SM&Society Day 2: Challenging Social Media Analytics

flickr photo by Steve Burt shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Susan Halford provided the opening keynote and reminded us that ‘data never sleeps’ and is being generated at ever increasing scales in real time and over time. Whilst this may constitute an ‘unexpected gift’, it’s meant we’re also ‘building the boats as we row’ in terms of the way we’re gathering and analysing those data.

Susan challenged us to consider three questions:

  1. What are social media data?
  2. Where are the data produced?
  3. Why does this matter?

There is genuine concern that much of the current evangelism around Big data may have done more harm than good, leading to inflated expectations about what is possible and what we can learn. If we’re not careful, our reliance on the platforms through which we access the data may unduly influence what we find, in a host of different ways, and in ways which vary over time. Demographic and geographic data especially need treating with caution, or at least with care and in full knowledge of their limitations. Perhaps we should go beyond demographics and make a virtue of the biases, limitations and specificities inherent in the data.

I hope in a sense that is what my research is doing, where I’m focusing on a particular,  self-selecting sample, engaged in a specific activity. For me, the demographics are in some senses pre-defined – teachers who using Twitter. What their gender, religion or ethnicity is, will be of no consequence since I’ll not be classifying my results using those criteria. Or at least I never intended to, until I though about location. I’ve assumed my participants will be teachers drawn from a global population, though due to my linguistic limitations, from the english-speaking world. The keynote has encouraged me to revisit my thinking; in different places (with different cultures?), might teachers have a different view of, and approach to, professional learning using Twitter?

Susan asked Les Carr, her colleague from Southampton, to join her on stage. Amongst other things, Les pointed out that vivas inevitably ask us to justify our methods and the data they generate, and how they are appropriate for the research questions we pose. I was grateful for that reminder as I begin to think about my RF2 submission. Duly noted!

SM&Society Day 1: Small data and big data controversies

This workshop session  had us split into groups to each consider one of the six ‘V’s of big data: variety, value, volume, velocity, veracity and variability. The three hours were split in two, each part session opened by a number of speakers presenting the findings of the papers they had contributed to the forthcoming Sage Handbook of of Social media Research Methods. We were asked to consider our ‘V’ (we had Variety) in the  context of any tension between Big and small data, if indeed there was any. Our table, as it transpired, consisted of social scientists rather than computational scientists, so unsurprisingly tended to focus on the positive aspects of small data.

I found the opening presentation by Claudine Bonneau and Mélanie Millette on their ‘small’ data projects spoke to my research – very much a hands-on,  immersive, participatory approach, where tweets were collected and analysed manually. The approach within the long-term observation was described as ‘agile’, following the conversations from place to place. There’s a resonance for me in the way teachers shift between Twitter, #chats on Twitter and blogs when discussing their practice. I yet to grasp how or if I can or should incorporate the offline places where these discussions occur. There are clear sites of interest where teachers gather to discuss and share practice (TeachMeets etc); my problem however, will be whether I have the scope to chase them down.

I found the topic of ‘Working out Loud’ practice on Twitter had a close fit with my own research, although I was surprised that other professions also engaged in this practice (how insular am I?!). However, the most compelling aspect was how we ‘thicken’ small data, perhaps reducing its breadth whilst enhancing its depth.

SM&Society Day 1: Conceptual Challenges in Interdisciplinary Social Media Research

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Following welcomes and the opening address by Evelyn Ruppert to set the scene, the first day consisted of workshops.

Although billed as a workshop, the unforeseen absence of a key player meant this session became more of a panel discussion. With such esteemed and knowledgeable panellists as Evelyn Ruppert, Susan Halford and Les Carr, and chaired by Mark Carrigan, we were nevertheless unlikely to be short-changed.
Evelyn opened the batting, providing a brief history of ‘Big Data’ and how the term became accepted by and incorporated into the academy. The field of practices which address it are still emerging, but invariably demand a range of capabilities, hence the need for interdisciplinary teams. When the data are gathered, analysed and patterns begin to emerge, it is often the social scientist who helps to provide the interpretation. Whilst the computational or algorithmic elements of this often need to be black-boxed by the social researcher, perhaps the reverse might be true for a data scientist who is unaware of the social issues (even if unwittingly?). This then encouraged us to consider whether there is too much black-boxing and what the effects of this might be on our analyses.

