Thursday, February 24, 2011

Staying Home for an Online Conference

It was chilly today so I didn't feel like getting out of bed to attend the conference I registered for. So I didn't. I just turned on my computer and laid back in cozy warmness. Yes, the Internet has truly allowed me to not only stay in my pajamas while working, but now to not even get out of bed. Most enjoyable conference experience ever.

I attended the Handheld Librarian Online Conference today. As someone noted on Twitter, the title sounds like a diminutive librarian that we can hold in our hand. Sounds like the plot for an educational show with a bun-haired, straight-laced reference librarian magically appearing on kids’ hands when they need to find important information. Well, with current mobile and Internet technology there may not be such a need for real life experts, Lilliputian or otherwise.

This is the second librarian conference I've attended this month and ever (see my post on the Ontario Library Association conference). It's also my first ever online conference. I've attended webinars and webconferencing discussions before, but nothing that billed itself as a virtual conference. Aside from not having to leave one's house on a cold Canadian morning or occurring horrific travel costs and jet lag, I was curious if online conferences had other benefits.

Rather than cover the key take-away messages from the conference, which one can get from the Twitter feed, I'm more interested in the structure and issues of an online conference.

Adobe Connect
The webconferencing system used was Adobe Connect. I've been investigating Adobe Connect recently for an online training session I'm hosting. It is web-based software that allows live and canned:
  • presentation and screen sharing
  • text-based Q&A
  • text-based chats
  • interactive polls
  • audio or video integration
The presenters at the Handheld Librarian conference generally made good use of all these features. Someone told me that playing a video via Adobe Connect can crash the system, but this didn't happen. The polls used were a fun way to solicit audience feedback, but weren't used to shape the direction of a presentation which would be preferable (if daunting for presenters).

There are always technical challenges and other obstacles with real-life (RL) conferences (like presentations that won’t load, microphones that don’t work, overcrowded rooms, horrid caterers, etc.). So glitches are to be expected. Registration didn’t work seamlessly for me and others – but I got access at the last minute. The conferencing system worked quite well. There were occasional audio quality issues – blips and cut-outs – but for two days of conferences it worked most of the time.

I wasn't fond of how the conference organizers structured the accompanying text chats. Adobe Connect allows a text chat window for Q&A and one for general chat. Often the amount of chat for an event like this can be onerous so distinguishing genuine questions from commentary or banter is difficult for the audience let alone presenters. Separating these by window would help.
As would using Adobe Connect's features to distinguish the type of comment and to direct messages – but these features weren't consistently enabled.

I was mystified by Adobe Connect’s various “status options” (i.e. emoticons) feature. It seemed perpetually set at “Raise Hand” and even when I clicked on “Laughter”, “Applause,” or “Agree” (they also have options for speed, volume, etc.) nothing seemed to happen.

In addition to the live web conference each session had an associated discussion area. Only two comments were posted, however. For some reasons none of the keynotes had a discussion board – this is odd as they naturally attract more attention and interest. Discussions might also have been fostered more if they were seeded with 1-2 topics arising from the session. Or the presenters could be asked to answer questions posted there for a set time afterwards. These discussion boards are a great idea though as they are unique to the Web medium and a great way to encourage and extend further and deeper discussion (in theory).

The reduced costs for hosting an online event were reflected in the very reasonable conference fee. Normally the multiple hundred dollars registration fees of most RL conferences are a huge barrier. Travel costs and time constraints of international conferences also prevent me from attending many that I would like to. The online format allowed me to afford attending and balance personal obligations. I'm looking forward to the sessions that I had to miss being archived and posted.

The online conference format also allowed me to multitask. The benefit of a constant access to a computer and Internet connection (something lacking more often than not) meant that I was able to follow up on leads mentioned by presenters. I was able to instantly investigate if an online tool mentioned was suitable or to google unfamiliar terms and concepts (I hadn’t heard of JPEG 2000 until today). I also got non-conference related work done too (dishes done during the lunch break, for example).

Perhaps because I was on my computer for the entire time, I was able to use Twitter much more effectively than at RL conferences. The conference was very supportive of the backchannel conversations both during the sessions (via the accompanying chat windows) and promoting the Twitter hashtag. (The Twitter feed was integrated on the homepage, but I believe it had to be removed as the volume crashed the site). The backchannel conversations can be the most valuable part of a conference, so it was good to be able to fully benefit from them.

It seems standard nowadays for every conference, particularly ones relating to the Internet or digital media, to promote and integrate the event with Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter. The Handheld Librarian conference didn’t do this as I would have liked, but they did offer a discussion area for participant introductions. This page has a lot of posts so I think it demonstrates the value of online conference networking. Considering that an online conference lacks some of the ways to meet and get to know fellow participants of RL, these techniques are more important. The conference did offer two online “Happy Hour” sessions. I wasn’t able to attend, but it sounds like a cool way to facilitate discussion and networking.

Overall, it was an excellent conference experience. The speakers were really good and the topics interesting. The online format has distinct advantages, as mentioned. With a few glitches resolved and more support for fostering online discussion, I would be happy to attend all future conferences this way.

