education technology

In Beta and sunsetting consumer Google+

Action 1: We are shutting down Google+ for consumers.

This review crystallized what we’ve known for a while: that while our engineering teams have put a lot of effort and dedication into building Google+ over the years, it has not achieved broad consumer or developer adoption, and has seen limited user interaction with apps. The consumer version of Google+ currently has low usage and engagement: 90 percent of Google+ user sessions are less than five seconds.

I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone that Google+ wasn’t a big hit although I am surprised that they’ve taken the step to shut it down for consumers. And this is the problem with online communities in general; when the decision is made that they’re not cost-effective, they’re shut down regardless of the value they create for community members.

When Ben and I started In Beta last year we decided to use Google+ for our community announcements and have been pretty happy with what we’ve been able to achieve with it. The community has grown to almost 100 members and, while we don’t see much engagement or interaction, that’s not why we started using it. For us, it was to make announcements about planning for upcoming episodes and since we didn’t have a dedicated online space, it made sense to use something that already existed. Now that Google+ is being sunsetted we’ll need to figure out another place to set up the community.



We’re all in beta

I was talking to Ben Ellis (@bendotellis) from Oxford Brookes University at the ER-WCPT conference in Liverpool last year and bemoaning the fact that the most interesting conversations – for me anyway – were happening outside of the sessions. This is probably not news for anyone who’s gone to more than a few conferences. We started chatting about how we could take the things “that work” from conferences e.g. sharing ideas, and removing the things that “don’t work” e.g. a few people talking at other people for 10 minutes at a time.

We’ve been toying with a few different options – influenced by unconferences and teachmeets – but always trying to keep the following broad principles around the format in focus:

  • Broad perspectives. Encourage input from a wide variety of expertise, rather than have the “expert” talk to everyone else.
  • Collaborative. Obviously.
  • Multiple activities. The session should include presenting, writing, and discussion, all around an artifact of some sort.
  • Preparation. We wanted the presenter to bring something to the discussion in the form of an idea that the conversation would centre on.

We’ve decided that a Google+ community seems to have the basic features we need to implement the principles described above. We also wanted to reinforce the idea that we’re all constantly learning how to do things better, and that it makes sense to learn from each other. It seems likely that the things we want to do in our classrooms have been done, in some form, somewhere else. And there’s no need to wait until the next conference and hope that your abstract gets accepted. As Ben said in his post on the project:

The idea of In Beta is for physiotherapy educators to bring a teaching and learning idea that they have been working on themselves or with colleagues within their institution to a group of peers in order to spark discussion, feedback and collaboration to improve and develop the original idea prior to releasing it into the classroom or clinic.

In essence, we want to use this space to encourage physio educators to experiment on their own approaches to teaching and learning practices. We have a basic structure for each session, which may change as we experiment with the format:

  1. Members of the In Beta community share an idea for a change in their teaching and learning practice.
  2. Community members choose a topic on a monthly basis, and help the person who submitted the topic develop the idea for presentation.
  3. The presenter shares their idea with the community, probably in a formal presentation (e.g. slideshow), but could equally be something different (e.g. collection of Pinterest images).
  4. There is a discussion around the idea where everyone gets to share their ideas and suggestions for improvement.
  5. During this process, the original submission is open for editing, so the community members present in the session are able to comment, make suggestions, share resources, generate a reading list, etc.
  6. We encourage those who presented to share their experiences back into the community following implementation of the idea.
  7. Finally, we hope that the process generates a collection of shared resources and ideas for other community members who may be interested in similar contexts.

Anyone with an interest in any aspect of physiotherapy education (clinical or practice-based educators as well as academics) can join the Google+ community for In Beta (Google account required).

The first In Beta session will be at 2pm (UK) on Wednesday 19th July 2017. The topic is teaching long term condition management and the background and outline of the teaching idea is available via the In Beta Google+ community. Thanks to Ben for taking the plunge and offering to be the guinea pig in this experiment.

Remember, it’s not defective. It’s in beta.

curriculum physiotherapy

Exposing the culture of professional practice

I often forget that learning is not only mediated by social relationships, but by cultural relationships as well. To a large degree we are the products of influence that emerge from interactions between thousands of variables within our families, groups of friends, communities, religions and countries. The process of becoming a physiotherapist is also embedded within a culture of the profession, and we forget that our system of values, social norms, belief systems and language is largely hidden to the student when they first arrive on campus. Not only is the world of academia a new culture for most of them, but then within that system is the sub-culture of physiotherapy education.

We spend a long time developing ways and means of teaching students the technical components of physiotherapy, but have very little in place to explicitly and intentionally induct them into the culture of the profession. We expect them to “pick it up” over time by a process of osmosis. Technical skills are relatively easy to teach: “Put your hands here, press this hard, so many times”. Knowing when to do that particular mobilisation, and why, is a lot harder to teach. Without knowing the when and the why, we’re little more than trained monkeys.