Susan and Les shared what they learned from their interdisciplinary experiences of setting up Web Science doctoral and other programmes. The substantive theoretical commitment required in a venture of this sort can potentially generate an initial set of hurdles to overcome; people from different disciplines inevitably bring to the table very different ontologies and epistemologies. Computational specialists for example have a much narrower theoretical base from which to draw, but in addition to the multiplicity that social scientists have to contend with, there’s also the degree to which different theories may be applied depending on the questions asked. For many computational specialists, the work often ends with the user; for the social scientist, that is where it begins.

When opened to the floor, the discussion ranged far and wide, but the difficulty of attempting interdisciplinary work was made only too clear. In particular the significance of power imbalances between disciplines and how they may be competing for cultural capital within the academy. How some disciplines are blessed with apparently greater status historically because of the research publication processes or the ease with which they’re able to draw down funding for research. The silo mentality which then arises makes interdisciplinarity so much more difficult. This left me wondering whether there might be a case for addressing this at an earlier stage in the academy? At undergraduate level perhaps? I appreciate my naivety is doubtless getting the better of me, but I can’t help being taken back to my undergraduate years at the end of the 70s. Materials Science, the subject I chose, was very much the infant (interdisciplinary) sibling to the big brothers and sisters of metallurgy, ceramics and polymer science. I get the impression that, with the decline in heavy industry the UK has experienced in the intervening time, and the extent to which new composites have become significant, interdisciplinary Materials Science may have come of age. Perhaps other disciplines might have something to learn?



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Eight months in and I now have my first conference presentation under my belt. On Thursday 12th May, ACES (Faculty of Arts, Computing, Engineering and Sciences) organised and hosted the second annual METHOD Conference.

METHOD 2016 is a broad, experimental frame to bring together our University research student community. Every research student must use a method to find something out, or gain new insights, and must be able to articulate their process in a way that others inside and outside of their field can understand. Method, then, offers a context where we might find some common ground, and where we might also explore our differences.

Open to all research students, attendees therefore spanned the disciplines across the University, with talks ranging from artificial intelligence to the legal issues associated with shopping centres and from participatory research in the museums sector to wrist protectors for snowboarders. In the four main sessions, there were parallel strands, each of which had four 15 minute presentations plus Q&As. Thirty-two students, mainly but not exclusively those early in their research, provided presentations to mixed audiences of their peers, supervisors and other interested academics. With around a hundred delegates, the atmosphere was familiar and friendly; much less intense than at larger conferences or those tightly-focused in a disciplinary area.

My presentation

After taking the plunge and deciding to submit an abstract, choosing a method left me with a number of options. I’ve now completed two pilot studies, but rather than revisit those areas, I thought I might gain more by focusing on one I have yet to undertake. That way I got to prepare the pilot I would have been undertaking anyway, but simultaneously did the prep for the presentation. I chose the focus group I’m planning to conduct through a Twitter educational hashtag chat. Knowing that I would be facing a wider audience than I might usually do, served to focus the mind rather more than normal. Since the presentations weren’t recorded on the day, I decided to attempt to redeliver and record it (went a little bit over the 15 mins this time though!):


I was happy enough with my delivery on the day and was glad I’d taken the trouble to rehearse it beforehand, even though the final few minutes were slightly more rushed than I’d have preferred. It seemed be received well, but in such a considerate atmosphere and with so many of us very early in our research, it’s hard to know the extent to which people were just being polite. I wasn’t so sure whether, in trying to cater for an audience from a wide range of disciplines, I lost some of the depth that a PhD study should have? A fine balance I’m not convinced I got right.

