The Only Way is Ethics Ep 2

The second issue brought up was that of online harassment and the balance that needs to be struck between censorship and freedom of speech. The causes of cyberbullying were seen as the cyberdisinhibition that comes with being online, particularly when people are anonymous. However, there is still some bewilderment at the mentality of people who do harass others online, and there was seen to be a need to understand more the reasons why people do it. Steve raised the phenomena of harshtagging and tweckling, that there is a kind of feeding frenzy that occurs when people begin to criticise others and we recounted occasions where we had seen this take place in conferences, where because everyone sees a criticism, there are sufficient numbers in the room who agree that join in and others outside the room also then become involved. Previous experiences of cyberbullying are another reason why some students may be reticent to participate, and this can expose them to renewed harassment or cyberstalking. Confronting the behaviour can be counterproductive – feeding the trolls – but sometimes there can be a desire to address it. There are pros and cons to both. The problem of harassment can be constrained by removing anonymity, but then this runs counter to the needs of pseudonymity stated in the previous post. These two conflicting needs driving the nymwars we’ve seen in many social media.

3. Intellectual Property. The third ethical issue discussed was that of IP of content in social media. Who owns anything placed in social media and how do we protect the intellectual property of students who use it? There is the precedence of shareware within online interactions, and creative commons, and perhaps IP is not as big a deal as it used to be, because we are more accepting of the concept that ideas are free. We all noted that it’s the colleagues who are more reticent to share that are the weaker ones, the fewer ideas you have, the more jealously you guard them. Accrediting ideas in social media is also more difficult, and it’s more likely to fail, but it was noted that people are more forgiving of accidental misuse and inadvertent plagiarism in social media.

4. Authenticity of voice. There were also issues about knowing who is whom online. There is spoofing of identities, sometimes inadvertent, and false claims of experience, sometimes for fraudulent reasons, sometimes to be part of a group, sometimes because of a syndrome known as Munchausen’s by Internet (a version of Münchausen‘s by proxy),  nearly named after the fictional character Baron Münchhausen who was prone to lying, but for some reason people have dropped one of the aitches (although kept the umlaut). I noted however that actually for many people having an online identity that is different than their offline one can mean it’s more authentic, not less. Many people only feel they can be themselves when online because their sense of self is at odds with their physical form, or because their immediate peer group cannot accept their true nature. Again another reason for protecting pseudonymity. In the discussion later, it came up that there are a range of cultural reasons why people may need to perform in a particular way online (not using their real names, not using their image) and we should not enforce particular behaviours, since it’s impossible to anticipate what all of these issues may be.


The Only Way is Ethics Ep. 1

A year or so ago I was involved in the Ethics of Web 2.0 roadshow, led by John Traxler, which we took to ALT-C, Educa and one or two other places. Steve Wheeler attended those too, and today we got to revisit some of those issues in the final session at the seminar. The plan was that the people who attended the session get into groups of three, identify the top three ethical issue of using social media, then report back to the group. We went round the table and each group came up with their top one that hadn’t already been taken. This is what we got:

1. Code of conduct or legislation – People felt exposed as educators without guidelines for how to use social media. With a code of conduct then, even if problems occurred then they would have the safety net of a code of conduct to point to and say, well we abided by that, so it’s not really our fault. Steve brought up the idea of a digital tattoo, rather than a digital footprint, since our digital trail is something we’re stuck with and are inscribed with, it’s not something that just washes away next time there’s a high tide. I suppose we could have digital laser treatment to remove it, or is that over-extending the metaphor? The potential of being permanently tagged with our digital trace is the reason why some people resist the use of social media, and therefore is it fair to impose interaction with social media on our students, as there is the risk of them being exposed. I raised the possibility that society will respond to repeated exposure by social media, and that we will be more accepting of behaviour that we all commit, but prefer to pretend that society doesn’t. The teaching profession is particularly bad at this, primary school teachers are supposedly not allowed to fall down drunk on a Saturday night, as if this out of school behaviour reflects badly on their ability to do their job. My suggestion that we may see a reduction in hypocrisy was deemed to be optimistic (although everyone was kind enough not to point out my inability to spell it). The other suggestion was that actually if we become more accepting of outlier behaviour, then people may respond by becoming more extreme, and so perpetuate the issue, a sort of conservation of deviancy. Alternatively, as technology becomes better at tailoring our social networks and our internet searches to the types of things it’s already identified us as being interested in, we become more and more subject to a filter bubble, and anything that doesn’t adhere to our very select peer group as far as behaviour goes, is considered to be inappropriate. These issues therefore raise the importance of pseudonymity in online interactions and presents the importance of balancing our representations of professional identities versus authentic identities.

