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University 2.0

Just what the world needs – another buzzword! Actually, this refers to last Monday’s trek to the School of Business at Kingston University for a day discussing Web 2.0 and it’s implications for the HE sector ( – includes slides).It was a curate’s egg of a day, to be honest, and highlighted a lot of the problems of definition still bedevilling Web 2.0 in the context of HE.

Dave Martland of Kingston’s School of Business Information Management differentiated between personal tools (calendars, news readers etc) and collaborative tools, highlighting Yahoo pipes as an example of where the two merge. (see also the Read/Write web article). Personally, I’m not convinced that Pipes has necessarily got it right (too complicated for mainstream use in its current format) and Yahoo’s current revolving door at the top makes it difficult to judge their overall strategic intentions but he’s right to highlight the need for intelligent, personalised filtering tools. I’ve been using Particls on my work desktop with some success for a while and enjoy the sensation of information dropping serendipitously into my lap rather than having to slog through my feeds, though’ it’s far from perfect. He also touched on what inadvertently seemed to be one of the defining theme of the day – open academic communities versus closed ones.

Phil Molyneux, of the same school focused on academic bookmarking software and the problem of how to get people to cite properly and the tools that might help them (e.g. CiteSeer, Citeulike). Another point of interest was the notion of the epic amount of library organising software (e.g. Bookster, the amazing Library Thing) available at little or no cost and it’s potential to help you organise your research data. Still, I found the Web 2.0 angle hard to pin down and possibly it just wasn’t of interest to Phil.

Nick Kings from BT spoke about “Web 2.0 Meets The Enterprise”, went into some detail about semantically rich information (in the context of Project DIP) and the possibility of how Web 2.0 plus the semantic web equals Web 3.0. He was fascinating on BT’s work on producing “semantic wikis” for generating pages purely through the combination of semantic information responding to user tagging. On the other hand, he was clear about the need for corporate definition of data and had no time for microformats at all. To me, it still sounded a little like old-school top-down knowledge management with a requirement for strong facilitation and control of the direction ontologies take.

Anne-Marie McEwan of the SmartWork Company mostly spoke about dealing with the issue of how web 2.0 cuts across boundaries of culture and status, specifically in the context of high-flying Russian executives who apparently don’t do IM as a rule. Not when they can get someone to do it for them. Hmm. Potentially interesting but it felt underdeveloped as a session and jumped about too many other bases.

The last sessions looked at Second Life and HE and E-Learning. The former I’ll save for a separate post. The latter (from Tim Linsey) was fascinating – a potted history of the development of VLEs from a practitioner who’d been in the trenches throughout the whole that also illustrated the tension I mentioned earlier – the need to try and accommodate new modes of communicating and learning whilst retaining control of them. In this case, in stead of letting students loose on blogs and wikis, the university (and they aren’t alone) was implementing them as plug-ins within Blackboard. For me, this defeats a lot of the purpose of how students can best exploit this kind of technology. Warwick, for example, has largely adopted a policy of laissez fair resulting in an inspirational avalanche of blogs and postings from students. Meanwhile (as Tim pointed out) YouTube was filling up with clips and lectures from universities and students.

The choice, then, is to either accept that the boundaries of the zone formally known as The University are becoming permeable and diffuse as content and activity migrates to any number of Web 2.0 destinations and invest accordingly in facilities for students to own and aggregate their activities, or to continue to fight to control and corral everything that goes on with a corresponding cost in creativity and innovation.

There’s another cost involved in the latter option which sadly, wasn’t really explored and that’s the opportunity cost. If you aren’t “there” (wherever “there” is this week), you can guarantee that your potential students will be. And in today’s HE free-market, if you aren’t where your students are, you ultimately aren’t anywhere at all.

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They’re beautiful…but are they useful? And why am I even asking that question?

In some ways, the first Jackson Fish Market experience seems almost endearingly old school.  It’s “viral” (you send someone flowers – they visit your site and send some to someone else), “sticky” (if you don’t come back and water your flowers, they wither and die) and entirely about brand promotion (whether of Jackson Fish Market or the minimally branded Vosges Hot Chocolate is open to debate).  Of course, you can embed the flowers as a widget in your blog or website but…

On the other hand, the flowers are awfully pretty and the execution is flawlessly light of touch.   Perhaps that’s where They’re Beautiful (and Jackson Fish Market) part company with the old school – they collect just enough data to make it work and they’re tapping into a very contemporary meme – virtual gifts.  And the idea that these virtual objects will simply wilt away and die is quite a poignant comment on the ephemeral nature of the Web – live, 2.0, semantic or otherwise. Or am I reading too much into a bunch of flowers?  (mind you, I read too much into most things).  Tim O’Reilly is skeptical – but hey, they got O’Reilly writing about them.  Robert Scoble (inevitably) knows the three designers behind Fish Market and (after a little ritual MS bashing) comments that virtual goods are the “Next Big Thing” in Silicon Valley.

