I recently attended the Webvisions conference in Portland, Oregon. Blaise Aguera y Arcas and Douglas Rushkoff were a few of the well-known speakers. Many of the sessions were led by developers who were working with cutting-edge web technologies. Some of the main themes I heard at the conference were as follows:
HTML5, CS3, and JQuery
Digital ethnography, especially as it relates to user interface (UX) and mobility
Many of the sessions, including Blaise Aguera y Arcas’ talk focused on user interface and understanding user preference and technology usage on a contextualized level. Kelly Goto and Rachel Hinman were all-star UX proponents and offered numerous ideas for moving beyond analytics and demographics to how individuals use technology at various times of the day. It appears many companies have moved beyond seeking a “sticky” site to one that is addictive. And so, branding and product design were related to sensory activity (especially tacticle) and emotional connection. Hinman’s discussion about the new ecology of untethered mobile devices and how mobile devices can “unlock” place was inspiring.
Vision for future (the ecology of new devices)
Rachel Hinman and Douglas Rushkoff covered a large swathe of ideas related to future technology trends. Much of Rushkoff’s talk focused on corporate interests versus individual interests and how technology is being used to subvert individuality and free thinking by corporate interests. One of his more memorable claims was that Facebook’s product was not the software, but the child—more specifically, the child’s social graph that can be monetized. He suggested Portland was “our last hope”–whatever that meant…and, he believed technology is most effective in the hands of the youth and “stoners”–not sure he was trying to directly correlate a location with this claim…but, the two were said at various points of his talk. While some of this was tongue in cheek banter, his main goal was to encourage the individual user of technology to be more efficacious and aware of the underlying technologies enabling our daily usage of software and devices. Without such awareness and discretion, he believed that we would be beholden to corporate interests and those who would use technology to slowly devalue individual rights. He said so much more, but the core of his talk reminded me of some of Sherry Turkle’s writings.
When Rushkoff heard one of my colleagues worked with Blackboard, he seemed a bit disappointed, but then signed his book with the following, “Blackboard is intentional”—great sense of humor.
Hinman recommended several articles. I found the following very enlightening (The Coming Zombie Apocalypse).
Understanding technological literacy, or the lack thereof, is a crucial issue not just for small scale instructional technology projects, but also for qualifying some of the social or environmental drivers that influence and shape our audience’s behavior and preferences. Serif or sans serif font? Sharing or bookmarking digital text and the conventions to support this activity? As we’re working on a statewide online course for the Master Naturalist program, we’ve been reminded of how important these issues are for our audience as we’ve collected data from a recent pilot class.
Below are a few recent articles on the topic of digital literacy. The first article suggests that e-learning technologies still have some ground to cover until they replace the bound book while the second article captures Sherry Turkle’s thoughts about how many technology consumers use technology with little awareness or concern for how technology functions below the interface (or application layer). Turkle believes this has adverse effects on both the individual and society.
“A recent University of Washington study interviewed 39 first-year graduate students in the university’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering, which participated in a pilot study of Amazon’s Kindle DX (a large-screen e-reader). By seven months into the study, fewer than 40% of the students did their schoolwork on the Kindle. The problem: the Kindle has poor note-taking support, doesn’t allow for easy skimming, and makes it difficult for students to look up references (in comparison with computers and textbooks).”
“Perhaps the solution–for textbooks, at least–is to bolster conventional text and images with more interactive and multimedia content.”
Read the article….
Sherry Turkle is a “professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, and the founder and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and the Self, Turkle has invested years thinking about and publishing her work on these problems….She has also made extensive observations of the generation of students appearing on college and university campuses now. Broadly, she concludes that these students really do not possess the technological literacy they need to understand the technology environments they are engaging with–and she is concerned.”
Netflix surpassed yet another milestone this week: It now has more subscribers than the largest cable TV operator in the U.S. You heard right…that’s 23.6 million users to be exact… an awful lot of subscribers. Their subscription base grew over 70% last year and that means that more than 7% of Americans now subscribe to Netflix. So, how did they do it?