Pondering Effects of foursquare

Over the last year, I have been researching and contemplating usage of the location-based mobile application foursquare. A one-time avid user, my own usage has lessened significantly over the last few months. This is due to the loss of novelty for me, a lack of critical mass of my friends using it, almost non-existent financial incentives, and foursquare's interface limitations.

My interest has perked up recently, however, when I got my first real-world reward for using it (a free, yumlicious gelato from Toronto's Hotel Gelato). I believe in the potential of the location-based services are great and will continue to watch them.

So I was intrigued when I was recently contacted by a fellow PhD student, Leighton Evans, who is also studying location-based services.

Leighton describes his research:
I'm interested in the effects of using location-based services and mobile phones as navigational devices. Traditional maps imposed one kind of spatial and cognitive orientation with regards to physical space, my research asks questions of whether mobile devices are offering a new type of reasoning of this kind, and what the implications of any change might be for the future.
I was similarly drawn to foursquare as I believe it has the power (if yet, often unrealized) to help citizens define and annotate their space for themselves, so I find his work to augur at the profound changes that will results from location-based changes.

Leighton is looking for foursquare users to be interviewed via email. If you are interested in participating or want more information please contact him.

Here are his questions with my corresponding answers.

Question #1: How has using foursquare (or any other location based service) made you aware of, or more aware of, the places around you?

Answer #1: foursquare was the first location-based service I used or had experience with, so initially I found it very useful to discover new places around me particularly restaurants. foursquare's interface is not well suited to specific searches by type of place or even for nearby venues (seems to get proximity wrong a lot and miss tons of key places), so when I heard about the YellowPages app, I switched to that for finding businesses and associated contact info.

I was hoping that foursquare would provide richer understanding of places I am in. Other than finding a hidden washroom at a subway station I frequent, this generally has not happened. Most of the comments on place are quite superficial, well-known, or narcissistic.

Question #2. Do you feel that in using your location services through your mobile device, that device has in effect become a tool for navigating your way through the world? If so, would being denied that tool affect your ability or desire to explore new places?

Answer #2: I would like to say that LBS has significantly affected my wayfinding or relationship to place - and I think it has the potential to. Other than finding businesses in a geotargetted fashion, however, LBS has not done this. That said, when I was recently on a personal vacation to Chicago (see my blog post), I was impressed at how much the city was embracing foursquare and using it as a tourism tool. Due to the exorbitant roaming charges by my carrier, I wasn't able to make use of this. But I constantly felt that there was so much that my mobile could do to greatly enhance my visit there.

Question #3: Do you have any experiences of using the tips left by other users and them actively being involved in the choices you make, either visiting a place or checking-in to a place?

Answer #3: Yes, I tried a restaurant that I had not previously heard of based on seeing various check-ins for it on foursquare. Also, at a restaurant I have chosen a menu item based on a prior customer's tip. I really appreciate this feature but have found that as foursquare grows the amount of noise and the lack of ability to sift through this has made finding valuable info like this very difficult and not worth the effort as other sites do this better (e.g. OurFaves).

Question #4: Has using foursquare (and using GPS) changed the importance of your mobile device compared to other phones or PDAs you used in the past? Does the device feel more integral to your everyday life than previously?

Answer #4: Location based services have been a nice-to-have functionality of my mobile and I think will eventually become integral functionality for me. Currently, however, it has not provided completely new, crucial functionality for me. I can get the same functionality through other, often easier, means.

Question #5: How aware are you of your check-ins and activity on foursquare being a means of providing information and feedback to the application and software itself? Does any such awareness influence your usage and choices with the software?

Answer #5: I have ambivalent feelings towards user-generated services that make their money on the free labour of their users (I like how an author referred to this as "loser generated content"). But services such as foursquare and Facebook do provide the infrastructure that offer me significant value such that I don't mind this potential exploitation. Regarding privacy, I have no concerns about the application knowing my whereabouts - I am not overly concerned with privacy and generally don't check-in anywhere that I would not be willing for anyone in the entire world to know.

Question #6: Given that foursquare is a social application, and social networks involve a measure of impression management, are you someone that checks-in to places with an awareness of how that contributes to an image your online friends have of you or that you are trying to create?

Answer #6: I have been acutely aware of how foursquare helps project identity. I noticed that many people only check in at hip, high-status locations or their work. I have never seen a check-in with anyone I know at a big box store or fast-food chain. Because of this I found it fun to deliberately check into Burger King and Walmart, for example, to make a point. Everyone goes to these types of places but why the reluctance to check in there? This trendiness that foursquare seems to provoke appears superficial and contrived to me. I am guilty of this as well as I am definitely more apt to check into a place that I - and my friends - perceive as interesting or cool.

Question #7: How has using location services changed your perception of the world?

Answer #7: There were a couple moments when foursquare strongly affected my relationship to space and others in it. The first one was when Toronto had its worst earthquake in over a hundred years. It wasn't a big one, but it was an odd, bewildering experience. I turned on my mobile and noticed that others had been checking into the earthquake (the location was the entire city). I felt much more connected to my fellow city inhabitants somehow through that. I also watched virtually the locations and people of Toronto's G20 protests. Even though these were extensively covered by the media, using foursquare somehow made it feel more real and nearby opposed to TV that feels distant and foreign even when it is local coverage. In general, foursquare does allow one (i.e. me) to leave my imprint on a place that does connect one more tangibly to a place. This feeling is magnified when one gets a "mayor" title, which I admit at first was quite rewarding to get. I feel these feelings less so now that I've been using foursquare for almost a year, so perhaps novelty was a key factor in this.

