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The beauty of an online conference: night and day, my pace

On Monday 26th April the Online Conference on Networks and Communities
organised by students of the Department of Internet Studies, Curtin University of Technology and Australian Open Universities started off and will be held until 16th May. 4 Streams with currently about 100 papers and an increasing number of comments centre on Communities and Web 2.0, Social Networks and Identity in Communities and Networks, plus a further still very skinny stream called Early Virtual Communities. The organisers have also set up a blog which lists all previews/ essay abstracts with links to the comments, full papers and the authors.

Briefly, a few key concepts which are discussed in the streams:
Trust, Self, ability, virtual bodies – dis/-embodiment, social marketing, virtual realities, control and privacy, gender, romance and dating, flaming, bullying, hacking, friending, socialising, addiction, activism, community, political impacts, education, collaboration, equity.

A few basic rules are in place which aim at maintaining a respectful and supportive spirit while critiquing those papers and commenting on each others comments. The related hashtag on Twitter is #netconf2010 and the event has also been listed on Facebook. The conference is open to the public, free of charge and a login is not required.

I haven’t been able to locate a Call for Papers nor has the panel of reviewers been made public. The ground covered in the papers I skimmed through and read in more detail is not based on empirical research but literature reviews. The conference blog unites all streams and comments, listed is a brief abstract and a link to the full post with word count as well as an estimated reading time – very handy. This is a fast way to search for keywords or authors within the entire online conference, alternatively there is also the more limited tagcloud.

Apart from the considerable amount of work that must have been spent on preparing and setting this up, the papers submitted all show a level of passion and writing skill that speaks for itself. From a university perspective, this conference is certainly a way to showcase student work but also a way to demonstrate the dedication and support lecturers and tutors have provided to their students. It is an excellent way to attract new students and foster networking within the student community. Moreover, it may – hopefully – inspire other universities to follow suit.

I certainly enjoy the length of the conference, the flexibility and the wealth of papers. What I truly miss, though, is the interaction that makes a real life conference so special: the coffee breaks, the sounds of a conference and the dynamics of space. Delegates rushing around, technology failing, tension and nervous gestures, relief and proud smiles when the presentation was received well. On the other hand, many conferences are marked by such a density of presentations and a very limited timeframe so that a hierarchy of questioning individuals inevitably evolves. In contrast, at this online conference I am looking at a name, just a name – no image, no CV, no bio, no list of publications.

The papers I have found particularly interesting so far and which I commented on are A Virtual Collision: When your private and professional worlds clash by Kaye England and Working Through Personal Identity Issues Using Virtual Communities and Networks by Stephen Harris. While the references provided, the author’s individual style and the structure of the article as well as the argument built, are the usual indicators for quality and credibility, I thought it would help to know a bit more about the authors. For instance their undergraduate degree or majors would be useful, even a simple line providing the research/ study interests would provide me with an idea of the broader background and author has and that would facilitate the structuring of my own comments.

But then, perhaps it’s just me who tends to stick to the usual thinking when I skim through a conference programme, looking for names, affiliations, keywords, key theorists quoted. Good to be challenged. I am curious whether attending an online conference (pop-in and out mode) will make me remember the papers differently – and whether I will meet some of those who have submitted and commented in a future RL conference.

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3 words: I love you. [part 2]

Hollway argues, see first part of 3 words: I love you , that gender-differentiated subjectivities are built upon subject positions which are made available for the category ‘man’ or ‘woman’ – but they remain unequally available. This strikes me as quite ‘mid-1980s’, and as a particularly ‘British Feminist’ perspective. I want to find out how much things have changed, and how a less UK-centric view and experiences look like in 2010.

In the late 1960s England had about 2,000 single-sex schools, at the end of the 20th century there were still 400 of them. The first single-sex school was founded in 1440, that was famous Eaton. In stark contrast, in today’s Finland there is not one single single-sex school in the entire country. Iceland introduced (!) single-sex kindergarten in the late 1980s, France and Germany think co-education the most successful way towards socialisation based on equality between sexes.