There were things that with hindsight, and having learned from some of my colleagues, I’d now do differently. In trimming what I originally produced, to fit the 15 minute slot, I perhaps sacrificed some of the background. I think I should have included where this online method is located within the larger literature of online ethnographic research and I’m not sure I made its methodological contribution sufficiently explicit. I also wish I’d kept in the Google presentation Q&A feature that I chose to ditch when I learned the Q&As would be in panel format at the end of each session. Although I couldn’t perhaps have used it as intended, it might have provided the opportunity for people to ask questions specific to my presentation.


I never cease to be both amazed and humbled by the research my colleagues are undertaking. It’s invariably incredibly interesting and often seems far more worthy than mine, and although it’s partly imposter syndrome creeping in, there’s no doubt that many of these people are far brighter than me. They’re sharper, more astute and more lucid.

If I had Harry’s wand (no euphemism intended), there would be a couple of spells I’d want to cast. The first is that despite all the preliminary guidance provided and the exhortations of the conference organisers, in my unqualified opinion, some colleagues didn’t stick as closely to the theme as they perhaps could have. I’m not sure METHOD was as prominent in their presentations as it might have been and that they talked at greater length about their research in general. Secondly, and again neglecting the advice we were given beforehand, a good number of colleagues read from a script, rather than speaking naturally. Personally I find it harder to maintain my focus when a presenter is delivering in that way, but that’s my problem, not the presenter’s. I understand completely if someone is giving a presentation in a language which is not their first, and have nothing but admiration for them, but  I’ve been surprised by how common it is, even from established,experienced, native English-speaking, highly regarded academics. I suppose it’s all very well for me to say that when my career largely involved speaking in front of groups of people, day in and day out. What I find perplexing though is how articulate and fluid those who read from their script invariably are in the Q&A session. This is an arena I find particularly challenging.

flickr photo by opensourceway shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I thought the panel discussion Q&A sessions were particularly generous to nervous presenters like me. You didn’t feel quite as exposed as you might if the questions had followed straight after your own presentation. I know I often struggle to marshal a cogent answer, even to sometimes rather straightforward questions. There was one question which was passed to me after two other presenters for whom it was more relevant had answered. It concerned the topic of engagement, which was a significant issue for the participatory techniques my colleagues had used. My answer had been less than satisfactory because I hadn’t recognised at the time that engagement was equally important in my research method too, although it did take a different form. So I’ll now take a stab at a more considered answer than the more evasive one I gave at the time.

Engagement in the context of a hashtag chat focus group should be considered on two levels. First there is engagement in the chat as it is usually conducted; an event where educators assemble to discuss predetermined issues. If people choose to ‘attend,’ then they have made a positive decision to do so and one might therefore assume their interest or engagement. The same would be true for a session in which a focus group is conducted. If people are there, then they have chosen to be so, however, for the purposes of research, one might hope for a level of commitment (or engagement) not necessarily found in an informal ‘chat.’ That’s expecting too much; the hashtag focus group, unlike its offline sister, is a much less formal and structured event. As I mentioned in my presentation, the moderator has no idea whether the participants are fully involved (engaged?) in the discussion, or whether they’re doing so whilst preparing their evening meal say. This might be one of the areas where offline and Twitter focus groups are very different. Some might point to how superficial Twitter is with its microbit, 140 character utterances; one more indication of its unsuitability as an arena for serious discussion. (I wonder why no-one did point that out?). Perhaps it’s just that the discussion is different and has to be analysed differently. The online and offline versions may share the name ‘focus group,’ but perhaps they’re two different methods? So to return to engagement then. Maybe it’s multiple, rather than singular; located shifting across a spectrum of levels of commitment. Or in trying to define it or expect it, are we doing our research participants a disservice? As Kate Soper suggests with her learners, defining engagement rests with those who are producing it.


I do hope a third conference is to follow; I’m keen to talk about a method I’ve used, rather than one I’m hoping to use. If it does go ahead, I have more hopes. All presenters need to embrace the overarching conference theme and restrict their presentations solely to their method(s); it’s simply not the forum to talk about your research in toto. If panel Q&As are used once more, I think we as the audience need to try to restrict our questioning to the session themes, thereby allowing all to contribute. There was a tendency for some to pursue specific points with specific presenters … at length. Perhaps the Google Q&A feature might help everyone?