Please share your feelings towards foursquare here.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

e-Learning in 2011

A friend recently tweeted (posted to Twitter) a bunch of interesting articles about the state of e-Learning. I thought they were interesting to share, but as they are rather lengthy (one report is 40 pages) I excerpted key points.

1) 2011 Horizon Report
Covers how and which technologies are affecting education in currently and in the future. Among their findings (quoted from the report):
  • The abundance of resources and relationships made easily accessible via the Internet is increasingly challenging us to revisit our roles as educators in sense-making, coaching, and credentialing.
  • People expect to be able to work, learn, and study whenever and wherever they want.
  • The world of work is increasingly collaborative, giving rise to reflection about the way student projects are structured.
  • Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession.
  • Keeping pace with the rapid proliferation of information, software tools, and devices is challenging for students and teachers alike.
Their technologies to watch for this year are electronic books and mobiles, with augmented reality and game-based learning expected to gain prominence in the next 2-3 years.

2) 2011 Outlook for Online Learning & Distance Education
By T. Bates, Contact North
Covers trends, barriers, and opportunities. The author found that enrollment in fully online courses grew by 20% last year (in the US) are found major barriers (quoted from the report):
  1. Faculty resistance to online learning and/or distance education, which remains strong in many institutions;
  2. Lack of training in teaching, which limits instructors’ ability to imagine effective alternative technology-based models to face-to- face classroom teaching;
  3. Unambitious institutional goals for technology-based teaching, focused more on enhancing the classroom model than finding new designs that allow for more flexible access and that use the affordances of new technology to develop skills needed in the 21st century;
  4. Failure to develop appropriate methods for costing online learning; the costs are often unknown, as are the costs of face-to-face teaching, but generally technology is an added cost rather than used to replace less effective activities; and
  5. Lack of a system wide approach to online learning and distance education
He also predicts opportunities for 2011
  1. Course redesign [integrating new models]
  2. The future is mobile: ‘the notion of class time as separate from non-class time will vanish.’
  3. Open educational resources are a development that still falls far short of its promise.
  4. Multimedia materials, such as short video clips, animations, and simulations will increasingly be developed as part of online course materials,
  5. Learning analytics will provide instructors and course directors with tools that will enable decisions to be made
  6. Shared [IT] services
3) Online Courses, Still Lacking That Third Dimension
By R. Stross, NY Times
The irrelevance of teachers won't happen any time soon, and even less likely in the humanities and social sciences. Here are quoted excerpts:
When colleges and universities finally decide to make full use of the Internet, most professors will lose their jobs.

A genuine online course would be nothing but the software and would handle all the grading, too. No living, breathing instructor would be needed for oversight.

Candace Thille, the director of Carnegie Mellon’s program, put it this way: “There is something motivating about the student’s relationship with the instructor — and with the student’s relationship with other students in the class — that would be absent if each took the course in a software-only environment.”

Those relationships — with humans in the flesh — help students to persevere. Online courses are notorious for high dropout rates.

Much, of course, depends on the subject being taught. An introductory statistics class taught to 600 students in a lecture hall won’t offer much of a relationship with the professor. Moving it into a self-contained, adaptive software package — Carnegie Mellon’s online program offers two statistics classes — would arguably offer a superior learning experience. But in this case, the subject matter is distillable into a handful of concepts, and the exams use questions with only a single correct answer. That’s not an option for just about all of the humanities and vast swaths of the social sciences.

Wendy Brown, the Heller professor of political science at the Berkeley campus, spoke witheringly of the idea at a campus forum in October: “What is sacrificed when classrooms disappear, the place where good teachers do not merely ‘deliver content’ to students but wake them up, throw them on their feet and pull the chair away? Where ideas can become intoxicating, where an instructor’s ardor for a subject or a dimension of the world can be contagious? Where scientific, literary, ethical or political passions are ignited?”

Friday, February 18, 2011


The topic of location-aware mobile applications are certainly a growing area. Whether an application used more for fun and reviews such as Foursquare or to find nearby businesses such as the Yellow Pages app, I believe this type of technology will become increasingly ubiquitous and embedded in an increasing number of applications and online services.

My research has been examine how these applications function and are constructed. I've encountered a lot of jargon and key terms to the area that I find it useful to clear up. So I spent some time on Wikipedia (an invaluable source).

So here are a few terms that comprise or are a form of a mobile location-aware application. All definitions are for the most part from Wikipedia, unless otherwise noted. My comments are in curly parentheses {}.