No doubt, understanding differences in sex and gender requires a thorough look into cultural differences. Living in a place, London, where every second person is foreign-born has made me even more of that. Language itself tells us a lot about a population’s notions of sex and gender. In Finnish, for instance, only one first person singular pronoun exists: han [hän, hAn]. It is sex-neutral, gender does not play that large a role in this linguistic sense. Nevertheless, Finland is a pioneer in gender equality – in 1906 its National Assembly was the first in the world that adopted full gender equality. Finnish women were the first who gained the right to vote.

The German language does not have a direct translation for the English term ‘gender’. The concept that denotes the socially constructed and learned traits of what it means to be male or female in contrast to the biologically determined characteristics (i.e. the English term ‘sex’)was only introduced by help of European policies (gender mainstreaming). On an everyday basis, however, the German language is obsessed with gender: every noun requires categorisation: neutral, female and male grammatical genders specify things: a tomato is female, a chair is male, your breakfast remains neutral. Problematic are [new] terms such as ‘Email’ which have been adopted from the English. Some people obsess over the question whether ‘Email’ (all nouns are capitalised in German) is female or neutral.

In 1984, when Hollway constructed her argument, sex education in mixed classes was standard in German secondary schools which even then included lessons on contraception (N.B. home schooling is illegal in Germany, so there was and is no opt-out). This makes me wonder to what extent a discursive analysis that does not take into account any cultural or national differences can be convincing.

I recall a Californian friend of mine, about twice my age, stating a few years back in Berlin that ‘Americans do love their family but they like their friends’. I argued the opposite to be holding true for Germans. I remembered my experience as a holiday language student in the late 1990s in Malta where we had English conversation classes and were asked to debate controversial topics to ensure we would practice our language skills. Hot buttons were abortion, HIV/AIDS and love. One male student in his early 20s from catholic Munich, Bavaria, vehemently refused to state he would ‘love’ his sister – but he confirmed he’d like her, very much so. Love in this cultural context has a distinct sexual undertone, which is why ‘like’ is the preferred and socially accepted norm.

A purely linguistic focus seems to miss the subtleties that are embedded in language: social practices, taboos, age-related awkwardness etc. They cannot be captured in the concept of power – which certainly holds true for some cases (parent-child for instance) but not necessarily in all peer-to-peer cases. Hollway did not seem to perceive women and men as genuine peers or agents who hold potential to negotiate the terms of being or becoming peers.

One of the interview excerpts she quotes is quite thought-provoking. Sam is a man who was in hope of living with Jane. He tried to live with three other women before and he does not want to live on his own.

He says that “[t]here’s too many things all wrapped up in coupling […] too many needs it potentially meets, and there are too many things it frustrates. I do want to have a close, a central-person relationship, but in the past, the negative aspect outweighed the positive dramatically. Or my inability to work through them has led me to run.”

“I’m frightened of getting in deep […] a lot of these things aren’t really to do with sexuality. They’re to do with responsibility.”

“When I say to somebody, who I’m making love to – I’m close to, when I say, ‘I love you, I love you’ it’s a word that symbolises letting go. […] What frightens me is that word, it’s an act of commitment. Somebody suddenly, expects something of me. They’ve said something, that’s the first word in a long rotten line towards marriage. That’s when you fall in love, you’re caught up in the institution.”

“And it’s been an act of principle for me, that I can love somebody, and feel loved, without feeling any responsibility. That I can be free to say that I love somebody if I love them. Be free to feel.”

I have no idea how old Sam was when he gave this interview and talked about the power of the meaning of ‘I love you’. Would a man beyond retirement age who had all his life spent with one woman hold a similar view? Is the utterance ‘I love you’ itself related to social markers such as age, gender – or social class? Has ‘I love you’ become so value-laden or invested with connotations that fear is a near ‘natural’ response?

Hollway argues that ‘I love you’ (as the signifier ‘letting go’) is “suppressed by its capture in the discourse which positions women as requiring commitment. Which means men need less commitment? The implication strikes me as simplified. Hollway quotes from an anti-sexist men’s magazine (Achilles Heel, 1979):

“For men (heterosexual) sex works out as a trap because it’s the only place where men can really get tenderness and warmth.”

“But they have no skills to evoke these things because there is nothing in the rest of our lives that trains us to do this.”