NetworkEd Conference 2016

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Despite it being the weekend, Cross Country trains delivered me to Cheltenham on time, for which I was grateful. However I wasn’t inclined to share that gratitude with the passenger who failed to adequately stow his bag on the rack above me. Concussion before a day’s learning is not to be recommended!

Following a pleasant stroll into town, I found the campus of the University of Gloucester equally delightful and managed to navigate my way to Reception. The registration process was welcoming and efficient and I was soon enjoying a cup of coffee, whilst perusing the programme for the day.

Sue Cowley kicked off proceedings with ‘Big Lessons from Little Learners,’ an account of her recent experience with local Early Years provision, and the lessons that other phases of education might learn from the approaches used there. The focus was on how the needs of the children you care for, underpinned by one’s philosophy and values, should drive the provision, rather than attempting to meet external criteria imposed by the powers that be.

After a short break we could then opt into one of three streams; I chose research. This was subdivided into two sessions, the first lead by Michelle Haywood who outlined the SEND project Entrust was leading to support teachers in Staffordshire to undertake small-scale action research. It will be interesting to see how sustainable the process is if it becomes larger or is extended, a challenge also faced by the project described in the second session. Caroline Creaby and Sonia Dines explained how the ‘Evidence for the Frontline’ project had been initiated and how it sought to bridge the gap between teachers and researchers. Funded by the EEF, this was done through a website where teachers could ask a research question on a topic of importance to their practice, then someone from the research community would point them to any relevant research which had already been done.

Lunch was both generous and enjoyable, and afforded me the pleasure of spending time with Dr Paul Vare who gave me some background to educational provision at the university. Rob Webster had the unenviable after lunch slot in which he sought absolution for the research he and others conducted into the effectiveness of Teaching Assistants in English (?) schools. Misreported by the press, the research recommendations to review the way in which schools made use of TAs, became sensationalised into getting rid of them entirely. A cautionary tale of how the message can often be conveyed in a superficial way or even twisted completely. This had however spurred Paul and colleagues on to set in train better publicity, informative resources and to make available training courses to remedy the shortcomings. Perhaps the bad press had unanticipated beneficial outcomes?

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Martin Robinson then gave a powerful performance advocating for a search for ‘truth and beauty.’ I shall say no more! Paul Vare completed the directed sessions with an outline of the LeaRN (Learning and Research Network) project which involved groups of teachers and schools in practitioner action research.

Perhaps partly because of my choice in the option strands, it felt like the theme of the conference was aligned more closely to research, than networking. ResearchEd rather than NetworkEd? Now that would be fine, but I felt the focus, for me, was too close to school and on research which was too small scale. But that just reflects my current interests and might be actually be much more helpful for the majority of attendees, who were of course teachers. My fault for not thinking through how the content was likely to be pitched. (Maybe on the feedback form, I ought to have suggested clearly stating conference aims?) As always though, having the opportunity to see and hear wise people tell their story is a learning experience in itself.

#SocMedHE15 #4 – 2nd Half

Workshop 2

The afternoon opened in the second workshop, where this time I had opted for In it for the long term – evolving your community of practice over time: learning from the New Social Media, New Social Science network (#NSMNSS), headed up by Kandy Woodfield, Curtis Jessop and Wasim Ahmed.

After discussing what community meant in this context, Kandy proposed that although we’ve come to understand quite well how communities are formed, there is less awareness of how they are sustained. This session was about considering the strategies undertaken which have thus far maintained momentum in the New Social Media, New Social Sciences community. In small groups, we were asked to discuss and consider several questions, then feed back our findings to the whole group.

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Rather than go through the questions and list the findings, since that summary has already been done over on the NSMNSS blog, let me just link to that. Though these points arose in response to questions around sustaining an online community, there are things to learn here for anyone conducting online research; drivers and inhibitors of engagement, how to encourage new voices and attract fresh participants.


Short Papers 3 & 4

At this point I should be recounting my experiences in the final sessions, but unfortunately I chose poorly and the sessions I attended didn’t fulfil any learning needs for me. In each session, I had a to make a choice between two equally interesting sounding papers, but seemed to have opted for the wrong one on each occasion … but without retrospect, who knows.


