The OU is redesigning the StudentHome I read on Twitter this week. That was long overdue, I thought – when guyweb asked anybody who uses the Open University StudentHome to tell him what they liked and disliked about it. Thorough improvement is imminent, I am hoping…
In brief, the StudentHome contains previous and future courses which are listed with marks, submission dates and course resources as well as links to the library, data about myself, the regional centre and the current (but not previous) associate lecturers. What I find useful and pleasant to access are the course-related sites, they were designed in a clean and user-friendly style.
However, there is no way to share items in social book-marking style among students or invite others to courses you have studied, add comments, suggestions and critiques (course reviews require approval). It very much conveys a notion of: that’s your StudentHome and you are home alone. On the left hand menu there is an empty Personal Calendar which is equipped with an export function. Students will need to add all exam dates, essay cut off dates etc themselves, and are left with an ICS file. Not sure what that’s for, the site does not provide any explanation.
There is no way to get that simply into my Google calendar – link it with Facebook events, and there is no advise as to how to synchronise with my PDA. So I do not use it. There is also a Personal Blog option which, unfortunately, won’t offer me the option to simply synchronise my already established blog and microblog. No way to add my RSS feed, no options to see other students’ blogs.
What happens if I enrol elsewhere? Will my blog expire? This must have been designed by someone who has never used a blog, and someone who does not enjoy the flow of communication. Now that’s exactly what is paramount in an OU student’s life: communication and interaction with peers. So, what I hope to see after the revamp is the following:
- Lecturers remain largely invisible apart from the odd telephone tutorial and emails sent out to non-disclosed recipients. I really hope that they learn to play a more active part in our studies. First of all, it would be good to see what academic affiliation they have got or some links to their publications, projects etc.
- As I said, we are still using old-fashioned telephone tutorials (undergraduate courses offer face to face tutorials and dayschools). The size in my current courses is fantastic, there is no more than 5 of us discussing. But we keep wondering why the OU does make no use of Skype.
- Podcasts. Courses I have studied often contain audio material with interviews, often truly excellent material. But the CDs have been protected, so I am unable to get the files on my mp3 player. For any full-time working/busy student that would be of enormous help.
- RSS feeds as well as social bookmarking would make life a lot more easy and exciting. Often, I share an article on the BBC or The New York Times in Google Reader or Delicious – other students share them on Facebook. The OU (Social Sciences), it seems, does not share at all.
- Wikis (possibly some study-relevant) and Group Blogs would be a great step forward. Not least also a step towards a stronger sense of belonging to an active student community that is keen on connectivity and sharing: blogs and wikis help gaining presentational skills and will improve a sense of authorship/dealing with plagiarism.
- The libray is now on Twitter, there is also a blog and a page on Facebook. Great. But you will need to collect the bits as it’s all very scattered and not all is relevant to non-librarians.
- The OU Youtube channel, for instance, is still not linked and you will only find it if you actually search for it. There is also a lot OU teaching and research going on in Second Life – but you will need to spend some time on finding out about it yourself. Or hear from non-OU academics what the OU is actually doing.
- As I am a Social Sciences students, the StudentHome provides me with a link to the SOCSCI-PROG Social Sciences Subject (what’s that?). There are links to a number of faculty staff blogs. Wow – but not one single link to a student’s blog. To me that conveys a sense of hierarchy, but I might be wrong – perhaps they simply do not know any student blogs. But then they announce that “Soon we will also be asking tutors to send in their selections”, which confirms my first impression.
Links to “Your undergraduate study” and “Learning Journeys” are made for undergraduates and retired learners – the one-size-fits-all might suit the OU, it definitely needs a thorough re-think.
- Now, a truly significant point is the lack of notifications we get about conferences, workshops, symposia etc. There is one single hidden link to the ESRC Festival of Social Science – it’s listed in Latest News, where I would hardly ever find it had I not followed the invite to review the StudentHome. Events at the British Academy, for instance, would be interesting to a large number of students, there is so much out there that the OU could share with their students (let’s not talk about money here and the related students=clients debate).
- There is also no link to the Ethics Committee and their procedures. When I was requesting approval for access to a dataset collected and made available by a university in the USA, I contacted my faculty who was sceptic of Master students getting involved in writing papers for international conferences. That is something PhD students would not be doing before their 2nd year. Well, thanks for the encouraging comments – I was left chasing for approval, resubmitting the explanations and obtained it eventually seven weeks later then. Now I know who is the relevant contact in the Ethics Committee and how to deal with them – but why not making that information accessible to post-graduate students in general?