This would suggest men have been brought up and continue to live lives as islands. Does that ring true? Of course, as I mentioned above, single-sex education may have contributed significantly to some of these notions but on the other hand, men who were brought up by women must have had some exposure to their ‘skills’ in terms of tenderness and warmth (i.e. outside sexual encounter). Supposed, all women are tender and warm, all the time – a stereotype we need to question.

What Hollway seems to ignore altogether is the probability that men (and women) may be able to learn (by reflexivity, be encounter, by formal education) what it means to be tender, committed and warm – without ‘paying the price’ of a sexual relationship when what is desired is actually ‘only’ tenderness and warmth. What she seems to suggest is a biological reductionism somewhere embedded in the discourses that construct gender subjectivities. These subjectivities (or gender identities) seem to be static and fix over the life course – and, they seem to be focused on the heterosexual other. Trapped in the web of power and ‘unspeakable deeper needs’, that is also what Martin suggests:

“People’s needs for others are systematically denied in ordinary relationships. And in a love relationship you make the most fundamental admission about yourself – that you want somebody else. It seems to me that that is the greatest need, and the need which, in relationship to its power, is most strongly hidden and suppressed.”

This is about vulnerability, trust and feeling accepted – or rejected. The strong sense of insecurity Martin conveys makes we think about fear of rejection as a learned response. After all, most people share these feeling and a sense of insecurity when they open up to others and when they commit themselves to others.

Part of this is rooted in a sense of risk – but risk considerations become more dominant when we commit to people who make us feel insecure about being accepted. If we express our love (in an utterances or otherwise) and override the sense that the person may feel under pressure to commit too or that our partner holds high expectations as to what has to follow upon that 3-word utterance, we actually do not trust our own instincts. On the other hand, challenging the idea that there is a universal notion as to what ‘I love you’ implies and entails, is a healthy way to free oneself from the burden of literature, films and lyrics we grew up with, internalise and forget to review.

We may live in relationships that have never heard the ‘I love you’ and still, they are marked by deep commitment and love. On the other hand, there are numerous relationships that have established rituals, that resulted in obligatory phrases for both partners. For instance ending every phone call with ‘luv you, hon’. A routine that may make many Germans cringe, it’s not exactly a socially accepted practice outside the couple’s private space. There are also the film moments which make us cringe: Bette Midler’s CC Bloom in ‘Beaches’ (1988) offers her lover an ‘opt-in’ version similar to Stevie Wonder’s “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me”. Although, Midler’s character adds an interesting question: “or was that part of your routine”? Finally, there is also Patrick Swayze’s ‘ditto’ (German: ‘dito’) in Ghost. Does it make you cringe or smile with pleasure – or does it appear to be so remote and constructed to you, it does not trigger any emotion?

There are our friends who offer us a deeply felt ‘I love you’ (German: ‘ich liebe dich’) which we can take, without a hint of doubt, in all its beauty and commitment. There are sexual partners who commit and still don’t have to panic over marriage and the ‘institution marriage’, they offer us the equally deep and committed ‘I like you’. Whatever we say as expression of our love, a lot depends on how we feel about ourselves. How we feel about ourselves is not static and fixed, rather, it is fluid dependent on a range of factors. One of these factors is the degree of exposure to different cultures, ideas different to those taken for granted in our environment as well as our ability and willingness to review them. But then, there are also factors such as illness or a plain hangover, which may undermine our sense of self and increase our vulnerability.

The extent, to which we buy into certain discourses, valid at a certain point in time and in a certain spatial context, is vital to the sense of rejection or acceptance we may experience. What it means to be a woman or a man (I do not discuss queer, gay and lesbian at this point because the paper that triggered my post was based on heterosexual relationships, but of course, I don’t mean to exclude these identities and perspectives) is not only determined by dominant discourses around us – say, men and women’s magazines such as Playboy or Cosmopolitan: it’s all about looks, sex and reinforcing stereotypes – but it is also about how we establish trust and communication with the other person. The way we negotiate meaning within a relationship is what creates the meaning of ‘I love you’ in our relationships. If we forget (or fear) to talk about our genuine needs, we may never get beyond mediated clichés.