I’m not a business analyst, but as someone who worked at Netflix a few years ago, I’m intrigued by this company’s unstoppable growth and what we can learn by what they’ve done right. I’m also interested with those companies that fail and are left in the wake of the stronger business model, product, or service. Many of the top selling books over the last decade have focused on management principles, leadership development, and developing a culture of innovation. Interestingly, these resources weren’t enough to save the myriad of businesses that have gone under the last decade due to a problem with their business model (Hollywood video, GM), customer base (Crispy Cream Doughnuts, TiVo), or management effectiveness (Enron). In short, their boat took on too much water for any one person, strategy, or “tiger” team to bail out the water fast enough. So, how does a company like Netflix start strong and leave so many able competitors in its wake? And how might these principles or values be transferred to your business environment? Here are a few thoughts.
1. Core business. Netflix is about delivering movies to customers in the most efficient and convenient manner possible. Yes, they’ve added Hulu, Pandora, and Vimeo integration—and videos can be streamed via some Blu-Ray players and video game systems, but, don’t hold your breath if you’re waiting for Netflix to ship toys with their movies or start selling hardware. They’ve dipped their toe into these peripheral areas a few times (Roku box), but think of the In and Out Burger menu as their nearest of kin when it comes to business models—they provide a singular service and do it better than anyone else.
2. It’s about the software. Sure, they ship movies and answer customer calls and emails, but they’re primarily a small group of highly educated programmers focused on instantiating a customer-focused service. Their algorithms crunch numbers and predict movie preferences while their queues organize user choices and ensure your time spent “on site” is maximized and translates to a steady stream of movies. Their primary strength is the competency of their cadre of programmers from the CEO down. Ironically, I heard many times while at Netflix that Reed Hastings runs his company similar to how a coder writes code.
3. Their price is hard to beat. While Blockbuster kiosks seem to be exercising a “bait and switch” tactic by raising newer movie rentals to $2.99 from 99 cents, Netflix has largely kept their subscription prices fixed—with one nominal increase several months back.
4. Their main asset is their employee base. This is obviously tied to item number two and reflected in their attempt to pay employees above everyone else’s cap. Where else will you find an “open” vacation policy where you simply take time off when you need it? I also remember rolling into the office and arguing with their IT person that I didn’t need the most expensive equipment. There is rarely an expense spared when the implementation of a project is in focus. In all honesty, working at Netflix wasn’t my favorite job by any stretch of the imagination, but their focus on pay, vacation, and equipment spoke to their commitment to the employee as an asset.
While technology is often about manipulating physical matter to achieve some kind of efficiency or product, it is also very much about perspective and thinking about doing old things in new ways. And so, it hasn’t surprised me that my own thinking of technology has been heavily influenced by watching how my 10- and 6-year old boys interact with computers, mobile devices, and new media. Perhaps the most relevant part of this discussion stems from one important observation–the issue of technology adoption is largely moot for the young in many contexts.
Past habits, preconceptions, and preferences rarely factor in for kids as they pick up a new technology and I am often left wondering whether or not the lessons I learned as a linguist (in my past academic life) about how kids acquire language resembles their uptake of technology. Some of the more well-known linguists, like Pinker or Chomsky, have referred to this as the “language instinct” and I must admit I see a very similar latent competency in my own children. This kind of in-born fluency with technology acquisition is also discussed in one of my favorite TED talks by Sugata Mitra. The “Hole in the Wall” talk asserts that very poor children in the slums of India are predisposed to acquire technology skills when Internet-ready computers mysteriously show up embedded in neighborhood walls. It’s a fascinating study and Sugata is relying heavily on the belief that kids are hard-wired to learn technology. A little closer to home…here are some observations about how my own kids’ interface with technology has informed some of my thinking in this area.
1. Adoption of new technology is primarily schema changing for adults and schema acquisition for youth.
This has various implications and I’m leaning hard on a specific model of learning theory. I’ve seen the same issue in play when learning and teaching foreign language as an adult. Adults are oftentimes scaffolding new information around already acquired schema whereas children (with their reduced experience and improved mental “plasticity”) are establishing new neuronal connections with little “extra” mental processing, hence, children tend to learn language more with greater potential to reach native speaker pronunciation.
Example: My children see very little difference between an Apple, Windows and iOS mobile platform. They have not established opinions and been exposed to marketing, peer value statements and prolonged exposure to earlier iterations. They therefore move quickly and seamlessly between devices. Locating user preferences, cameras, games, video editing—no problem for them and no real preference (if you ask them) about which platform is better. It just is.