Device Level

- Context awareness - "computers can both sense, and react based on their environment" {e.g. time of day, light level, noise level, location hence "location awareness}

- Geolocation - "identification of the real-world geographic location of an object, such as a cell phone or an Internet-connected computer terminal. Geolocation may refer to the practice of assessing the location, or to the actual assessed location"

Application Level

- Location-based service (LBS) - "information or entertainment service, accessible with mobile devices through the mobile network and utilizing the ability to make use of the geographical position of the mobile device"

- Locative media - "media of communication functionally bound to a location. Locative media are digital media applied to real places and thus triggering real social interactions.... Many locative media projects have a social, critical or personal (memory) background"

- Local search - " specialized Internet search engines that allow users to submit geographically constrained searches against a structured database of local business listings. Typical local search queries include not only information about 'what' the site visitor is searching for (such as keywords, a business category, or the name of a consumer product) but also 'where' information, such as a street address, city name, postal code, or geographic coordinates"

- Geotargeting - "delivering different content {e.g. advertising} to that visitor based on his or her location"

- Augmented reality (AR) - "live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input, such as sound or graphics" {and increasingly text-based data are being considered AR too}

User Level

- Geosocial networking - "social networking in which geographic services and capabilities such as geocoding and geotagging are used to enable additional social dynamics" {e.g. Foursquare}

- Geographic information retrieval (GIR) - "augmentation of information retrieval with geographic metadata. Information retrieval generally views documents as a collection or `bag' of words. In contrast Geographic Information Retrieval requires a small amount of semantic data to be present (namely a location or geographic feature associated with a document)"

- Geographic relevance - "relevance denotes how well a retrieved document or set of documents meets the information need of the user" {in geographic terms, relevance most often would relate to proximity of the document/object to the user, but other forms would be temporal proximity (travel time) and the visibility of desired resource}

- Geofence - "virtual perimeter for a real-world geographic area. A geo-fence could be dynamically generated - as in a radius around a store or point location.... When the location-aware device of a location-based service (LBS) user enters or exits a geo-fence, the device receives a generated notification" {this could be used to block users from accessing user-generated or non-sanctioned georeferenced information about that location/business}

- Geomessaging - not in Wikipedia but here's my take - user messages (either delivered via email, SMS, or application-based) to friends or themselves georeferenced to a specific space that can only be received when at that designated space

Data Level

- Hyperlocal - "Oriented around a well defined, community scale area with primary focus being directed towards the concerns of its residents.... Hyperlocal content, often referred to as hyperlocal news, is characterized by three major elements. First, it refers to entities and events that are located within a well defined, community scale area. Secondly, it is intended primarily for consumption by residents of that area. Thirdly, it is created by a resident of the location"

- Georeferencing - "establishing {an object or document} location in terms of map projections or coordinate systems"

- Geospatial metadata - "metadata that is applicable to objects that have an explicit or implicit geographic extent, in other words, are associated with some position on the surface of the globe"

- Geocoding - "finding associated geographic coordinates (often expressed as latitude and longitude) from other geographic data, such as street addresses, or zip codes (postal codes)"

- Geotagging - "adding geographical identification metadata to various media" {implies user-generated tags & folksonomies, per Flickr}

- Geoparsing - "assigning geographic identifiers (e.g., codes or geographic coordinates expressed as latitude-longitude) to textual words and phrases that occur in unstructured content, such as "twenty miles north east of Jalalabad".... Two primary uses of the geographic coordinates derived from unstructured content are to plot portions of the content on maps and to search the content using a map as a filter. Geoparsing goes beyond geocoding. Geocoding analyzes unambiguous structured location references, such as postal addresses and rigorously formatted numerical coordinates. Geoparsing handles ambiguous references in unstructured discourse"

- ISO 19115 - "standards for Geospatial metadata. ISO 19115 defines how to describe geographical information and associated services, including contents, spatial-temporal purchases, data quality, access and rights to use."

- GeoRSS - Wikipedia's definition was lacking, so I went to the GeoRSS website for this: "As RSS and Atom become more prevalent as a way to publish and share information, it becomes increasingly important that location is described in an interoperable manner so that applications can request, aggregate, share and map geographically tagged feeds."

- Keyhole Markup Language (KML) - "XML schema for expressing geographic annotation and visualization within Internet-based, two-dimensional maps and three-dimensional Earth browsers"

System Level

- Geographic information system (GIS) - "any system that captures, stores, analyzes, manages, and presents data that are linked to location(s)"

- Global positioning system (GPS) - "space-based global navigation satellite system that provides reliable location and time information in all weather and at all times and anywhere on or near the Earth when and where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites"

- Local positioning system - "Unlike GPS or other global navigation satellite systems, which are positioning systems with a global coverage, local positioning systems don't use technology that has global coverage; they use local technology or technology that has local coverage. Examples of this local technology include cellular base stations, Wi-Fi access points, and broadcast towers"

- Gazetteer - "geographical dictionary or directory, an important reference for information about places and place names, used in conjunction with a map or a full atlas"

- Geo-block - Wikipedia doesn't have this term, but Michael Geist covers the topic well in his article Geo-Blocking Sites a Business Rather Than Legal Issue. Essentially, as it applies to the Internet, a geo-block identifies a user's IP address and restricts access to content if the user is not in a pre-approved zone. In contrast, geo-authentication can allow a user entry into an online system or site based on their IP location.

- Location-based advertising {similar to proximity marketing} - "advertising that uses location-tracking technology in mobile networks to target consumers with location-specific advertising on their mobile devices.