Still trying to upload my presentation

OK problems with tech 1) Firefox had remembered the wrong account details. I have two Slideshare accounts, the reason being that I’ve previously had the same problem logging into Slideshare. My email and password combination that I had stored (and written down) didn’t work, and I couldn’t retrieve my password because the “request reset” didn’t work. So both Firefox and Slideshare had screwed up. The interesting thing was that as soon as I set up my second account, Slideshare recommended the first me as someone the second me should follow as he had the same interests as me. So that worked. Now I’m logged in though, I can’t upload my presentation because Slideshare can’t see the file when I browse the directory it’s in. <shakes fist> damn you technology. <Update> One mystery solved. The resets finally came through this morning – so it was my email playing sillybuggers not Slideshare, so I can now access my original Slideshare account. At some point I should merge the two accounts I suppose.

Using social media to support online collaboration

Today I presented a session at Teresa MacKinnon’s seminar “Realities of social media in learning and teaching” part of the HE Academy’s Changing the Learning Landscape seminar series – more details at

Most of my research at the moment is in online collaboration for design, but I wanted to support the seminar, so looked for an overlap between what I’m doing and social media. Online collaboration involves social media, but on reflection I realised the link is closer than that. Social media really forms the safety net for collaborative design.

The argument I was putting forward is that online collaboration can be as effective as offline collaboration as long as trust is maintained in the team. When trust diminishes (usually because one part of the team fails to fulfil allocated tasks) then the difference between online and offline collaborations becomes apparent. If you’re working in an offline team, then you can collar the weaker links in the corridor, or drag them off for lunch, and re-establish the sense of social commitment that underlies most effective collaborations. If you’re working online there are no real ways to do this.

However, research going back to the 1990s shows that trust is developed in online computer mediated communication by socialising, disclosure, joking around. By encouraging usage of social media, then the online teams would have a social recourse to re-establishing trust. However, the students we’ve worked with in online collaboration don’t actually socialise within the groups online. One of the reasons raised by the participants in the workshop was that maybe they don’t want to – which is true – if you’re falling out with someone over work, the last thing you want to do is swap funny cat pictures. However, doing this is (according to the literature) the way to re-establish rapport.

It might seem odd that digitally literate students (and they are) don’t use the communication platforms to socialise. They do create Facebook groups, but these are nearly always purely functional, they are just there to arrange meetings or discuss work. Partly this is because they felt the necessity to maintain a professional demeanour online, since their perception was that this is what you’re supposed to do. With more experience of the world of work, I think it becomes evident that being too professional is counter-productive – peers want to see an authentic online personality. I think another reason, and this was confirmed by the students in the room at the seminar, is that there is a generational difference between people of our generation and those who are younger, one that we see particularly in evidence in virtual worlds. For the middle-aged, we conduct a lot of our relationships online, we have jobs, families, employment patterns mean we’ve moved apart from our peer groups, and so we are comfortable with having online relationships that are solely online. For students who are usually of a younger generation, online relationships are almost exclusively extensions of their face-to-face ones. They usually don’t get to know people only online. They’re not seen as “real friends”. Encouraging students in online collaborations to form these social bonds online therefore can’t be left to chance – the process needs to be scaffolded with activities to facilitate the online socialising process.