2. Children “get” technology as soon as they find a relevant purpose.
On some level, this holds true for adults as well, but we’re often forced to prioritize our technology usage and can quickly relegate new technologies to the recycling bin.
Example: When augmented reality (AR) came out, I found it interesting, but could not find any practical uses in my own life. The same might be true (so far) of RFID and most iPhone apps. My youngest quickly found that the lego.com website allows him to print different Lego vehicle pages with AR markers placed in the middle. He now holds up the AR printouts in front of the computer so that he can see the 3-D AR lego ship appear on the monitor. He was also pointed to the iPhone game for the site, which encouraged him to use my phone to scan the box of a certain Lego box to receive more points. Admittedly, there is some unneeded advertising here, but he was more than excited to join me on my recent trip to the store where he opened the app, accessed my mobile device camera, scanned the box, and jumped right back into the game. To some degree, I’ve already ruled out AR, RFID, and some of the scanning technologies. He has no such opinion and will most likely continue using it, even if he has months of non-usage in between. It felt a little bit like a glimpse of the future for me.
3. The curiosity children exhibit towards technology is often unusually strong.
Example: Chase bank recently announced that their iPhone app allows customers to take a photo of their check and make this deposit remotely—no ATM needed. While other smaller banks have moved in this direction, Chase is the first mainstream bank to do this. When I shared this with my wife, she immediately wanted to know about the security issues and constraints. She was not very excited. I know that if my children get a hold of this, they will move quickly to use the technology without a single neuron slowing down the adoption process. Sounds like the perfect experiment!
While these are obviously anecdotal stories couched in my own set of quasi-scientific opinions, each example reminds me that technology just “is” for children. As adults, we obviously have a responsibility to bring discretion to the larger issue of how and when technology is used, but I think that we are well served by acknowledging that we have an awful lot to learn from our kids in this domain and we are surely looking at the future as we watch children use technology to seamlessly connect the private, public, consumer, and personal domains of our cultural terrain.
Gardening is one of our most popular topics within Cooperative Extension. In the spirit of form following function, we set out to capture some short vignettes from an expert gardener and convey the most important elements of these discussions in video, podcast, and caption-enhanced photo slide shows in a simple and easy to access format. We videotaped the interviews, worked on trimming down content and created an attractive and easy-to-use webpage that organizes the resources into appropriate categories. Before I discuss some of the lessons learned and design tips, feel free to look over the site.
Admittedly, it’s on the lower side of the complexity scale, but as mentioned, it’s mainly a collection of short stories that are formatted for online video. A few brief tips:
1. As always, think about your audience. This goes without saying and is built into any ID model. In our case, we imagined our online gardening enthusiasts swimming in an ocean of PDF files and knew they would welcome visual content that highlighted the experience of an expert in her own backyard.
2. Catchy headers, intros and titles are important. Eye tracking research on newsletter usability points out the dire need to capture reader attention in the first two words of titles and headers. A recent Jacob Nielson Alertbox provides other tips.
3. Modularize video content to ensure clips are short and compelling. Most of our video clips are under one minute and speak to a single topic. Although branded with our university logo, the style is conversational and to the point.
4. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good when you’re shooting video. Case in point, Kahn Academy…. Bill Gate’s favorite online teacher cobbled together a few hundred dollars worth of video equipment and single-handedly crafted almost 2,000 online video mini courses that are viewed upwards of 70,000 times a day. His 20 million page view count suggests he might be reaching as many “non-credit” students as several large universities.
5. Tools? We used video editing software (Final Cut Pro), Slideshow Pro (for the photos and captions), and a basic video camera with a wireless microphone.
Analytics show these online resources are popular and our low bounce rate (8%) suggests users are being pulled deeper into the site after landing on the home page. Our next step in this project is to build a virtual tour of our expert’s garden and allow users to drill down on key characteristics of the garden (water usage, light, native or non-native) based on a seasonal view.
The Pew Research Center just released some statistics around mobile device location service usage. If you’re unfamiliar with “location service,” the basic idea is “I’m at this specific location, so show me information or allow me to do something on my smart phone relevant to this place.” According to the study, the percentage of online adults (18-29 years old) using “geosocial” or location-based services is still relatively low. About 7% of this group use location service sporadically, with about 4% using apps like Foursquare or Gowalla. The study seems to suggest daily usage of location service apps at about 1%. Interestingly, location service usage among Hispanics (10%) is higher than online whites (3%). 6% of online men use location-based services compared to 3% of online women.