Closing remarks

Although my own research is focused more on pre-tertiary educational contexts, the majority of experiences I had during the day were sufficiently broad in their applicability to be of considerable use to me. I appreciated the opportunity to connect with people I’ve so far only ‘met’ online; this is a virtue of conferences many people talk about. In addition to moving my thinking on the ethical issues in my research forward, I also collected a bunch of resources and links to academic papers that will prove of great use. All that AND a useful drinks cup too!

#SocMedHE15 #3 – 1st Half

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Workshop 1

During the first workshop session, I participated in Copyright education in the age of social media led by Jane Secker. Despite the importance, copyright is not an area people seek out for pleasure and enjoyment, but that’s just what Jane was seeking to provide through the game-based scenario we had the chance to sample.

Many staff (and students?) are fearful or ignorant of their obligations as far as copyright is concerned. In the sessions Jane provides, she aims to flip the perspective from one with the negative associations of restrictive, complicated procedures and practice, to one celebrating the freedoms and opportunities that are available. This is done through the game, the core of which is centred on discussion between the participants, prompted by different scenarios … the typical kinds of situations we might face in our practice. Having library-based staff amongst the participants meant we had quite a range of people with different knowledge bases on which to draw. This made for interesting and lively discussions, especially since many of the cases with which we were presented were far from clear cut.

Jane also provided us with a couple of hard-copy booklets for future reference, together with pointers to online resources like and the UCISA Social Media Toolkit. Oh, and let’s not forget the copyright fortune cookies!

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license


Short Paper 1

In Morality, social media and the educational researcher, Leigh-Anne Perryman and Tony Coughlan, presented details of two research projects they’d undertaken using FaceBook as the source. In one case this had been through a ‘closed’ group and in a second one which was ‘open.’ The challenges arising from each were very different and highlighted the somewhat blurred private-public space distinction, how access was negotiated to each and and how (if!) informed consent could/should be obtained. This is discussed at greater length in their paper.

Although I was already aware of some of the issues, such as how to declare your nature as a researcher when joining a group/community, I was grateful for the prompt that we may need also to consider how we negotiate changes in status during our membership. I’d also never thought of the ethical issues that might arise if we encounter information which might suggest that someone might be at risk; how do we balance our duty to maintain privacy with the potential harm that our choice of action might result in. Though the likelihood of that occurring during my study is slim, it is however possible that people may ‘over’-share personal information. As a researcher, I need to be sensitive to that and watchful of how I process that.

When the time comes to share our findings, we are of course obliged to ensure we take steps to:

  • protect the individual, and
  • protect the online community of which those individuals are part.

The guidelines from BERA and AERA can help with this, but the former tend to be more conservative, especially in requiring confidentiality and anonymity as the norm. AERA guidelines however, don’t demand confidentiality where the research is conducted in a public space. The researcher has to tread very carefully then, negotiating this complex arena and perhaps erring on the side of caution.

This was an incredibly meaningful session for me. Although I’m unlikely to be using Facebook as a site of research, it was helpful to see the considerations made and the guidance upon which researchers can draw. Whilst the generic approach might be consistently one involving public-private distinctions, informed consent and confidentiality/anonymity, it’s clear that each case has to be analysed on its own merits. I particularly appreciated being introduced to several new terms, some of which may be significant in the context of my own study: dissociative anonymity, the minimization of authority and solipsistic introjection.


Short Paper 2

Lee Dunn presented his paper on Social Media as a Professional Medium: achieving an equilibrium of enthusiasm and protection for new teachers in which he outlined how ITE students at the University of Glasgow are encouraged to collaborate and communicate through social media. Although some students refuse to participate through social media, on ideological grounds, the majority do become involved, sharing and discussing their experiences largely through Twitter. Lee also mentioned how the channels many of us tend to use professionally (emails, Twitter, LinkedIn) do not form part of the networks with which the majority of new students would identify. Corralling them onto a single platform, like Twitter, can therefore prove challenging.