Finally two good parting concepts:

- Space vs. place - "Geographic space is the space that encircles the planet, through which biological life moves. It is differentiated from 'outer space" and 'inner space' (inside the mind). One definition of place, proposed by Tuan, is that a place comes into existence when humans give meaning to a part of the larger, undifferentiated space. Any time a location is identified or given a name, it is separated from the undefined space that surrounds it. Some places, however, have been given stronger meanings, names or definitions by society than others. These are the places that are said to have a strong 'Sense of Place'"

Geospatial Web or Geoweb - "merging of geographical (location-based) information with the abstract information that currently dominates the Internet. This would create an environment where one could search for things based on location instead of by keyword only – e.g. 'What is Here?...The geoweb also promises to make geographical information much more ubiquitous, opening geoinformation up to the mass market."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What Exactly is a Mobile?

The term "mobile" is used all the time in media, business, academia, and by users without a common and precise definition of the term.

A definitive sense of the terms is complicated by the rapid expansion and evolution of portable devices connected to the Internet. Smura, Kivi, and Toyli (2009) believe a mobile device must meet three criteria:
  1. ability to make voice calls
  2. physical size of device (they do not specify exact dimensions but the implication is the size of a thin laptop or smaller)
  3. the operating system.
Their definition, however, already appears to be outdated. They focus on voice-enabled networks rather than Internet access, the latter appearing now to be the defining point in distinguishing mobiles from cellphones or personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Indeed, mobile voice telephony has been decreasing in volume and duration since 2007 (Thompson, 2010). People are instead increasingly using their devices for text messaging (SMS), emailing, and accessing Internet-enabled apps or sites. Smura et al.'s definition of mobile would also exclude the immensely popular iPod Touch, which allows users to interact with Internet content but does not offer the ability to make phone calls.

Size criterion is a critical determinant as the portability and ease of access in multiple environments is a core difference between mobile devices and other portable, Internet-enabled devices such as laptops and netbooks. Smura et al.'s definition does include laptops and netbooks, but their inclusion precludes the essential degree of speed, ease and flexibility of access that entails being "mobile".

Additionally, a key difference is that online content for a mobile often must be formatted or coded specifically for that device compared to the relative universality of online content displayable on browsers on PCs, netbooks, and laptops.

Smura et al. do foresee complications arising from other devices increasingly blurring distinctions. The inclusion of operating system as a defining trait helps distinguish between devices that are “limited, for specific purpose” (p. 58). Digital cameras, e-readers, and game consoles now are able to allow Internet connection and online interaction (to a limited extent), but the primary goal of this is to support the core functionality (i.e., photography, reading, or gaming). Mobile devices, on the other hand, are portable computing devices running multiple software (e.g., contacts, calendars, document processing, file management, etc.) and offering a range of multi-modal inputs and outputs, including text/SMS, email, instant messaging/chat, voice telephony, photography, video, applications, and mobile Web browsing. Hence, the operating system is not a central characteristic; rather the key difference is between devices with single versus multiple functionalities.

There are overlaps across technologies, but to clarify future discussion, I offer the definition of a mobile device as a device that has:
  • the ability to connect to the Internet
  • supports user input and interaction,
  • offers multiple functionality
  • and has the physical size of a tablet computer or smaller
Consequently a mobile device includes smartphones (e.g. BlackBerry, iPhones, Androids, Nokia.), tablets, (e.g. iPad, PlayBook, etc..) and networked portable media player and personal digital assistants (e.g. iPod).

Agree or disagree?

Smura, T., Kivi, A., & Toyli, J. (2009). A framework for analysing the usage of mobile services. Info, 11(4), 53-67.

Thompson, C. (2010, August). On the death of the phone call. Wired. Retrieved from

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How Not To Do a Flash Mob

I don't like flash mobs. It's not because of their inanity. It's that they are neither done in a flash nor are they a mob. Flash mobs can happen, but they are not orchestrated with the sole intent to become "viral" via YouTube and picked up by traditional media infatuated with the shiny.

A genuine flash mob happens organically and with little pre-planning. If they are heavily organized they are then by definition not a mob, but rather a group. If it takes days of pre-planning, it does not happen in a flash. So for these things, let's call them what they are: group events. The fact that the group is doing something bizarre or incongruous with the setting does not de facto make it a flash mob - we can call these "wacky group events".

All the ones I've seen hyped have been just wacky group events. But flash mobs can happen. Protests organized via Twitter would count in my books as a flash mob. And as we've seen they can powerfully contribute to huge political changes. On a more individual level flash mobs can foster a strong sense of communal bonds and collective emotion. As happens when a local team wins a big game and people run to major urban centres to celebrate. I've been involved in a few of these when Canada won gold in Olympics hockey or way back when the Blue Jays won the World Series.

I've experienced the more wacky and organic sort too. One night after staying out until a night club closed (back in my days of legend) I remarked to my group of friends that we stayed so late it is almost tomorrow. I started singing Tomorrow from Annie and then my friends joined. Others in the crowd joined, and eventually we had about 20-40 people belting out the song on the street. I also saw a mass pillow fight staged at Yonge & Eglinton in Toronto that looked like a lot of fun.

Recently, I was at an event that tried to get a "flash mob" going. People had gathered in a very large conference room to hear a speaker. The organizers wanted the crowd to spontaneously join together in a song. They had a professional choir come in to act as plants for the event, but it didn't catch on. Instead the event felt like a performance at best and like some sort of odd, awkward moment at worst.