The upshot of the study? These findings suggest place-based apps or services are still very much in their infancy. Case in point, look more closely at Tim Kring’s (creator of the Heroes TV show) recent Conspiracy for Good Project. It’s essentially a large place-based multimedia experience that leverages mobile phones location service and builds an emerging, interactive narrative around physical locations in London. Say again? In his own words,
We told a lot of story online and through mobile, publishing, and merchandising. Everywhere you could connect to an audience with the narrative, we were telling stories. This is taking that same idea and rolling it out, literally, into the streets. The exciting part is that the narrative lives all around you — on your mobile phone, on the internet, and starting on July 17, literally on the streets of London for three weeks.
In a slightly less ambitious nod to place-based service apps, many universities are exploiting students’ penchant for this type of “geosocial” activity (young, social, mobile). A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article shares a compelling example from Boston University.
Boston University’s Dean of Students Office designed a trek around a freshman-orientation fair in August that sent students to campus hangouts, libraries, and various academic-department booths. Students earned points by sending along pictures of themselves taking a dip in a college fountain, talking with counselors at the Career Development Office booth, and making tie-dyed T-shirts out on BU Beach, among other things. All pictures and completed tasks were posted on the event Web site, and the student with the highest number of points took home an iPad.
Foursquare and Gowalla have already won some followers and other “geosocial” or place-based apps are popping up. SCVNGR is notable in their attempt to blend place-based “check in” with challenges, user contribution and marketing (how about Oregami in a burrito shop with a virtual coupon tied to challenges?). The NY Times summarizes the approach as follows, “…location-based gaming platforms that allow visitors to explore the institutions in a gamelike fashion. The company was founded with the idea that mobile games could blur a line between digital interactivity and real-world interaction.”
Although in its infancy, the potential for educational and marketing organizations is promising. Pedagogically speaking, educational approaches like place-based learning provide helpful framework for imagining how this technology can support key objectives like promoting civic responsibility, awareness of environment, and maximally contextualized asynchronous learning. As the technology improves, I can imagine dollars being shuffled rapidly into this domain as more providers determine how to integrate place-based features into their marketing, app, game, or in some cases, large-scale interactive multimedia narrative. For those of us in the educational market, the opportunities are limitless.
As a communicator whose occupational focus is educational, I often find the social media landscape both exhilarating and downright annoying. Truth be told, the never-ending stream of articles, presentations, and books that focus on social media more often than not fall into the “annoying” category. Too many of these resources lack real-world examples that include an instructional or educational component and yet they often purport to convey methods or approaches that work outside of their specific domain.
For many, the sweet spot of social media is marketing. I don’t necessarily disagree. Marketing is extremely important to any organization, but social media need not always be constrained or driven by a marketing objective. How often have you run across this basic social media message: “Product X or Group Y is über cool and you need to act in some way if you want to join the campaign or affiliate”? Or, “I wasn’t generating a lot of revenue using traditional marketing, but with social media I turned my ‘Whuffie’ into serious waffles.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with either approach and social media can indeed be a powerful marketing tool that helps individuals feel connected with a brand, organization or other individuals. What’s more, brand management and connection with educational consumers is particularly big business and the likes of the Gates’ Foundation, Cisco and many other big players have been parked on this block for some time; looking to grow market share, influence policy, and improve the educational experience in a more equitable fashion.
But utilizing social media for educational outreach or research activities in state-funded organizations? Over the last few years, I’ve seen numerous examples of social media working well within learning contexts here at our university (and others), but have not come across a cohesive vision that informs the practice. Is Cooperative Extension too rooted in face-to-face outreach to augment their communication efforts with social media? In fact, Extension groups are perfectly primed to leverage this form of communication based on their core goals and focus on meeting community-based needs.
A recent eXtension talk by Lee Rainey of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project unpacks this notion in brilliant detail. While the practices driving social media usage are still emerging in tandem with the evolution of the tools themselves, Rainie’s talk helped me envision a time when social media will indeed become a part of the university’s research and outreach effort and a crucial part of how it does educational business. Paired with Harold Jarche’s discussion on the historical psychology of communication (and its predictable shifts), I can only say that I was inspired. I’ve been following Harold Jarche’s blog for a few years now and have found his dialog around managing information (TMI—too much information) and network participation crucial to understanding the theory behind social media practice. Those working in large organizations where technology adoption occurs more slowly would benefit from these two presentations.