The difficulties encountered when devising a curriculum and assessments were outlined, then a sample of the activities on which students were engaged was provided. One of these involved a discussion around the Professional Guidelines the GTC for Scotland produces for its teachers (PDF) and the implications for practice and professional learning.

I was struck by the resistance students have to learning using social media. Yes, I get that might be another platform to learn and presence to manage. I also appreciate that people will have different views on privacy; some being highly tuned to what personal data they’re offering up to the online platform providers. I know too that many prefer to keep their personal and professional lives apart and young people especially can sometimes resent ‘the man’ intruding on what they perceive to be their personal space … like your mum friending you on Facebook. However I think that teachers in the making have an additional responsibility to the students they’ll ultimately be responsible for supporting. Being able to guide students in their online activities, their digital literacy if you will, is the responsibility of every single teacher I’d argue, in the same way the textual literacy and numeracy is the responsibility of all. Now if, through choice, a teacher has no experience of social media whatsoever, how they ever be expected to provide the guidance needed? I would have thought that an opportunity like that Lee was providing, in a controlled, structured and supportive space, would be one not to pass up.



The morning and afternoon session were linked by a rather excellent buffet lunch; the quality of the food was outstanding. Having filled my plate, I moved to the side and opened a chat with someone. As we exchanged how we had come to the conference and what our backgrounds were, it suddenly became clear that we had had several exchanges on Twitter and were hoping to bump into one another. Given the numbers at the conference, how surprising then that the first person I chat with at lunch was Wasim Ahmed, also conducting research into Twitter, though from a rather different perspective to me.

#SocMedHE15 #3 – Keynote

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The conference day began in a relaxed fashion (at least for those not involved in the orgnisation!) with rather delicious coffee and pastries. Following the formal opening, Eric Stoller then set the scene through the keynote. Rather than recount all the topics Eric covered in his (Star Wars-themed!) overview of the landscape of social media in higher education, I pulled out some brief quotes:

You might like to consider how they sit for you and to what extent they reflect your experience.

Do feel free to comment if you have any observations.

#SocMedHE15 #2 – R U Noteworthy?

The second pre-conference workshop entitled ‘R U Noteworthy?’ was led by Andrew Middleton and Helen Kay, and asked “…what can we do to develop note making as a core learning activity by connecting the act of taking notes to the learning of processing and using them.” I’ve often reflected on how we make notes from information provided since my time as an undergraduate to now as a doctoral student. Both as a creator of notes for myself, and equally as a teacher in thinking about the notes my students made.

This session truly was a workshop, our facilitators providing a scenario through which we worked:

Starting from a learning activity of our choice, we were asked to think about how students might capture notes (note taking), then subsequently imbue them with meaning (note making). Embedded within that however, we had to have in mind any students who might have particular additional needs, such as a disability or not having English as their first language. The overarching theme, given the conference title, was how social media or digital technologies might support all the students.

We chose a casting workshop demo as our scenario, thereby making things a little more complex than if we had chosen a conventional lecture. Nevertheless, we felt our approach had universal applicability. In essence, students would capture information in whichever format suited them, be it video, audio, text on a laptop or in a notebook – the note taking part. Then the whole class would upload their notes to a site; we settled on a WordPress blog as offering the most functionality and features. Here the gathered resources would be classified, edited and refined for consumption by all – an activity for the whole group, individuals being assigned different roles. Most importantly, to ensure subsequent retrieval would be the taxonomic and folksonomic classifications; a technically straightforward task in WordPress. In addition, any ‘found’ resources could be added at this point – videos, imagery, links etc. When the tutor aided by a student sub-editor, signed the notes off, the next step would be for each student, on their own blog, to make their own notes from the resources assembled on the class blog. This is the point at which they are making meaning for themselves and creating a resource on which they can draw in the future. Finally, there could be a peer review process at this point where students comment on each others notes, using a rubric for guidance.