Seeing how I can't stop these types of wacky group events from happening - as much as I would like to - I felt I'd share my thoughts on how not to make these things be painful flops.

What not to do

1) Don't make it too difficult to participate.
Have the song, dance, or other desired group action be something that is already known or can be learned quickly.

2) Don't have plants look like plants.
Although I'm not a big fan of deception (not only is it not nice, but if a "flash mob" is so contrived how can it be legit?), nonetheless having people in-the-know on the event planted in the crowd is a good way to get a crowd to notice and join in. But have your plants look and act like the crowd or it will seem like a performance.

3) Don't hold event in a space too big - or at least plan for this.
The failed flash mob I witnessed was in a huge area so much of the crowd could not see what was happening in other parts of the room. If you must do this in a huge space, make sure you position the event so that it is visible to all those who you want to join in.

4) Don't keep all your plants in one area.
If you use plants, do so effectively. Spread them out and diffuse them among the crowd. The failed event had almost all the plants in one core area (invisible to much of the room) and then towards the end they had a couple plants move out towards the crowd. It was too little, too late. It would have been much more powerful if they were all initially positioned equally throughout the space. If these events appear to emerge throughout the entire crowd, they are more powerful than someone walking over and trying to act as a pep leader.

5) Don't seem like a performance.
Don't have your plants be too professional or polished. The idea is not to stage a performance, so the plants should seem average. I'm not so sure hiring professionals to act as plants is a great idea - although it will attract attention, pros seem too good and everyone then watches in wonder rather than joining in. The singers at the failed event were operatic, flawless and were microphoned, so it was a performance - who is going to would want to singalong and "ruin" an amazing show? Same logic applies to dancing. If the group action is kept simple, any one should be able to act as a facilitator.

6) Don't not tell people.
Wacky group events are not organic, so get over the idea that the group action needs to happen
spontaneously and unbidden. Don't be afraid to let people know what is happening. Go ahead and let the crowd know they can join in (and that it is not a performance). Twitter is extremely effective at spreading this news, but even old tech like announcing out loud to the crowd to join in will do the trick.

7) Don't be irrelevant.
Consider your group and do something appropriate for them. It's great to be fun, even wacky. But make it applicable to the crowd gathered and they'll be more likely to care about what is happening and join in.

I think there have been enough wacky group events covered by the media that hopefully the future ones that will be hyped are either more clever, more relevant, or, at the very least, more participatory.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Challenges with e-Learning

In addition to my doctoral studies, I'm also consulting with clients on how to implement new e-Learning mechanisms. I set up a blog to share our discussions. I'm reposting a post from this blog here as I think it captures some of the challenges I've encountered with e-Learning.

Having been a student at both an online-only and a blended program, I can relate challenges I experienced:

1) Time zones
One of the benefits often touted for e-Learning is that it removes physical barriers. Instead of geography being dead, it still presents challenges to classes with students in different time zones. If a course requires interaction or collaboration, divergent time zones can be difficult to overcome. Challenges arise not only in trying to find mutually feasible times for real-time communication (e.g. text-chats, webinars, Skype calls, etc.) but can also present challenges for asynchronous work. Depending on the extremity of students' time zones, there can be as much as a day's lag to allow for all students to receive and respond to a given message. This lag can draw out a collaborative efforts considerably.

2) Managing volume
e-Learning often relies heavily on required postings to discussion boards or blogs. With even more than a few students posting, it can making reading and responding to posts overwhelmingly time-consuming. Breaking classes into smaller teams or limiting posts to 100-300 words can help. Live chats with instructors can also present volume challenges if guidelines are not in place. One professor I had attempted to do Q&As via Skype. At first, there were no rules and students simultaneously besieged the professor and chaos naturally ensued. Even with established procedures in place, there were still students who joined late or weren’t following the conversation and asked questions already answered or off topic.

3) Presence of the instructor
The volume of postings can also affect an instructor’s ability to participate in class discussion. Instructors must either spend a sizable amount time of time reading and replying to everything or they must selectively respond. This diminished role of instructors (compared to in-person classes) combined with the lack of their physical presences can make e-Learning seem like distance education in more ways than one.

4) Learning the subject and the technology
In addition to learning the topic at hand, students using e-Learning must engage in possibly-unfamiliar technology. Some technology requires more effort to install, learn, and operate than others. Learning the full suite of options with mediating-technology can present obstacles or delays to even more technically-savvy users, let alone those new to e-Learning.

There are other challenges surrounding e-Learning (including a frequent over reliance on text-based communication and establishing student presence) but many limitations can be addressed by selecting appropriate methods and establishing suitable structures and guidelines.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Internet Society Membership Drive

I've been a member of the Internet Society for a few years. They sponsored my participation in the Internet Governance Forum at Hyderabad, India. The Internet Society (ISOC) is a non-profit, international organization that helps develop and promote Internet standards and policy. They work actively with governments to ensure that the Internet remains free and open.