- Professional associations such as BISA, PSI, SPA are listed on the StudentHome, although the number is very limited: only 10 have been selected. Neither AoIR nor MeCCSA are mentioned. There is a list of 9 think tanks and research bodies but it is just a plain list, no further advice, updates or anything else on grant applications, ethics guidelines etc.
At Birkbeck College, University of London (BBK) lecturers forward at least once a week the large numbers of associations’ newsletters, event announcements etc to their students. This is not the case at the OU, here students need to be way more proactive researchers in order to not miss out on social capital and all the vital information that helps from an early stage on to connect and grow academically.
- Finally, there is also no advice provided as to software packages more specific to our studies such as bibliographical packages, survey tools and file sharing applications. Available is, however, a range of Word-processing and anti-virus software links.
SUMMARY It’s a scattered universe, pages are not interlinked, they are not tailormade for students according to their level of study. They are compiled with a very broad picture of middle-aged student in mind probably with a working class background and rather interested in finding any job than in doing research or building a non-conventional career (the Careers link is the last resource I recommend for advice on funded PhD programmes).
The OUSA FirstClass conferencing system which is linked to the StudentHome is student-moderated and urgently requires a revamp too. OUSA states that “Our conferences span interest, hobbies and lifestyle issues ranging from the serious and sensitive to the frivolous and purely for fun. We also have study rooms so that you can meet up socially with other students doing the same course or programme.”. Over the course of 6 years I have only ever seen 2 associate lecturers posting there occasionally.
Perhaps the OU could learn from tools such as Moodle which is rooted in a constructivist approach. The application aimes at interoperability, syndication and the fact that learners and teachers both contribute to the educational experience. Simply installing new tools and making them accessible to students without rethinking the underlying assumptions, internal politics and barriers towards learning and teaching will provide us with dead tools, I am afraid.
Update on 5 April 2009: The Wikipedia site mentioned above refers to an eGov site that claims the OU is building an online environment under Moodle that will be fully operational by February 2007. More than 2 years later, there is still no sign of Moodle. Nor is there an explanation for the delay, other than that the Pro Vice-Chancellor who made those announcements then in no longer in charge.
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In Digital First Diana Kimball at Harvard University recently discussed the extent of tech-savvyness which teenagers born in the digital era actually possess. It related straight to the conversation I have had with jayprich on adult internet sceptics.
Diana argued that “most Digital Natives don’t treat cruising the Internet as an activity in itself. It’s a tool you use when you want to do something else. What sets Digital Natives apart is their willingness to go to the Internet first—when they have a question, when they want to do something cool, when they want to find someone to hang out with”. As much as I can agree with that in the specific North-American context, I see a different picture elsewhere: for instance by looking at African countries. In September 2008 the number of internet users in Ghana was still below 3 percent of the nation’s population which counts more than 20 million individuals.
Digital Natives are first of all a generation marked by their parents’ economic [as well as social and cultural] capital which has translated into a number of smart choices, resulting in what Max Weber coined life chances. Access to knowledge, being involved in knowledge production and being able to identify relevant information in order to make informed choices is what produces and reproduces better life chances.
A great illustration of cultural capital is Brian Donovan’s excerpt of Woody Allen’s Manhattan:
Acquiring an iPhone, for instance, requires economic capital which translates into symbolic capital as it currently holds a certain status, that in turn may well pay off in social capital as it could help to connect with people online as well as offline (Pierre Bourdieu’s famous work ‘Distinctions’ spring to mind, though). Now having an iPhone does not necessarily mean you know how to smartly harness and exploit the online worlds: you may browse the internet, filter, and come up with hundreds of thousands of results on Google. Even middle-aged professionals manage to do that these days – it’s all so user-friendly and intuitive, isn’t it… Yet, I argue it is the critical thinking, the questioning mind which is actually what sets people apart.
Personally, I am intrigued by the widespread lack of critical questioning when it comes to authorship, production of knowledge and distribution of allegedly authoritative knowledge. There is quite a number of people whom I call Wikipedia-fetishists who are a) unaware of the cultural contexts which inform Wikipedia sites (one of the most striking examples is the material available around November 11 in German Wikipedia versus the English sites) b) take for granted what has been published there because it sounds all pretty convincing – and is in line with other sources of authoritative knowledge c) use search engines mainly in their native language and don’t know that there is google.it, google.fi, google.de, google.co.uk to name only a few.