There is a link to my presentation on slideshare following. At the moment it won’t let me in because it doesn’t seem to recognise the password that my browser has stored. So either Firefox has let me down on remembering the password, or Slideshare has screwed up my login details. Either way, this technology is not as easy to use as it should be. If I get the reset email (which hasn’t arrived yet, so either my email account is playing sillybuggers or Slideshare is way too slow at sending out my password reset link) then it will appear in my next post.


BIM Level 3 compliance

Still blogging about the BIM-Hub project from at the website As we’re half way through the PI and I have started looking at follow-up projects and one of the grants going round at Loughborough at the moment is Enterprise funding. So we were looking at commercial exploitability of what we were doing. Throughout the project we’ve been looking at a range of things, one of these is how to set up collaborative projects between multiple universities, and what needs to be in place for the students to conduct them effectively. On top of that are the skills that the students need to collaborate. Breaking those down though we can see that some of these aren’t specific to online collaboration, they are generic skills for any type of collaboration, meeting deadlines, planning activities, that sort of stuff. However all of them need to be in place, and not all of them can be assumed to be amongst the skillsets of the students. Well in fact you shouldn’t assume any of them. For me though, the most fascinating are the skills that need to be acquired to make the online synchronous interactions work effectively. It ties into my work on presence a great deal, and has been called by one of my colleagues situational awareness. You can see in the recordings of early meetings, there is little in the way of an online situational awareness, and this really gets in the way of an effective collaboration.

Looking at commercial exploitability the PI on the project was talking about a new version of BIM that is being introduced. BIM is Building Information Modelling, which is a kind of transactional online space in which architects’ plans, building models etc are all shared, together with timelines, deadlines and so on (OK that’s a given if we’re talking about a transactional online space, but this is specifically for the Built Environment sector). Level 3 is introducing realtime collaborative manipulation of 3D models to facilitate online co-creation of digital artefacts. The technology will be in place, but experience indicates that the skillset in order to make this work effectively won’t be thought about until people start screwing up. It was the same with videoconferencing. The trainers and techies would come in, set up the link, explain which button to press, and leave people to it, assuming “well they know how to teach”. Thing was, the skills needed to teach in a videoconferencing environment are far different than a classroom. You have to emote more, you have to pay a lot more attention to backchannels, you have to take your own level of participation way down (because the cognitive load of watching a lecturer on the screen is way higher than following them in a lecture room) and you also need to give them stuff to do in classroom, to bring back to the videoconference, so they get a break from it. And you also need to find little tricks to create a stronger link between the two ends (matching physical artefacts, that sort of stuff). There’s other techniques too.

So teachers would come in, use the videoconferencing kit as they’d been shown, but with no training in the specific skills on *how to function in that environment. The session would be a disaster and they’d go back to travelling a day or two to do a two-hour lesson.

So, the dangers are that BE businesses are going to use Level 3 BIM, not realise there are a load of soft skills they need to apply to make the collaboration effective and deem the whole thing a failure. What we’ve realised we’ve done in the project is to dry run the whole Level 3 BIM thing with students in a working simulation, with similar software, and identify what the issues are in order to provide guidance for anyone using Level 3 BIM. There may be some more once it gets used in the commercial sector, but we have a strong evidence base for what needs to be done.

So … even if the bid for further funding isn’t successful – putting the bid together has been useful because it clarifies the value of what we’re doing on the current project. I’m a big fan of utilisation evaluation, you just find out the stuff you can use. On the project we’ve now got a really good idea of what we need to find out, and for whom. And … that it will have a real practical use.

Learning through online collaboration

Next Wednesday I’m running the first dissemination event from the BIM Hub project. It’s a webinar organised by ELESIC and is at 12:30 GMT and can be connected to at this link BIM Hub is the project I’m working on at Loughborough University, the project website is at .

It’s a good time to be starting the dissemination because we’re getting to the point of not only having got lots of good data, but have been able to carry out the analysis of some of it.