Here is a description of ISOC from their website:

The Internet Society is a cause-based organisation that works to ensure the open development, evolution and use of the Internet for the benefit of people throughout the world. The Internet Society works with help from its members and Chapters to provide leadership in Internet related standards, education, and policy. As the Internet continues to evolve, both technically and politically, the Internet’s unprecedented success is due to a decentralized, open, multi-stakeholder model, which relies on processes and products that are local, bottom-up and accessible to users around the world. The Internet Society's key initiatives target the critical issues that affect all aspects of Internet development and growth. They embody the Internet Society philosophy that the Internet is for everyone and they provide the organization with a solid foundation from which to positively influence standards development, access, business practices, and government policies.

Although, there is not a national chapter for Canada or one for Ontario (Quebec is the only region with a chapter), ISOC does offer the opportunity to join for free as a "global member". I have wanted to help start an Ontario chapter for the past two years. As my research focus is increasingly moving away from policy and standards (for example web accessibility guidelines) and my professional and personal life is rather over-taxed at present, I have been hoping someone would lead the charge to start an Ontario chapter.

Currently, the Internet Society is hoping to recruit more members. For those who work in the Internet field or digital media, I believe it is important to join, as well as for those who are concerned about protecting the central role the Internet has in our lives. ISOC offers ten tips on why to join that note the collective and individual benefits of joining such as more powerfully influencing Canadian policy and having a personal role in important developments.

I would love to see more people join from Ontario as I hope this could propel a chapter formation here. Also, ISOC is offering tech gadgets for prizes (which I'll donate to a local charity in the unlikely event I win).

So please consider joining. Please run any questions or comments by me here or by email.

Join the Internet Society today, it's free!

Saturday, February 05, 2011

What a Non-Librarian Learned from a Librarian Conference

The Ontario Library Association (OLA) conference wrapped up today. As I mentioned in my prior post, it was somewhat odd to find myself at this conference. My interests do not pertain strictly to libraries so much as information in whatever form or repository it may take. There is overlap, with my interests and the conference program. but, as I learned, the conference is decidedly for professional librarians with a constant focus on how to implement best practices and innovation into public and school libraries (I heard no mention of corporate libraries, BTW). Still, I did get a lot out of attending.

Inspiring keynotes
As a large conference they could afford stellar keynote speakers. Atom Egoyan, Jian Ghomeshi, and Michael Wesch were insightful and inspirational. There weren't a lot of take-aways points from their addresses, but they did powerfully highlight the importance for our schools, libraries, media, governments, and culture of collaboration, access, diversity, and an egalitarian treatment of new and popular culture.

Conference gripes
If an army marches on its stomach, then conference delegates survive on their coffees. Yet not only was there no coffee provided there wasn't even attainable access to coffee! There was only a sole Timothy's with untenable lines. The lunch breaks were way too long (2 hours) yet the session breaks were only 10-15 minutes. Not long enough to get a coffee let alone visit the bathroom. I did have the an advantage of being a male in a crowd where women outnumber men about 1 to 20 and women's bathroom lines were long and winding. These gripes seem trivial but they greatly affect attendees experience and they are puzzling and perturbing when they occur at large and established events.

I wanted to live blog this conference but the organizers cheaped out on providing wifi. I've heard that the Metro Toronto Convention Centre charges exorbitant rates for delegates to have wifi. Still what does it say about the OLA and libraries in general when they apparently do not think Internet access is important?

It's not just the lack of wifi that was rather luddite of the OLA, but their conference website and online offerings were paltry. It would have been great to have some social networking and/or attendee profiles posted pre-conference (and not just a link to a Facebook page that was used as another channel to post messages). I only encountered one speaker who mentioned they would be posting their presentation online. The location for this was never specified and it doesn't seem like there is one yet. It is so simple and free to post links to presentations to sites such as SlideShare. There was mention of a companion "virtual conference" with live and archived webcasting, but details on this, such as a URL, are still lacking.

If the technical sophistication of the conference itself was lacking, it was not reflected in the speakers - as I found the speakers to be among the most insightful, topical, and understandable of any conference I have been to.

Unfortunately, my own tech savy was lacking. I signed out a netbook from my school to test drive it (and the plan was to live blog, as mentioned). I still haven't decided whether I want to buy a tablet or a netbook, so this was a good chance to put it to a field trial. BTW, I talked to a major academic publisher on their plans for smartphones and tablets and they indicated that they officially have zero intention of supporting BlackBerry - just Apple and Android. So I won't wait for RIM PlayBook to come to Canada after all. I took copious notes of the presentations (as it didn't seem like they were going to be shared afterward, also as mentioned). When transferring my files from the netbook to a USB stick (as I couldn't upload or email them due to the lack of wifi) most of my notes mysteriously disappeared.

Luckily, I was able to gather the key points of a couple sessions from the conference tweets. It was painful going through all the crap tagged as relevant to the conference (why do so many people pollute a collective feed with their narcissist posts or insane retweets of someone else's narcissist posts?). But I gathered the salient points. One speaker who was particularly incredible and whose session notes I lost is Fiacre O'Duinn. I hope to get his presentation somehow as it merits a post of its own.

Great Web 2.0 Face-off
This was a fun and action-packed panel panel where speakers went through an amazing amount of new web technology and how it can be used in education and libraries. Luckily, they posted a website with their list so I was able to get some - yes some - of their recommendations. Here is my simplified description of my favs (all appear to be free):
I have never seen so much stuff covered so quickly and - for the most part - quite clearly. They really should get an award for this.