A university is in many ways an independent and relatively manageable entity, but what about an entire country that seems to push back on the use of social media, or a government?
GCN or Government Computer News provided numerous recent examples of how the U.S. Federal Government is using social media to build more transparency and efficiency into its communication practices while a Harvard Business Review article tackles the issue of social media adoption in France. Both resources document real-world examples of how social media can be used in a “blended” environment where a sizable portion of end users are still entrenched in traditional communication modes.
Treasure maps, letterboxing, scavenger hunts and geocaching all leverage environmental markers to guide a participant from one location to another. Just as geocaching enhanced earlier forms of interpretive tours or location-based hunts to a wider audience, smart phones are pushing the potential of place-based learning into uncharted territory.
Some of the recent examples of this are most apparent with augmented reality. Utilizing the smart phone’s camera, GPS and real-time connection to a database allow any number of possibilities for a user to walk, point, and interpret. Much of the initial apps in this space have been tied to marketing, but educational examples are emerging.
Here are a few examples that highlight location-specific interpretation of pests, soil, and grass.
Cooperative Extension has a unique foothold in this domain as its organizational typology (county-based offices) and locale-specific topics lend themselves to this combination of technology and instructional approach. Learning is simply too broad (and too important) and technology has become too powerful for education to be constrained within traditional containers. Sugata Matra’s recent TED talk about building Internet-ready PCs into the walls of poor neighborhoods in India might be the extreme version of “kids grow knowledge” while in their neighborhood, but other organizations in New York that are looking more closely at place-based learning echo this need for in situ learning. Katie Salem at Quest to Learn drives this notion home, “We have to move beyond this notion of school as a container for learning,” adding that kids pass through many different learning contexts every day.
Here at Oregon State University, we recently finished a place-based tree tour iPhone application and many of these instructional issues helped us define our design and development process. I’ll share more about this in the next post. In the meantime, do you have some other examples of place-based learning?
Educational models usually stress the importance of clearly defining learning objectives at the outset. How can e-learning balance this doctrine with the great untapped potential of unplanned learning?
Can we get any insights to help answer this question from the recent rise in popularity of random online video chatting? After all, with a few clicks, people can now “meet other people from around the world” (Hey-people.com).
When you go to a random video chat site like JabberCam!, Google ads appear for a variety of online learning programs. Are people who are eager to meet new people online also eager to learn something new online? Well, of course. Isn’t the desire to grow into a bigger self intrinsic to the pursuit of learning?
If, as Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” can random video chatting be an alternative cure for those unable to travel the world?
The Omegle random video chat brand invites users to “talk to strangers!” Embedded in the multitude of reasons why people would want to do this is the human interest in learning from one another.
The Fate of the Book
The Chronicle Review, October 1, 2010
Essays by William Germano, Jeffrey R. Di Leo, and Diane Wachtell
In the most recent issue of the Chronicle Review, several authors ask: Is the printed book dead? Three cogent essays survey the vast landscape that is publishing and weigh in on the current health and future possibilities of how we will distill our ideas and craft narrative using the ever-evolving suite of authoring and distribution tools.
Some quotes from these essays:
The overarching goals of publishing have been “universal access to knowledge and building knowledge as a self-correcting, collective exercise.”
“The real reason that academe has been slow to embrace digitization—is cultural, not material: an attitude rooted in the belief that the printed book is intrinsic to scholarship.”
“The story of electronic literature and scholarship has yet to be written in full, but before long the growth in digital scholarship will put an end to the myth of the book in higher education.”
Today, there is a symbiotic relationship between the book and the digital publication: “The way the electronic triumvirate engages with the publishing industry is by selling old-media products via new media.” Hence, discussions about revenue structures abound.
Is the printed book truly on its way out—residual collateral of cost efficiencies and technological advancement? Has the tipping point already occurred or, as one author suggests, will new publication approaches evolve to a point where the book will be relegated to furniture? What discipline or disciplines will champion the story of digital scholarship? What are your thoughts?