To give you the story so far, BIM Hub links together students from three universities; Loughborough and Coventry in the UK and Ryerson in Canada. It also links together students from a variety of disciplines, but overall these are architecture, construction engineering and project management. The idea is that the students are given the task of designing a building to fit into a particular piece of land around Coventry, they have to come up with three concepts for the client (their tutors) and then have to go ahead and design something for the concept that’s chosen. The project is funded by the HEA and is a continuation of a previous one funded by the Hewlett Packard Catalyst program.

We’re planning to capture lots of different data sets, focus groups with students, surveys that they fill in, and analysis of some of the recordings of their interactions in GoToMeeting (which is the videoconferencing tool they are using).

Some of the things that have come out so far corroborate what we’ve seen before. Trust seems to be the most important component of a successful interaction. Failure to fulfil obligations as far as passing on contributions by agreed deadlines seems to be the biggest factor in undermining trust, and as we saw before with the HP project, that’s where the distanced nature of the project comes into play; it seems to be far more difficult to rebuild trust in a distanced environment than it is in a face to face one.

There were advantages to working across institutions however. The students felt it was a more authentic simulation of an actual working activity. Since in the face-to-face situations they tend to work with friends, working inter-institutionally meant that they had to present a professional persona to people who they did not know, and represent their institution to others. However, quite a few (about half) complained that working across screens was not as engaging as f2f and claimed that in a working situation they would still meet others at least once.

Part of the problem with lack of engagement appeared to be (when watching the videos of the meetings) the very limited social presence that the students presented online. The meetings did not start off with any pleasantries, the students only saw each others video in brief glimpses when they were switching between windows. Interactions took place for long periods of time in audio only.


Where students did make their presence felt was in the way they interacting with the diagrams on the screen. As you can see in the image above, the students were drawing on the plans in real time, what you need the video to see is how the scribbling was used to emphasise, clarify and draw attention to, specific parts of the image that were the centre of discussion. This wasn’t a skill that the students started with, in other videos you can see them trying to describe stuff orally, then give up and use the images from plans, gradually learning to express themselves at a distance. In very early videos, the students mumble and aimlessly flick through paper plans – separated from each other in their own rooms, and failing to bridge the distance between them.

Other skills we see develop across the videos are basic elements of structuring meetings, using agendas, clarifying action points, timing the discussions. The focus groups confirm this: the students state that one of the most important things they learnt from the exercise was the importance of things such as minutes and agendas in ensuring meetings went smoothly – the generic collaboration skills are being discovered as much as the skills specific to online working.

What was impressive was the fluidity and competency with which the students moved between different technologies. Dropbox was used for organising and sharing documents, GoToMeeting for synchronous communication, emails for correspondence and Facebook for clarifying communications and organising meetings. It was only the one or two groups who crossed these demarcations (eg using FB to share documents ) that ran into confusion, although all had tech problems with the hardware needed to run GTM, and all had software incompatibility problems.

They also got over all the cultural/language problems. For example, every time a floor was mentioned it was accompanied by “first for us, second for you” and so on. All seemed to struggle with timezone issues, particularly in the week between UK clocks going back and Canadian clocks going back. North American candy companies have a lot to answer for.

The ease of use of the technology, the development of social presence, the application of project management and time management techniques all seem to develop in concert with each other. One of the hypotheses we’re exploring is that these things are interdependent; for effective collaboration online all of these factors need to be exhibited – and we won’t see competent project management techniques without a correlating development of online presence. The question then becomes; how much of these skills that the students learn can we pre-empt by just telling them this stuff at the start? Experience in staff development tells me that there’s no point telling people in advance, they don’t really listen until things go wrong. But maybe students would be more mature about paying attention than staff are.

Trickle up

There’s a phenomenon in media studies called trickle up, the idea that cultural themes, ideas, creativity, start on a smaller scale and then get adopted by larger and more prominent media outlets and then become mainstream. The tendency possibly happens more nowadays due to more people getting into being creative and sharing their outputs globally. Advertising agencies look at what DIY animators are doing and think “that looks rather good” and copy it, or better yet employ the animators in their campaigns, or film companies see character designs from cartoonists and rip them off, or blogs become well-known and get turned into novels and then films. It’s an important concept I think, because so much of our cultural assumptions are that it happens the other way round, media create ideas, which then become copied by the masses. Trickle up is far more common than trickle down as far as I can see.