Now, going first to the internet may also be a step done out of convenience. As the internet is a universe on a massive scale providing information by ‘official’ experts as well as various shades of self-declared experts researching any topic in depth is getting ever more difficult. Which is probably a good thing: it’s challenging and it requires skills. These research skills combined with a critically questioning mind is exactly what will set apart the Generation Digital User from the Generation Born Digital. It may also may make us think about the chronology-based and hierarchy-informed meaning of the word ‘generation’.
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The voices which claim that new tools equal new perceptions, change would be everywhere – dramatic, revolutionary – are getting ever louder, it seems. Creating technology and the use of new tools are undoubtedly offering enormous potential. We may create new and multiple selves, we can connect ourselves with a myriad of others in unprecendented ways and we can harness our imagination in more efficient ways than ever before.
Yet, these dynamics are multiplied and amplified by the flows of information which are subject to our social, economic and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986). While in these days of massive economic downturn the calls for expanding the digital infrastructure and reducing the digital divide within industrialised nations remain audible, the number of those who critically debate the use of such celebrated tools by users other than teenagers, educational institions and coporations are still fairly small. Is there an assumption that the ways of using new social media are inherent in the techne (Boellstorff, 2008 ) itself?
Are we assuming that there is a universal approach towards connecting and sharing online as we are all driven by the desire to share and connect? Are we all driven by the desire to share and connect, we need to ask first. I find that, similar to television and radio for instance, the way individuals use new social media and the perspective they choose – consciously? – to make sense of it varies considerably. National background, social class, gender – but to a lesser extent also age and perhaps even marital status – make the difference.
Feeling powerless, lacking clear guidance and being highly sceptic of the usefullness lead to questions such as: What am I supposed to do there? How much time am I supposed to spent ‘in there’? How many more social networking sites and social bookmarking systems am I supposed to use? Passive resistance and a sense of being pressured into virtual being seem to dominate among those who choose to rather not participate in ‘the hype’. The many resisting half-hearted users seem to be widely neglected in those enthusiastic debates and deserve more attention if we aim at an increased understanding of virtual worlds and well-being in the online and offline contexts. Aren’t those who actually feel very uncomfortable with new social media at risk to make the least of the chances and choices available due to their low level of explorative engagement but yet shape actively and perhaps significantly the discourses offline?
With the British Pound being at a pitiful low rate against the Euro – it’s near parity – I think it’s a good moment to bridge finance and blogging. Comments count as currency in the blogosphere. Given the comments are useful and the reader has taken the time to read through the post, beyond the first two sentences.
In a world where time is a very scarce good, it seems commenting on someone else’s blogpost is not exactly the most rewarding thing to do. So why bother? Why engage in the tiresome – and often also emotional – labour of producing content?
Chrysten Dybenko argued in June this year that only 1% of the active population would ever produce content, no matter if blog, wiki or comments on a site. Now, in January 2008 there were 59 million Facebook users which have more than doubled within the year: according to Facebook there are currently 140 million active users. All these people (individual or collective agents) produce content and demand attention. In my online sphere I see more than 1 in 100 Facebook users commenting on each others’ activities with status updates being the easiest to spot. On Twitter the rate is certainly even higher – but on blogs? That’s indeed a different story. Because the content and comment production is also more time consuming and less spontaneous?
Comments are the one core ingredient that make blogging a lot more of a dialogical activity. There is no point in telling the invisible or imagined audiences what wonderful things you think without getting any feedback. Yet, it’s exactly what many corporations still do on their top-down style websites but if you are not one of the anxious producers you are keen on hearing what readers think.
Or what your readers ‘out there’ produce on their sites. That’s what trackbacks and pingbacks are good for. That’s what produces social capital. But the one thing I am truly keen on is cultural capital. It’s the critical question that indicates someone has thought through and beyond the stuff you offered. And spotted the weaknesses. Or the strengths. And gave you food for thought. Something to come back to and make it better. That’s the material that you take with you from your online world into the offline world. That makes you post something like an answer. Online. Or talk back, offline – and to someone who does not even know you are a blogger. Bring the thoughts and comments back into different contexts. Generate new ideas.
The hybrid places where online and offline merge and we notice that what we give and get online may have an impact on our identities much bigger than many are willing to admit. And it seems, our identities are rather merged phenomenon than fragmentations…
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