I believe that part of coming to know when and why to do certain techniques is partly related to the culture of the profession. Students must feel a sense of belonging to something that is more than the sum of a set of knowledge and techniques – a sense of becoming someone who is more than a trained monkey. I think that we can achieve this in some part by making explicit our social norms, values and belief systems, thereby exposing students to the culture of the profession.

The problem is that there isn’t much room in the curriculum for these aspects of professional practice, so we need a space for informal conversation in a way that the ideas and culture of the professional community can be shared in a normative way. We often make assumptions about what students (don’t) know and understand. As practitioners, we have developed a professional literacy over many years, but since our current state of knowing is tacit (it’s just part of who we are), we forget how we came to this point. We often forget that our students have not had the many years of experience that leads to the development of patterns of thinking and ways of being that we just know, and so we have expectations around performance that they cannot match.

I think that we can use online social spaces (i.e. social networks) to externalise and  make explicit the culture of the profession, exposing the hidden, tacit knowledge that students can use to orientate themselves to professional practice in a process of becoming a physiotherapist.

learning social media

Facilitating Communities of Practice in the Network Era

Two days ago I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to attend a workshop at UCT facilitated by Nancy White (1), who co-wrote Digital habitats: stewarding technology for communities (2) with Etienne Wenger and John David Smith. Presentation slides from the workshop can be downloaded / viewed here. Unfortunately, I could only stay for the morning session, so my notes are  incomplete and they may be incorrect. If you attended the workshop and would like to extend these notes, please add your comments below.

The workshop started with the Human Spectrogram, “a group face to face exercise to help surface similarities and differences in a group, help people to get to know each other and to do something together that is active. Other knowledge sharing toolkits can be found here.
Communities collectively accept responsibility for the behaviour of others in the community
Community is about purpose and specifically, shared purpose
Reciprocity is very important in communities, although not necessarily with the same person who shared with you
Leading / facilitating CoP will often require improvisation / innovation
“Community indicator = sign of life: asking questions / showing something that delves deeper into what the community is or wants to be. It can vary by community, and should be reflective of the community
Use of metaphor can be evocative. If you’re too explicit, you can turn people off because they may think they know what you’re talking about, and therefore miss what you actually want them to do / think about. Whereas, using something that’s open to interpretation, or more abstract will stimulate discussion or reflection in the community.
Invitation to participate is essential. Invites can be in different forms:
  • Discovery (can be serendipitous)
  • Explicit invitation (this can take multiple forms)
Game mechanics (Amy Jo Kim) → games stimulate interest and engagement with content (3) (4) (I explored this idea a little bit last year when I was thinking about the use of gaming in physiotherapy)

Websites are not communities, people are communities
Howard Rheingold’s book “The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier” is a good exploration of online communities
How do you stop communities from fragmenting?
Facilitating online and offline communities is always evolving because the environment is always changing
A “CoP” perspective is not the same as defining if something is a CoP. CPD is an appropriate framework to explore communities:
  • Community (a group of people who can be named)
  • Practice (intent, talking about something in order to do it better
  • Domain (what we care about, shared interest, purpose)
Don’t change all 3 of the above at once, for fear of destabilising the CoP
CoP is not a binary thing. It can exist on continuum between is and isn’t
Small groups are adaptable, don’t have to negotiate (as much) in order to change, can be flexible
Institutional(?) / online interfaces are not usually designed for small groups, multiple small groups can scale out to large groups.
  • Me (individual): individual, identity, interest, trajectory, consciousness, confidence level, risk tolerance, styles, emotion
  • We (community): bounded, members who you know, group identity, shared interest, human centred, distinct power/trust dynamics, forward movement, strong blocking, statis, attention to maintenance, language
  • Many (networks): boundaryless, fuzzy, intersecting interests, “object centred sociality” (Jyri Engstrom), flows around blocks, less cohesion, distributed power/trust, change
People trust people around the content they produce. Blogs and referral systems can establish relationships around “objects” / content. This can be scary for people who are used to creating relationships around personal interactions. This has implications for how we use content to attract and engage with people. Communities are not about curating or archiving content, but for providing channels for sharing content and facilitating relationships.
There is a difference between a network and a community, and depending on your objectives, you may have to make a conscious decision about which one you want to develop towards. Networks of Practice is a concept used to explore the areas where network theory and CoP intersect (5).
  • Network – a lot of people know a lot of people, but they don’t all know each other. There are loose ties (link downloads article PDF) (Granovetter), it can scale beyond your ability to facilitate the group
  • Community – you know people more intimately, there is meaningful connection (but can also be present in networks)
Blogging and communities – Lilia Efimova
Dunbar’s number = 150 (how many stable social relationships we can manage)
People have to actively engage of their own accord without the community being “done to them”
Are we inward-facing or outward-facing in our department? Who are we looking to connect with / influence?
Legitimate peripheral participation i.e. lurking in online groups. Are they part of a network or a community? It can be argued either way. This is a big part of online social networks → community or network?
  1. Interview with Nancy White by George Siemens for the World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications
  2. Online companion to Digital Habitats:  Stewarding technology for communities
  3. Stuart, B. (2006). How game mechanics can make your app more fun – a blog post looking at some of Amy Jo Kim’s work
  4. Putting the fun in functional – presentation by Amy Jo Kim on Slideshare
  5. Knowledge Networks: Innovation through Communities of Practice
  6. Granovetter, M. (1983). The strength of weak ties: A network theory revisited. Sociological Theory, 1, 201-233 (link downloads PDF)

