More of the Same: The Web Turns Us Into Mussels

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. In our previous post we tried to argue whether you could engineer serendipity. The conclusion was: no, you cannot engineer serendipity (on the web). In this post we use the same recipe to investigate the corollary: the (social) web is hindering serendipity by clustering and clumping similar information around our web presence based on our online behaviour (e.g. the social graph). You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

In my teens I went to a Montessori high school in Amsterdam Zuid. The school is known for its liberal and cultural approach to education. My friends and I all thought we were free thinkers and radicals. It was therefore quite a shock to me when I learned at the college for PE teacher education that not all people had the “VPRO gids” at home and read the “Volkskrant”. It suddenly dawned on me how silo-ed my experience at high school had been and how similar we all were in our drive to be different. Occasionally I get the feeling that I am in a very similar position in my current educational technology profession.

The current toolset on the web helps us find people that are like ourselves, recommends us books that are similar to the ones we have already read and amplifies our existing opinions by aligning them to people who think the same as us. There are no tools to do the opposite: find people who are very different from you or content that gives new perspectives. In this post I would like to give a couple of examples of how the web helps in turning us into mussels (sessile animals that like being close to each other).

Example 1: The concept of RSS and Google Reader
Every day I spent 30 to 60 minutes reading my news feeds through Google Reader. I have subscribed to over 300 feeds and try to not miss any news items from about 100 of them. These feeds are very specific (one of the affordances of RSS is that it can easily be generated based on tags or search words). None of them carry general world news. Instead of reading the Guardian’s most important world news, I read the Guardian news that is tagged with Royal Dutch Shell. Instead of general feeds about the state of education and learning I read the posts of certain learning gurus. This means that on my Google Reader news from the last couple of days there was no way for me to encounter the release of Aung San Suu Kyi (I only learned about it by looking it up just now), whereas I read about Facebook’s new messaging system at least three different times (here, here and here) with very similar perspectives each time.

Google is also willing to suggest some new feeds for me to subscribe to. As of today the first four suggested sources that Google gives me are as follows:

Google's first recommendations

Google's first recommendations

More of the same! Wouldn’t it be way more beneficial for me to be confronted with people, opinions and news that is very different from the things I already know? It seems like there isn’t enough semantic understanding of the things that I am reading to be able to tell me: “You always read news about Shell on the Guardian, the Financial Times usually has a very different perspective”. How far off do you think we are before that becomes a reality?

Example 2: Amazon suggestions

Amazon recommends the book I am already reading

Amazon recommends the book I am already reading

Amazon was one of the first companies that made use of its customer’s behaviour to improve the service to that same customer. When you browse at Amazon they track everything, not just your purchases, but also your browsing history, the links you click, the reviews you read and write, the books you don’t buy and probably how much time you spend doing each of these things. They use this data and correlate it with other people’s data to be able to suggest a couple of books that should interest you.

I haven’t bought at Amazon for a while (I now buy my books at Book Depository as they ship for free), but my current suggestions do include titles like Drive (which I am reading right now), Free and Growing Up Digital (and many other similar titles that I have already read). These books increase my specialization in the field of Internet and educational technology. There is no way for me to try and find books on Amazon that can function as a bridge to other genres.

There also is no way to really browse serendipitously. Like RSS, the categorization of the books is incredibly specific. Much more than in a traditional book store. On Amazon I would be able to go to one of my favourite subjects cognitive psychology (finding more than 8000 titles), whereas in a book store I would have to go to “popular science”. The latter forces me to run into books in fields of science that I wouldn’t usually look at. A book shelve also has a nicer (and faster!) browsing experience: running with a finger past all the books, taking one out and quickly scanning its contents all do not work on Amazon.

Example 3: Anglo-Saxon focus through the English language and through Silicon Valley based innovation
Silicon valley seems to be a village. I listen to Leo Laporte’s podcasts (e.g. This Week in Tech), read TechCrunch, Mashable and ReadWriteWeb and am inundated with news about Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and mobile phone carriers in the US. A lot of the web technology innovation is indeed driven by companies in Silicon valley and innovative start-ups from all over the world flock to California to be successful (see here for an example). But it does leave me wondering whether I am not missing out on a large part of the technium by not being able to read Japanese, Mandarin, German, etc. Through Western (English) media I have learned that Japan has a very specific mobile phone culture. But in all ways I am completely disconnected from it.