What actually prevents us from expressing our ideas about tenderness, warmth, commitment and all the fears and pain that seem to come along with it, is a whole different story. I wonder to what extent our activities on Twitter and Facebook, Flickr or Youtube help us to develop those skills. Do they offer us space to think about love and relationships?

Prior to these sites it used to be books, films and music that made us think or that shaped our wants and being wanted. Also, they shaped our silence and the way we found things to be ‘unspeakable’ – think about watching a steamy scene on TV – with your parents. In those decades between Hollway’s research and today’s social networking sites, what does not seem to have changed, though, is the many subtle shades those 3 words ‘I love you’ can acquire. I would love to your views on that.

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Google Wave invites for you

The first 8 invites have gone, another 10 are available for those who email me at
bbohlinger [at ] googlemail [dot] com. Just get in touch.

My review of 14 November is available within my blog: My post on Google Wave’s potential.

It focuses on qualitative aspects of my own experience with Wave. Google have conducted a quantitative study and published their findings in a post highlighting statistics on what users like and dislike.

I strongly recommend to use Google Chrome which is a lot faster than Internet Explorer (add-in) or Firefox – in particular in larger Waves. Google Chrome works well even on mobile broadband, so worthwhile trying if you haven’t downloaded it yet.

If you are interested in more sophisticated waves for business or education and other projects, check this detailed blogpost that features a number of helpful screenshots: Lifehacker’s Google Wave for projects article.

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flickr’s seductive power

I have recently become a ‘flickr pro’ member and started using groups more meaningfully. It is a social networking site that taps into my unconscious, I feel. Frequently I am surprised to see my own connotations that spring up when presented with a new image uploaded by one of my contacts.

I love the daily flickr newsletter and those previews, the mix of them, 5 in a line maximum per contact, every day a visual treat. They trigger unknown associations in me. I click on the one that makes me most curious when I don’t have much time to explore all of them.

You never know, sometimes it’s light and shadows, details in the background, personal tags that add another layer of meaning, a comment by another viewer that is moving. It’s so intense the dynamic, like being pulled into a narrative that resembles a film. A few images tell a story but the story differs from what the person saw who took the shot which also differs from the real story. Interpretation of the interpretation.

Today, TooSix uploaded a simple neonsign saying Kreuzberg – the part in Berlin where I spent nearly 7 years – it made me do what expected least: a German poem-style memory unfolded, I typed without really thinking. I hadn’t been aware this was still living inside me. So fresh. Nothing’s ever lost. Nice. Grateful for the inspiration, thanks TooSix.

Gute alte Zeiten. Sehnsucht. Ratten. Strassenkehrer. Doner Kebap. Best in town. Politische Debatten nach 2 morgens. Ach.
Ein Neon Schild. Nicht mehr. Nicht weniger.

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using Google Wave: lots of potential

I got an invite to Google Wave some time back and at the moment about half of my 11 contacts in Wave have engaged in some online collaboration. This was predominantly in 1:1 conversation, so very similar to emailing at this point.

One major exception, though. A wave that started on 6th November, includes in this hour 125 -invited- users (basically by friend’s snow-balling), and discusses the simple question whether Wave will become a success. So, it’s Yes, No or Maybe. Nearly 80 messages and comments have been generated and to me it’s been an excellent way to explore the limited options a little further. Wave Preview is restricted with respect to add- ins and gadgets. Here is a list of Google Wave extensions and Google Wave Robots that we are supposed to be able to use sometime soon (when exactly is still unclear).

Some users within this Wave declared they were getting impatient, this was the main argument people made who thought Wave is not going to be a success. However, this specific wave is managed (so people stay on the topic) and contains some gadgets. New comments are highlighted, in order to trace back when a wave was started and what was said by whom there is a playback menu, which also allows to toggle between frames and lists a full list of participants of a wave.

So far I find it very interesting to see how much speculation there is and how much misconception – this extends to those users who haven’t engaged in the managed wave. It seems the lack of communication provided by Google within Wave feeds into pessimism and the lack of time or curiosity to explore options and play equally nurtures the failure some see on the horizon. Those who are not familiar with editing wikis and collaborating in semi-private online spaces argue they want more privacy and control, others claims it’s boring and some said they would only log in to see whether someone had said something to them (which, I admit, made me instantly think about their real life relationships…).