Thoughts on Geekretreat 2010

I got back yesterday from Geekretreat in Stanford Valley (beautiful, by the way) and these are some of my thoughts after reflecting on the experience. The theme of this year’s retreat was (broadly) the role of the internet in South African education, which is what motivated me to apply for a scholarship. I have to agree with @pete_flynn, the retreat completely exceeded my expectations. I was worried that it would be a group of self-interested business-types, who would spend the weekend telling each other how cool they were. I’m happy to say that my perceptions were completely overturned. It’s been a long time since I’ve been around so many friendly, interesting and intelligent people.

As far as the structure of the weekend went, I loved the idea of the open grid format, and my initial concern that the event would devolve into chaos was unfounded. I liked that not every timeslot was “serious”, with the skillshare sessions being both entertaining and providing a lighter note to the sometimes intense discussion.

I was fortunate enough to have a “talking head” session, where I got some great feedback from the small group discussion around some of the challenges I’m coming across in my research. The value of the session was in the alternative ideas presented to me, which I almost certainly wouldn’t have come up with alone. In fact, I think that’s the essence of what the weekend was about…that you’re more likely to change your thinking around an idea if you have a conversation around it. And there was plenty of conversation. I can’t remember a single moment when people weren’t engaging with each other around some project or idea.

I wasn’t lucky enough to have a conversation with everyone who was there, but during the ones I did have, I came to realise that we have some very smart and talented people in the South African tech industry who are capable of making a real difference in the country. And while many of the projects and ideas I came across were interesting, the following were particularly note-worthy (at least, to me):

  • Cognician by Barry and Patrick Kayton – a tool for engaging with concepts and ideas that has already changed how I think about my teaching
  • Marlon Parker from CPUT and his community outreach projects using social media
  • The Peer 2 Peer University, with whom I have a commitment in 2010 to create and possibly run a module (now that it’s online, I have no choice but to go through with it)
  • Sam Christie and his ideas around gaming in education. Not the boring, self-righteous “educational” games that all kids hate (and rightly so), but real, entertaining games that can highlight important life skills

Although I found the event to be an inspiring and intensely motivational experience, I do have some critical feedback for the organisers that I hope will be considered for future events. Please don’t see this as negativity. They’re just my own observations:

  • You can’t have a real conversation about this big a deal (i.e. the internet / education in South Africa) without any representation from the country’s largest demographic, the poor and disempowered. To borrow a phrase from the disability movement: “Nothing about us, without us”
  • If you’re going to have a discussion around online education, try to get some input from the people who are actually doing it. The most obvious example would’ve been to invite a representative from UNISA. I’m sure they have very clear ideas about the challenges faced in South African online education
  • I wasn’t sure if I agreed with @EveD’s comment around the lack of a defined set of goals. As a researcher and teacher, I’m probably biased in that I believe objectives can more clearly guide a process. However, she adds that we probably ended up with a more innovative and creative event as a result of that lack of defined parameters. Perhaps in the future, participants could collaborate on the objectives (either prior to, or at the beginning of the event) but still retain an open structure in which discussion can take place
  • I would avoid making premature announcements of success at this early stage. If it ends up not being the success you proclaimed, people will remember. It’s easy to feel fired up and ready to take on the world after an awesome event like this one. But, we all made commitments of our time and resources that we may find difficult to honour when other priorities loom. Can I suggest that we work towards making a huge proclamation of the success of Geekretreat 2010, at Geekretreat 2011?

Having said that, I think the event clearly had a huge impact on everyone who was there, and who are going to go on to do great things in the coming year. I know there are a few projects I’ll definitely be watching (and hopefully be participating in) over the next few months. I wish everyone I had the pleasure of meeting this weekend a fantastic year in which all of your dreams are realised through the collaborative efforts of the beautiful people at Geekretreat.

Note: Thanks to @paul_furber for some of the great pics that I stole to use here. Also, a huge thanks to the sponsors (YolaSeacomISSkyroveOrca wirelessEconsultanctJackie ScalaOld MutualWhite Wall Web), as well as Heather FordEve D and Justin Spratt), without whom Geekretreat just wouldn’t be possible.


TEDx Johannesburg

I’ve been a longtime fan of the TED conferences and found out last night about the TEDx conference being held in Johannesburg in a few weeks time.  The theme is “Uplifting communities“, which ties in nicely with the project proposal I submitted to FAIMER last month (see previous post).  So I decided to apply as a speaker for the conference, using the same ideas on innovation in education using emerging technologies.

You can see my speaker profile here.