to write does not work). Hooking up to the data projector wirelessly is not as straightforward as it sounds.

Option 3 – Plug in your pen and pad
Before you ditch those transparencies, scan them and convert them to a PDF. Now project the scanned transparencies on the data projector, and then write on the transparencies with a digital drawing device. Want to show and image or video. Then hyperlink to the resource. Digital drawing devices are cheap, but they do require new skills and an extra layer of technology to be plugged into the laptop

Option 4 – Get a Smartpen
Or get out some paper and a special pen and press record. The pen has a small camera installed and your handwriting and audio is recorded and then can be downloaded to a PC. The working process can be projected on the data projector – but if you want the process to be visible in real time, you need to forgo the pens recording ability.

None of the solutions are perfect, they never are. Option 3 is the cheapest, option 4, the most portable and option 2, once you’ve installed the bits, may be the simplest.

Resident, Visitors and Tourists

Do you speak digital

Many students that I come across are digital residents; they are people that have grown up in a world where the computer is no longer an exciting, mysterious machine. Open their wallet or desk drawer and it’s likely that you’ll find flash sticks, self printed airline/concert/movie tickets, mp3 players, a range of swipe cards and digital photos. These are common artefacts of their connected lives.

Local digital demographics clearly show that that not all students share such access to this digital world. The access to electronic and digital resources that their peers, on campus, take for granted, is most certainly not shared by the majority of their South African youth. Some call the gap between the digital have’s and have-nots a “digital divide”. I don’t think this gap is a wide as it seems. Even without access, the digital visitors are familiar with certain digital concepts, like chat, downloading mp3’s and Facebook. They are often able to connect with certain aspects of the connected world. Their mobile phones have allowed them to embed certain digital actions in unexpected life situations. These students are digital visitors and the artefacts of their connected lives are usually found in their pockets – mobile phones, sim cards and air time vouchers.

These parts of the population that do not live in digital land  – but it would be wrong to assume that they are unfamiliar with technology. I think that distinction needs to be made between familiarity with technology and access to technology. Students that are have friends, have worked or learned before in this digital land have found ways to breach this “gap”.

Then there are the students where things digital are still uncommon and a novelty. They are digital foreigners that have managed to conduct their lives without ICT access. When such a person, becomes a student, and is expected to receive and send an email, to download readings and listen to an MP3 audio file, it is likely that they will be disorientated. When thrust into situations where they are expected to use the technology, they behave as if they were digital refugees, unfamiliar with the landscape, uncomfortable in a foreign culture and unable to understand the language.

I’d suggest that we call those that do not have access or any degree of familiarity with the digital land, digital foreigners. When they enter the land of digital, we should treat them as a digital tourist. Look out for the student has never sent an email, searched using Google, sent an SMS. They are the ones looking perplexed as look as they do not know where to start how to use particular technologies. They are not fools, they are feeling a little disorientated or lost. Ignore them and they may become alienated and perplexed. Welcome and assist them and they’ll have a pleasant visit, and maybe even regularly return.

Some students (digital residents) will view this computer as a transparent mirror. Other students (digital visitors), due to circumstances or choice may be able to use certain computer applications or may understand the opportunities of electronic media, but due to circumstances are unable to actively use these tools on a daily basis.  And others (digital tourists) may see this as a mysterious contraption with unknown capabilities. If we are willing to accept that there are degrees of access and familiarity, based on a range of factors and not only on birthdate) then Perensky’s concept of Digital Native and Digital immigrant can become more nuanced.  And whether these students are residents, visitors or tourists – the question that now needs to answered is “How are we going to ensure that students are able to make confident and critical use of ICT for studies, leisure and communication?” – but that’s a topic for another post.

(Originally published on my eLSI  blog)

What do I want to do in 2011

My ToDo list

At 5:56 AM I started my first formal day of work for 2011.

  1. Work Life Balance:  My alarm, set for 5:00 a.m. reminded me of my first intention, to balance work and life. I’m no longer a migrant knowledge worker with a remote family. I’m going to arrive early at work and leave early.
  2. Provoke Thoughts: This half an hour of writing is part of my second goal, to disconnect and carve out silence for some goal setting, personal thoughts or reflections about learning and technology. This space will brief (half an hour). I’m going to also chip out a regular afternoon for a more professional blog post or podcast.
  3. Community of practice and purpose: And you, dear reader, are the third part of the resolution. I’m hoping that in the process of making my thinking public, that you are going to provoke me to become more coherent in my thought or more thorough in my practice. In turn, I hope that I’ll be able to connect with you, your learning and thoughts.

So before the arrival of the masses, with one programme open (no web, social networks, calendars reminders or urgent emails), I’m going to generate my own resolutions, add type to my thoughts, nail them to my blog and go make some strong coffee. Let’s see what my 2011 resolutions look like in a weeks time.

Augmented Reality = Hollywood + Ordinary Reality

I spoke at the National Library in Pretoria this morning about Augmented Reality and Libraries. [Disclosure: I’m a bit of a fraud. Neither a librarian, nor a seasoned AR guru]. As a heutagogist, I went to YouTube, because that’s where we go when we don’t know, and found three examples of Augmented Reality from Films.

The first example I found was Terminator 3, where Arnies vision, as used in T3, came in useful for finding Sarah Connor. The second was the meta-commentary on product placement in the start of Fight Club. Here the narrator (Edward Norton) describes his IKEA furnished apartment while each item is visually names, described and priced, very much like a catalogue. The third example was Tom Cruise’s character in Minority Report where he uses a gesture based interface (and a glove) to manipulate and interact with a mass of multi-media content on the screen.

The three films allowed me to gently introduce three types of Augmented Reality (without sounding too geeky). A common understanding of Location (T3), Pattern (Fight Club) and Surface (Minority Report) based augmented reality was established. Hollywood was unable to provide any ready examples of holographic AR and Outline AR.

So, now – the crux of the presentation. How we can use AR in a library? The three films allowed me to suggest some ideas. My campus has 15 libraries. With location data and an inbuilt gprs, a phone can be used to direct a lost student to the nearest library or to an appropriate person or section of the library. We could consider the possibility of applying pattern recognition to books, so when the user looks through their “layer” (whether it be a phone or set of googles), they see associated tags, reviews and comments. Or maybe we need to create augmented library desks, install augmented catalogues, and places book under a camera virtually stamp your borrowed book. Holograms of librarians may be taking things a bit too far.

Sadly, our expectations are running far ahead of reality. Mobile batteries, cameras and the other associated applications are not sufficiently standardised to be able to support such visions. AR markup is fragmented, there are no common standards to ensure that metadata is searchable, location-aware and federated. If we want to look at AR in libraries, we should be looking at other invisible, but present nodes on the network. The students that are using social media, like Twitter of Foursquare, to create a networked blanket of media and place. Foursquare, for example, collects experiential and location based data. A library, with a Foursquare account could, for example, encourage students to record their book activities and reward repeated visits to the library. While this realtime data cannot yet be visualized through the cameras lens, it could allow a librarian, for example, to answer a general query about library.

The appeal of drawing the net out into the phenomenal world appeals to our nomadic sensibilities. Hollywood visions of students that are able to take out their cell phones and interrogating their surroundings have great appeal But, if AR is going to go beyond sci-fi & cyberpunk visions of our expected futures, then the personally informative overlay available in the library needs to move beyond novelty and offer seamless and minimally intrusive data.