Wave raises interesting questions as to power and control, censorship and regulation – on the micro-level of the individual user. Some seem to be very comfortable talking to anyone who has posted something worth commenting on. Others remain observers – at least they are still listed as such. Users can unfollow any wave, just like in Twitter. There is an option that allows users to tag a wave, so it’s collective tagging which is fun – and can help looking at discussions from a different angle, depending on the users’ expertise and professional background. Now there is also an option to up-and download a wave or copy it to another wave. The latter option made me wonder whether all comments are recognised by users as not copyrighted. Basically, Wave operates as password-protected area but I doubt every user holds the same authorship ethos – attribution may become an issue.

Wave is fast and operates well in Google Chrome but it seems to cause problems in other browsers. So far it has delivered it key promise: to provide the main features of Twitter, Facebook and Wikis, with a few more options and gadgets, this could become my favourite tool of discussion, in particular in combination with Google Docs.

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ePortfolios evaluated: an imagined case

The evaluation grid below is based on a comparison between 2 ePortfolio systems I have selected on the EduTools website where further systems can be examined. The user I had in mind while working through the provided result (which has been heavily edited and reduced for my purposes) is a student with a work history who is about completing a first degree which s/he hopes will lead to a career change.

The user believes an ePortfolio accessible to prospective employers will provide an advantage in the current competitive market. S/he also thinks an ePortfolio that is sustainable and flexible may come in handy at a later stage when artefacts will be added in order to highlight CPD (Continued Professional Development). As s/he is playing with the thought to work for some time in sunny Spain s/he also looks for options that take into account different national requirements.

You find the complete PPT below and for download on Slideshare.

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ePortfolios: policy drivers, reflections

These reflections relate to some work in the post-graduate eLearning professional course we started doing on the course wiki. We have been trying to collate the various policy drivers which push the debate in the UK, US and Europe as well as other countries towards the adoption of ePortfolio systems. The work has been marked by some restrictions imposed by the Moodle set-up which currently does not allow students to start new subjects in the forums and which meant to jump straight into wiki authoring without first debating with peers. This is based on the rather rigid sticking to the timetable – which may change in due course and the Moodle upgrade next week, as announced today.

So basically, it was pretty straightforward, gathering the data, doing a bit of research on the current state of affairs. I got stuck at some point when I reflected on my role (imagined or real) in relation to the Framework for Personal Professional Development.

H808 framework

We were asked to consider the completed template as

  • (i) evidence of our department in the technology competency area (because it is about ePortfolios)
  • (ii) whether it could also be evidence of our proactivity (because you have created it collaboratively)? and
  • (iii) which areas of the framework we would personally consider the most relevant.

Clearly, different weight is given to the varying aspects in different situations. Imagine an unemployed person who is studying the course, someone who is a researcher – or someone who is retired and just studying out of interest. Why ‘the department’ was mentioned is equally unclear – but it made me think about the imagined audiences the course authors must have had in mind – and how I apply the terms ‘eLearning’ and ‘professional’ to myself: I rather de-contextualise them and see them less tightly and exclusively linked to the field of education and educators.

The framework does seem to offer a fairly holistic range of significant aspects – but the column proactivity raises questions. Just because you engage in a collaborative task after being prompted to do so, it does not provide evidence for your proactivity. At least not in the age of web 2.0. So going further, I start questioning the framework – what sort of people had the developers/architects in mind when they designed it?

Clearly not those who shape the practices and policies that set the standards for technologies, research and communication. Let’s say, I am a researcher who is interested in informal learning and how engaging in affinity spaces (c.f. Henry Jenkins for instance) contributes to some of the skills and competencies mentioned in the framework. Would I be able to make use of pieces of work not generated within the context of the course? Would these pieces be validated by this particular framework? Subsequently, would I review my decision to argue that technology-related competencies are the most relevant ones in favour of communication-related skills or would I perhaps argue that a combination of skills depending on the audience/recipient is most important – at a certain point in time, in a certain cultural context. Now, this would mean to face relativism as a dilemma – but on the other hand, not questioning the framework itself would mean to comply with an absolutist approach in this case.