This blog post has been prompted by two different conversations I’ve had about two examples. The first came out of a tweet from my friend Sarah Sherman, who at a conference tweeted, “anyone remember the Swap Shop logo?” to which i replied that I was more of a TISWAS person myself. When I was at school there were definitely two camps of people, you were either a TISWAS person or a Swap Shop one. When TISWAS started it was a bit staid, one person, then two people at a desk, which then opened out into a studio of messy kids shouting at each other, phantom flan flingers, cages, grunge. If there was ever an animal segment, the animal would escape and the hosts would have to run round the studio trying to catch it, slipping on bits of flan. It was anarchic, surreal, raucous and a bad influence. Swap Shop on the other hand was quiet, reserved, based around the idea of exchanging material goods. The children were well-behaved and asked the guests serious questions. It was dull, reserved and set out to improve the audience. I could see why either could appeal to an audience, but for me TISWAS was full of the kind of people I wanted to hang out with, Swap Shop was full of the sort of people I resorted to hanging out with.

Where the trickle up example comes in though was that TISWAS started several years before Swap Shop, but on ATV, back in the days when ITV had a lot of regional programming. It was the first of the model of an entire Saturday morning show, but with segments of cartoons etc. The BBC copied the idea, gave it the swapping twist, and made it national. Fair enough. Most TV entails stealing a format, changing it around slightly, then representing it as your own.

Where the trickle up phenomenon becomes less acceptable though, is often the way that the larger media outlets create a revisionist history which pretends the previous versions didn’t exist. In a recent TV celebration, the BBC did a programme called “It all started with Swap Shop” as if the precursor didn’t exist, and as if they could get away with the retcon because not everyone had seen the original. That kind of revisionist history of how things were created underplays the role of the smaller outlets and the less well-know creators in order to take all the credit for itself. It’s this side of it that annoys me; not least because all too often people who aren’t familiar with the origins fall for it and fail to recognise where the true origins lie.

The same has been happening on the BBC with the 50th Dr Who celebrations. Bringing back Dr Who was a difficult process for Russel T Davies I’m sure. There were a lot of people at the BBC who needed to be convinced of its relevance to a modern audience I’m sure, but all the documentaries I’ve seen about it (for example, the Culture Show one last week) make out that they were working from a blank slate, that there was no idea whether it would work if it was brought up to date. And yet there was six years of Dr Who, remodelled for a modern audience, keeping the essential elements but changing the tone and the direction, in the Big Finish audio material, which had been going since 1999. The nu Who exactly matches that direction and timbre, and uses many of the writers (and some of the scripts) so it’s no coincidence. And yet the influential role they’ve had in the 21st century regeneration have been written out of the history. In fact even before the 9th Doctor appeared, there was a TV discussion between a journalist and Sylveste McCoy (oh that dates me, spelling his name without the “r”) where the arrogant twat of a journalist was saying how it couldn’t work, because it was so old-fashioned in its essence, to which SM replied, “well it’s been working fine for years on audio”. Hopefully that segment is still around somewhere because it would be great to see him held up to public ridicule now.

So — I’m actually relieved I didn’t pursue a career in media. I could imagine how galling it could be to have your contribution overlooked and written out of history, and for someone else to take the credit for your innovation. In this job, both the education aspect and the academic aspect, people seem (on the whole) scrupulously fair about attributing ideas. The trickle up thing happens just as much, the larger organisations trawl the practice of teachers in the classroom for idea, or ask for them to be contributed to reports, but always the origin is acknowledged. In fact there was an excellent JISC programme called LEX which focused on drawing ideas from students themselves, and integrating those into practice. Wherever possible those were credited too. If only the media industry had the same ethos.