UK Web Focus

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Archive for November 27th, 2007

Exploiting The Potential Of Blogs and Social Networks

Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 27 November 2007

The Event

The UKOLN workshop on “Exploiting The Potential Of Blogs and Social Networks” took place yesterday at Austin Court, Birmingham.

This event was initially meant to be held in March 2007, with the title “Exploiting The Potential Of Blogs“. However as we discovered a clash with the UCISA annual conference, we decided to postpone the event until November. And by the time we got around to selecting the talks it had become clear that it was the area of social networks which was exciting (and terrifying) many people. Providing a wider focus for the event proved popular with the event being fully-subscribed with 100 participants, rather than the 60-70 we had originally planned for.

The Talks

The talks at the event provided a narrative which outlined the variety of approaches which institutions are taking in provision of and/or use of blogs and social network services. After my initial introduction to the workshop Stephen Clarke (University of Birmingham) gave the opening plenary talk on Blogging In A Managed Environment in which he described the benefits which can be gained by supporting student learning though use of a managed application environment (which, at the University of Birmingham, is Web CT). Melissa Highton (University of Leeds) focussed on supporting the teachers in her talk on Leedsfeed: a Blogging Service based on the Open Source Elgg Application, again through use of an in-house application.

In contrast Alison Wildish (Edge Hill University) suggested that institutions need to Put Yourself Out There- and at her institution this means recognising that students (and potential students) will use services such as Facebook, and so the institution needs to respond to this by making its information available in such places.

Facebook FlyersIt was appropriate that Alison’s talk was followed by Tom Milburn, Vice-President, Education at the University of Bath Students Union. In his talk on The Student Perspective. Tom gave a valuable insight into ways in which students at the University of Bath are setting up Facebook groups which can “provide students with the support of their cohort in a structured environment, … provide constant support that is not bound by office hours and … ease pressure on staff with older students helping to ‘teach’ younger students.” Tom also described the pro-active approach being taken by the students Union in advising students of the potential dangers which may be posed by social networks. In particular he described the Facebook flyers (adverts displayed in Facebook) which were made available to students in the University of Bath Facebook network. Interestingly Tom concluded that effective use of social networks “will depend on how much effort staff put in and the culture of students on various courses“. At the University of Bath it would seem that students may welcome staff supporting their use of Facebook.

After lunch there were two talks given the institutional IT Services perspective. Stuart Lee (University of Oxford) described The Hidden Dangers of Social Networks: You can log-on but you cannot hide. Interestingly the slides (which I had uploaded to Slideshare prior to the event) had been commented upon by Grainne Conole and AJCann, with the suggestion that IT services were scared of these dangers – although Stuart’s intentions (which he described in his responses to these comments) was to discharge the responsibility of a service department “to point out hidden pitfalls in some systems that users need to be aware of“.

In the final talk David Harrison (University of Cardiff) described how the University of Cardiff is seeking to respond to Disruptive Technology and its Implications for University Information Services. David described how his work in this area began as “a response to a presentation from Brian Kelly and John Heaps at an earlier UKOLN Workshop” (Initiatives & Innovation: Managing Disruptive Technologies, a joint UKOLN/CETIS/UCISA workshop held in February 2006). An initial draft of a briefing paper was written in early 2007 for comment within UCISA Executive, and part 1 of the briefing paper is now available. David’s concluding remarks included:

  • Users need protecting against their own foolishness – thus EDUCATION is the most important thing
  • Institutions should begin to trust their staff and students more but be also prepared to use existing disciplinary codes where the trust is betrayed
  • Must embrace and engage – to do otherwise would be counter-productive and make us look foolish – consider the concept of enablement
  • Should consider a partnership rather than service provider role and be customer-centric

The Participants’ Perspectives

As with many of UKOLN’s recent events we encouraged participants to make use of the WiFi network to enhance their learning at the event, to make use of a wiki for keeping notes of the discussion groups and to share their blog posts, photographs, etc. related to the event.

Chris Sexton, who kindly helped out in in the final summing up session, was very productive during the day, with posts of the morning session (part 1) , morning session (part 2) and afternoon session. Matt Machell, on his Eclectic Dreams Blog also provided useful summaries of the morning and afternoon sessions. If there are any further blog posts about the event which I’ve missed, please let me know and I’ll include details here (note I came across reports on the Digital Narratives blog, the DMU PatherFinder blog and Helen Newham’s blog after publishing this report).

I should also add that a Wetpaint wiki site was used to support the event. The notes from the discussion groups may be of particular interest, both to the workshop participants and to those who could attend.

The Remote Participants

UKOLN has been evaluating a variety of tools recently which can be use to ‘amplify’ the discussions and outputs of the events we run. Plenary talks at the IWMW 2007 event were streamed. At this event we went one step further, providing not only a video stream but also streaming the video into Second Life. I would like to thank Andy Powell, Eduserv Foundation for managing these video streams, and Veodia for making their streaming service available for us to evaluate during the event. We did have some hiccups with the service – due, we think, to the limited bandwidth for streaming out of the venue. However this was a valuable experiment, I feel. Andy has also provided some slides which review his experiences (and, after this post was initially published, gave his Reflections on a DIY streaming experience).

What Next?

In a recent post on When Two Tribes Go To War I described the tensions between two communities of developers: those who believe that The VLE/LMS is dead and those who are engaged in providing a secure managed VLE environment. At this event we came across two communities in a slightly different guise: the IT service providers who feel that their institution should be managing its IT provision and those who feel that institutions cannot compete with the popularity of many commercially provided solutions. The good news, is there was very much a willingness to discuss the pros and cons of both positions, and an awareness that each side has its own weaknesses. There’s still a lot of mileage in this debate, I feel.

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