Who knows?  I don’t know about the extent to which Facebook’s gifts are embedded in Facebook culture but they certainly aren’t beautiful – more like the cartoon abstraction of gift-giving where the idea of a limited edition of 10,000,000 becomes a bizarre parody of generosity.  In some ways, They’re Beautiful is a step forward from this to a mode of gift giving where the lack of value precludes all selfishness on the part of the giver…

But, as I said, I read to much into things.  The flowers  look nice and the water won’t ever start to smell (until they finally sort out that olfactory Firefox plug-in, anyway).

P.S. And then there are those trying to revive the late nineties notion of buying real goods in a virtual en

Work on identity aggregation – three streams in search of a single solution

I seem to have been skimming a lot of articles on models of drawing together the different identities we leave scattered hither and thither about the Net in the last few days (something I whimsically termed the diaspora of you on an earlier post – everyone wants to invent a tagline) .

There seem to be two distinct approaches to thinking about this this – technical solutions (Read/Write Web did a great overview a couple of months ago) and aggregator solutions which could include everything from Google’s “next-gen” social networking work-in-progress Social Stream to bundlers of activity like Tumblr or the more complex iStalkr.

iStalkr (still in Beta) seems to be trying to achieve a lot of what Google is aiming at with Socialstream. Google’s post characterises Socialstream as “A service model [that] allows many social networks to be linked together, letting them share both content and the nature of the relationships of the people who use them.” Essentially a news reader for identities, then. iStalkr already delivers a version of that kind of experience by aggregating the “lifestream” type content of one’s activities in (say) LastFM, Flickr, Twitter, blogs and anything else that can be delivered as an RSS (tangent! if Tim Berners Lee invented the internet, surely Dave Winer deserves wider recognition as the man who more than most other people made it into something alive…) in such a way as each distinct “moment” (my term – I mean a record of the song I’m listening to now) can be cross-referenced with the moments of other users.

What I like about this is the way it offers a chance to network in a slightly more granular, intimate, fuzzy way than “Hey, didn’t you go to the same university five years after me?”. At the moment, though, it’s slow and the visualisation doesn’t seem to enable you to layer the streams of others over your own. Interestingly, it also uses the XHTML Friends network for users to manage information about their relationships. This is what I’d identify as a third steam of interest – freeing up the tangle of your relationships with people on different social networks from that specific context without losing the those aspects of that context that you’d like to be portable. So how does a protocol/service like XHTML (apparently the first microformat) relate to this?

Well, it potentially becomes useful when someone looks at integrating services like OpenID (uploaded identities managed by a central server) or Sxipper (managed locally via Firefox plugin on your machine – see also Podtech’s interview) with relationship mappings like XFN in in terms of pulling together the management of the password/profile aspect of one’s life with the web of relationships we take with us as we move from location to location. Then one needs to draw in the third dimension of the diaspora – how these relationship intersections interweave with the trail of “moments” we leave behind us behind us – songs listened to, status updates posted, comments left – in terms of who is allowed to know what about whom.
What would such a thing actually look like? Hopefully not Yahoo pipes, for starters. Perhaps it’s a job for these people?

Omgili – subjective search. And subjectively not terribly good.

With so many feed to try and read and so many interesting items flying through Particls, anything whcih can winnow down the ‘dangling conversation’ to manageable levels has got to be a good idea and Omgili seems like a strong contender on the face of it. It styles itself as a “subjective information search engine”; that is, it crawls bulletin boards, blog comments and similar sources to “find out what people are saying” about topics.  It’s a nice idea but a search on “three year old discipline” (a topic near to my heart) didn’t seem to do any better than Google.  in fact, only the first half dozen links seemed to be relevant.

The assumption is a nice one – that by limiting your search to the “wisdom of crowds”, you’ll end up with at least a sense of what people are saying about a given subject. How useful is it? Very, possibly, if you’re a marketeer or work in PR. Otherwise, the lack of any criteria of authority (even one as crude as Technorati’s inbound links) seems to limit its value.

The name isn’t great,  standing for Oh My God I Love It and meaning that a search on Omgili for” Omgili” turns up a flood of forum results of people yelling OMGILI about pretty much anything other than Omgili search after the first few results. Omgili is a nice idea, I’d like to love it but it simply doesn’t perform very well.