Top Tech Trends
The speakers at this panel were also incredible and delved into more detailed consideration of the issues resulting from new and emerging technology. There was significant discussion on the familiar topics of the digital divide, net neutrality, and privacy - which I won't recap.

There was an interesting debate on the need for libraries to experiment and innovate. Dorothea Salo advised that through experiments is how we innovate even if projects are a failure, but Roger Nevin cautioned on the problems of failed technology decreasing partner buy-in.

Salo raised the growing role of personal data management and preservation. She cited Yahoo's announced closure of Delicious (something that has worried me greatly) and how would people react if they similarly shut down Flickr? As she alerted "We are now investing our digital content into the cloud, but... where's the backup for the cloud?"

Aaron Schmidt noted that in general "library interfaces are too hard to use. Why does this matter? Because easy trumps free". People will pay for applications that make it easy to fulfill their needs rather than invest in the learning curve of free, library apps. He suggested that library interfaces should be optimized for the demands of a mobile device as this will help us strip out extraneous features that can also be removed on the main web interfaces to improve usability. Schmidt noted libraries need more user testing to discover and rectify these problems.

In considering the new tech services libraries could provide, Schmidt cautioned that too often libraries try to provide the same offerings as commercial organizations (such as Amazon) or become a "book mausoleum". Libraries, he added, should facilitate experiences and help people to gather around content. Building upon this Salo noted that libraries could solicit and record local information, so that a library can become a commuty's "ambassador to the world".

This later points is acutely relevant to my research interests and an area that I hope is ripe for future discussion and exploration.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Finding My Way at a Library Conference

From grade 5 to grade 9 I was a "student librarian" (in grade 5 and 6 the term was "Bookie Monster"). In grade 7 and 8, I even won the award for top student librarian. This is particularly odd as I never really liked reading anything other than comic books and Choose Your Own Adventures. I guess I was drawn to allure of systemic organization. But as I became involved in the school newspaper, drama club, and the debate team (don't say anything), I became enamored of communications and media and left behind my librarianship.

So finding myself first at a program to train librarians last year and now at the Ontario Library Association Conference, is perhaps not such a strange life twist as a culmination.

I decided to attend the OLA "Super" conference as there were sessions covering areas related to my research interests, specifically how people can use mobile devices to access information and the social creation of information (particular info related to place). The conference earns its super moniker in that it is huge. It has occupied most of the north building of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and the Intercontinental Hotel's conference rooms. With up twelve concurrent sessions and a trade expo occupying all of the exhibition space of the Centre, it is likely the largest librarian conference in Canada (hence the national scope of topics, speakers and participants). It is not super, however, in its hospitality: no wifi, no snacks, no swag, no lunch, and no COFFEE!

This conference is decidedly for practitioners. It focuses on applied presentations of novel and significant issues, more so than fine-tuned examinations of topics or underlying theoretical findings. Judging from the first day and program, the conference offers case studies and best practices track sessions combined with motivational plenaries. I also found that to accommodate the range of background knowledge of attendees, speakers spend a lot of time covering the basics. In addition, speakers focus on the program implementation, change management, and funding issues.

My first session was on geoauthentication, that is facilitating access to secure sites through automatic detection of a visitor's geographic location through their IP address. This process eliminates the hassle and memory burden of having to remember logins and passwords. Knowledge Ontario is using geoauthentication to open their databases of copyrighted content to anyone in or from Ontario. The speaker noted that using IP identification, automatic authentication could also be done at a city or carrier level. If one is outside the region, authentication must then be done through more traditional means (i.e. a user enters their login id and password.) It is possible that people could hack access via a proxy server, but the speaker advises that it is possible to block this.

The final session of the day dealt with an project to aid Ontario communities to digitize and publish online historical objects and documents. There were a few points I found particularly interesting. For one, a process of determining what objects are a priority to add to the online collection. The project team developed a checklist of criteria for this that also allows them to catalogue lower priority items. I was also interested in a feature they built that allows people to comment on digitized, online objects by adding comments. I think this becomes a fascinating way to capture collective memory and encourage discussion.

In between these two track sessions was a plenary by Michael Wesch. I encountered him from his YouTube videos, including the popular A Vision of Students Today. His speech was a call to arms for librarians and educators to redefine what learning is and how we facilitate this. He notes that currently schools and library are structured under the assumptions that information is scare, to learn is to acquire information, information comes from an authority figure, trust authority figures, and follow along - they are not structured to facilitate collaborative learning. He argues that we can help learners to use social media to make a better world. Although he did acknowledge that digital media can and has been used for nefarious purposes. It is those with a passion who figure out how to use tools effectively (such as social media) to propagate their message. Thus by helping students harness their passion, it can lead to positive social change. To demonstrate his message, he shared examples of how others have used social and/or mobile effectively and walked attendees through creating a video mashup in a few minutes to show how "ridiculously easy" to use these tools. I found Wesch's assertion that we can move from focusing on discussions of information literacy and technological familiarity to fostering digital citizenship. This seems like a lofty goal for the librarian profession and researchers alike.