We recognised that this might be an idealised view, acknowledging issues like freeloading, non-participation, format compatibility etc, but we were working under time constraints so couldn’t really resolve all of those at once. However, we felt that the collaborative essence of what we proposed arose naturally from the social aspects of the technology; a feature not always available when using institutional content management systems. To conclude, all the groups then individually fed back to the full group, leaving an unfortunately brief time for discussing the issues. (Think we might have been off task occasionally!)
I can’t help but feel that the process of note making is rarely questioned; certainly from my experience at secondary schoollevel anyway. Are students of that age (or even undergraduates) capable of making notes for themselves … and if not, how do we help them structure that process and guide them in developing this crucial skill? That’s applies to ALL students, so let’s keep in mind there are weighty SEND issues to consider here. Technology and social media could help, but as always, the devil will be in the detail.

#SocMedHE15 #1 – And they’re off!

The inaugural Social Media in Higher Education Conference 2015 proffered a sumptuous menu of delectable offerings … and I’m not referring to the conference dinner!

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

The appetisers were served on Thursday afternoon, opening with a hands-on session in which some recent technological innovations were available to try out … on? I give you ‘The Wearables!’ Having never seen Glass from Google, and especially now that it is discontinued, I was keen to try out this early iteration of consumer personal display technology might offer. Although a little less than stable, apparently poor connectivity and with some way to go as far as design is concerned, the optics and voice-activated menu system were nevertheless quite impressive. I don’t doubt that we’ll see a much more sophisticated version in the not too distant future. Being able to benefit from an augmented view of our surroundings, delivered through an unobtrusive package will offer interesting possibilities. The camera had some appeal too – “OK Google – Take photo” to quickly snap a book section I am reading would be a boon. Or imagine meeting your class and the facial recognition software being able to overlay each student’s name as you look at them. Or how might it support conducting ethnographies in public spaces? Though of course that immediately quite rightly triggers the ‘privacy’ and ethics alarm bells. When Glass’ successor looks like a conventional pair of specs, how will we as educational institutions deal with the issues it raises when students might be receiving data (or recording!) in lessons, or when they are taking formal assessments?

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

There’s a neat segue from close of the Glass section into the smartwatch on display; another technology I’d yet to handle. To be honest, for the most part I’d ignored smartwatches for the simply reason that I don’t wear a watch (except a Garmin whilst I’m running). I also have skinny wrists, on which the bulky models I’d seen so far would look comical … in fact much like my Garmin does! So when I saw and tried the sleek Samsung Gear S2, I have to confess to being more than a little impressed. It looked the part as a watch and all the functions and features seemed acceptable for such a small device But here was the problem; I just couldn’t see how it would fit either into my life, or for that matter into a learning environment. Just how important is it to be able to receive notifications that you can surreptitiously check? And at the cost of a good android tablet? No, not for me. Oh and if we’re talking exam security, wait and see what unfolds after this Xmas when far more of these watches are likely to be under the trees around the land.

The one device which truly captured my imagination though was the virtual reality headset. Both the sophisticated Samsung version and the Google Cardboard turn a smartphone plus app plus content into a startlingly immersive environment. Donald Clarke has been waxing lyrical about these for some time now, so do check out his posts for the multitude of ways in which he thinks they might be applied. I was distinctly impressed with how carefully matched the on-screen activity and motion of your head are; no noticeable lag whatsoever, though perhaps that depends on the capability of the smartphone being used? The next step is the educational context in which they’re deployed. I can certainly see immense value in being able to ‘transport’ pupils to parts of the world they’re unlikely to ever visit, either because they lack the financial resources to do so, or the environments are too inhospitable. Or to take them to places that humans can’t currently go – surface of Mars, inside a blood vessel, or to visit recreations of past times and places. The crucial part will be how we, as teachers, build opportunities that this technology allows into our curricula. It’s fine and dandy having a couple of minutes experiencing a place, but how might we incorporate that into the learning process? Doubtless we treat it as a resource where students observe, synthesise, interpret and analyse in the same way they might do from a text, performance or experiment.

What we need now is content, which will will doubtless trickle out as we move forward, like with Google Expeditions. But as always, how much more powerful when students create, as well as consume content? Again this is just emerging, but there are apps which allow them to do just that. All we have to do is ensure their explorations contribute to meaningful learning experiences.

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license