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Repositories of evidence – The eLearning Professional

As I said yesterday – two new post-graduate courses started, with ‘The eLearning Professional’ (the OU’s H808, developed by the Institute of Educational Technology, a leader in the field of online teaching and learning) being the second post-graduate course I am currently working on towards an MA in Online and Distance Education (MAODE).

Also for this course, all study content is available online, this time sources are rather widespread – with no convenient reading list on Delicious readily available or a neatly compiled eReader. I had seen some criticism on the OU’s site by previous students regarding the lack of clearly communicated learning outcomes. This issue no longer exists: there is a whole document available which clarifies learning outcomes. It definitely helps when working through the study guide and the calendar. It may also help getting back on track later, when I am getting lost somewhere between networking, prosuming and a looming deadline…

This is a course that seems to cover a lot of ground: technically and theoretically. It’s also been my first course ever at the OU where, within a few hours after engaging in the forum, someone asks me to network outside the OU boundaries (Twitter! Blogs! Delicious!– great! I did miss that bit during my undergrad studies).

The first block of 4 units is to be studied over a period of 8 weeks, it contains a diverse range of external online sources, it required signing up for an Open Access Journal (usually we’ve got access to the vast range of journals via the OU’s online library) – I did not encounter one single broken link. That’s brilliant (and not taken for granted). The remaining blocks are not yet accessible (which I feel is micro-managing us), so planning and working ahead will be limited – and that’s a clear minus as my schedule is going to be packed over the next few months.

Applied to the ‘4 areas of competency’ as the course team calls them, i.e. practice, communication, technology and research, is a framework of skills, reflection, critique and proactivity. Hence, the pieces students produce for blogs, wikis, podcasts and eportfolios will become objects (or artefacts) for the ‘repository of evidence’. They will, at least to me, also become subject to extended scrutiny:

  • theories of power,
  • knowledge construction,
  • the politics of identity as well as
  • other sociological concepts

have already been crossing my mind while I skimmed through the material which has been written from an elearning/educational perspective. Apart from this, students will be developing their own personal portfolios, and they will be evaluating various systems and templates in this respect.

Assessment is multi-faceted. There is academic writing required but also reflective commenting, report-writing, forum-discussions in relation to online [asynchronous] collaboration which may entail some synchronous debate on Elluminate Live! which enables audio-conferencing and real-time online collaboration. The collaborative production of podcasts towards the end of the course in January 2010 will probably be located in there, at least in part. The first paper is due in early November, it covers 2,500 words, the following is to be submitted by mid-December, word limit is 4,000 – this one is double-weighted. The last one is an examinable component of 5,000 words, it’s a composite of ePortfolio, essay and commentary and counts 50% towards the overall mark.

There is also guidance as to copyright restrictions in this context, which I think useful to discuss at an early stage. Not least because plagiarism used to be an issue in undergraduate courses where exam marks for a considerable number of students tended to mysteriously drop down towards the fail-barrier – which regularly resulted in claims ‘papers must have been messed up by external examiners…’ I do hope to find some more in-depth material on attribution in particular in relation to online collaboration in this course – and hopefully a lot more fellow students who blog, tweet – and raise questions as to what accounts for 21st century literacies from an eLearning professional’s perspective.

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accessible online learning: supporting disabled students

While still in revision mode for the statistics and research skills course, the exam takes place in mid-October, two new courses have started today. Apart from getting considerably under pressure, I notice there is a huge difference in teaching (and learning) approaches implied and I can’t help but feeling excited about the challenges ahead. This kind of pressure is a welcome challenge, then.

Both courses make use of a whole range of social media. This means students are asked to reflect on learning progress and expectations in our blogs. We are going to collaborate on wikis, produce a podcast – as self-contained learning resource that can be used by other students – within one of the Master courses (H810 “accessible online learning: supporting disabled students” as part of the MAODE, MA in Online and Distance Education at the Open University) which is concerned with the role of assistive technologies in addressing accessibility challenges for disabled learners. I started with looking into the linklist on Delicious, the social bookmarking site H810 Reading as provided by the course team. All study material, including audio and video material, is available online, which is fantastic. However, there is also one source of conventional learning: a book! Those who would like to have the entire material rather than the relevant chapters only which are made available online, will need to purchase that (online probably…).

Seale, J.K. (2006) E-Learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility Research and Practice. Abingdon: Routledge.

It will be interesting to think about accessibility and disability in a broader sense – as in the online world access and disability seem to apply to many levels other than the physical ones (think digital divide, literacies, corporate barriers etc.) Poor practice is going to be a main topic, I think, and I feel we are going to look at the internet and access to learning environments from a different and a lot more informed angle towards the end of the course in January 2010.

The course requires 3 assessments, they are due in mid-October (1,500 words), end of November (3,000 words) and the last one that contributes to 50% of the overall mark towards the end of January which has a limit of 6,000 words. As usual at the OU (and in contrast to conventional universities), the distinction barrier requires us to be awarded at least 85 marks out of 100 (rather than 70 out of 100).

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Shopping. Love it. Hate it. Fluid Social 2.0 promises genuine fun, tap the friendcrowds

Benny Evangelista, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle recently discussed user product reviews in the context of social networking. The sort of thing I keep relying on when buying a product on Amazon for instance, where I want to find out about the reliability and trustworthiness of private sellers – but currently I do miss the interactive bit and remain unable to spot friends or family among the hundreds of pseudonyms.

Brief comments, stars/ratings and ideally more in depth-analyses of a book I take into account when considering a purchase for study purposes. I would not necessarily look for friends and family’s opinion when it comes to study material, though. Rather, I am keen on finding a review that’s marked by critical and thorough summarising, not too poetic in language, not too abstract, strength and weaknesses in balance – and please not at essay-length. I would trust an academic friend’s opinion most in this case. This is different when I look for a camera, for instance, or some other electronic gadget I would be likely to search for on Amazon.

Now, social shopping is what Andy Floyd and his team at Fluid inc. have developed. Here is a taster of their tool
Fluid Social 2.0 that facilitates collaborative buying – which is promising fun, creativity, and interaction. The process is simple: you check out the item, below the photo of the product there is a Facebook application which, once pressed connects and allows users to publish comments, start a live instant message chat and helps to suggest amendments to the model etc.

Not a brand new idea itself but simply taking what we’ve got so far one step further. Amazon reviews are getting more in terms of quantit. Nice. But they do not necessarily make purchase decisions any easier. How do I evaluate 587 reviews and 4.5 out of 5 stars? What does it actually mean? I for one still look for the last critical comment, the last angry customer who awarded 1 out of 5 stars. He or she will tell me what possible problem I might have to expect with that specific supplier. If the problem appears to be based on communication or some minor issue and if it was handled well by the supplier, I go ahead. Usually I even award some mental extra points for such handling, it shows care and that means I trust. But this is not exactly what I think a useful, interactive system in the age of web 2.0. It still leaves the bulk of work/evaluation with me.

Seriously, I just wonder why it took so long to get to this point. Living in London means real life shopping experiences are marked by tiny fitting rooms (often with an umbrella in one hand, exposed to poorly working air conditions), limited selection of items on display (London is madly expensive, shops pay horrendous rents), hence limited sizes available, crowd-pushing, and a tendency towards reducing the shopping experience down to an as-fast-as-possible transaction. Get out here syndrome, I’d call it. In contrast, the last genuinely enjoyable purchasing moment I had was in a skater shop in Palo Alto, CA. A sun-flooded little paradise, full of awesome stuff, relaxed beyond hopes. No stressed out staff. I came out with a pair of Reef flip flops.

Let’s hope retailers pick this up quickly, and understand that shopping 2.0 during recession urgently requires a make-over, not just a glossy façade, piles of cheap items on sale noone really wants to waste their money on, but something innovate and interactive that does lead to customer feedback being taken into account in a collaborative manner. Something dynamic that promotes identification with a brand and customer loyalty the way the California Academy of Sciences (+ San Francisco Symphony, de Young Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, et al.) has shown what can be done by smart harnessing of Facebook, Flickr, Twitter etc. in relation to attracting audiences: making them truly understand what the services are about – and help them come back. I am not just a customer, I have also turned into a fan as you may have noticed.

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