To experience how true this is, I would like you to do the following assignment: Use Google to try and find three sites in Japanese about technology culture. Let me know in the comments how that went…

My Top 10 Tools for Learning 2010

CC-licensed photo by Flickr user yoppy

CC-licensed photo by Flickr user yoppy

For this year’s edition of the Top 100 Tools for Learning (a continuing series started, hosted and curated by JaneDuracell BunnyHart of the Internet Time Alliance) I decided to really reflect on my own Learning Process. I am a knowledge worker and need to learn every single day to be effective in my job. I have agreed with my manager to only do very company-specific formal training. Things like our Leadership development programs or the courses around our project delivery framework are so deeply embedded in our company’s discourse that you miss out if you don’t allow yourself to learn the same vocabulary. All other organised training is unnecessary: I can manage myself and that is the only way in which I can make sure that what I learn is actually relevant for my job.

So what tools do I use to learn?

1. Goodreads in combination with Book Depository
The number one way for me personally to learn is by reading a book. When I started as an Innovation Manager in January I wanted to learn more about innovation as a topic and how you could manage an innovation funnel. I embarked on a mission to find relevant books. Nowadays I usually start at Goodreads, a social network for readers. I like the reviews there more than the ones on Amazon and I love the fact that I can get real recommendations from my friends. Goodreads has an excellent iPhone app making it very easy to keep a tab on your reading habits. I found a bunch of excellent books on innovation (they will get a separate post in a couple of weeks).
My favourite book store to buy these books is Book Depository (please note that this is an affiliate link). They have worldwide free shipping, are about half the price of the book stores in the Netherlands and ship out single books very rapidly.

2. Twitter and its “local” version Yammer
Ever since I got an iPhone I have been a much keener Twitter user (see here and guess when I got the iPhone). I have come to realise that it is a great knowledge management tool. In recent months I have used it to ask direct questions to my followers, I have used it to follow live news events as they unfold, I have searched to get an idea of the Zeitgeist, I have used it to have a dialogue around a book, and I have used it as a note taking tool (e.g. see my notes on the Business-IT fusion book, still available thanks to Twapperkeeper).
Yammer is an enterprise version of Twitter that is slowly taking off in my company. The most compelling thing about it is how it cuts across all organizational boundaries and connects people that can help each other.

3. Google
Google does not need any introduction. It is still my favourite search tool and still many searches start at Google. I have to admit that those searches are often very general (i.e. focused on buying something or on finding a review or a location). If I need structured information I usually default to Wikipedia or Youtube.

4. Google Reader
I have about 300 feeds in Google Reader of which about 50 are in my “first read” category, meaning I follow them religiously. This is the way I keep up with (educational) technology news. What I love about Google Reader is how Google has made a very mature API available allowing people to write their own front-end for it. This means I can access my feeds from a native iPhone app or from the web or from my desktop while keeping the read counts synchronised. Another wonderful thing is that Google indexes and keeps all the feed items once you have added the feeds. This means that you can use it to archive all the tweets with a particular hash tag (Twitter only finds hash tags from the last two weeks or so when you use their search engine). Finally, I have also used Google Reader as a feed aggregator. This Feedburner feed, for example, was created by putting three different feeds in a single Google Reader folder (more about how to do that in a later post).

5. Wikipedia (and Mediawiki)
The scale of Wikipedia is stupefying and the project still does not seem to run out of steam. The Wikimedia organization has just rolled out some enhancements to their Mediawiki software allowing for easier editing. The openness of the project allows for people to build interesting services on top of the project. I love Wikipanion on my iPhone and I have enthusiastically used Pediapress a couple of times to create books from Wikipedia articles. I find Wikipedia very often (not always!) offers a very solid first introduction to a topic and usually has good links to the original articles or official websites.

6. Firefox
Even though I have written earlier that I was a Google Chrome user, I have now switched back and let Mozilla’s Firefox be the “window” through which I access the web. This is mainly due to two reasons. The first being that I am incredibly impressed with the ambitions of Mozilla as an organization. Their strategy for making the web a better place really resonates with me. The other reason is Firefox Sync, allowing me to use my aliased bookmarks and my passwords on multiple computers. I love Sync for its functionality but also for its philosophy: you can also run your own Sync server and do not need to use Mozilla’s and all the sync data is encrypted on the server side, needing a passphrase on the client to get to it.

7. LinkedIn
It took a while before I started to see the true benefits of LinkedIn. A couple of weeks ago I had a couple of questions to ask to people who have experience with implementing SAP Enterprise Learning in large organizations. LinkedIn allowed me to search for and then contact people who have SAP Enterprise Learning in their profile in some way. The very first person that I contacted forwarded me on to a SAP Enterprise Learning discussion group on LinkedIn. I asked a few questions in that forum and had some very good public and private answers to those questions within days. In the past I would only have access to that kind of market information if SAP would have been the broker of this dialogue or if I would buy from analysts like Bersin. LinkedIn creates a lot of transparency in the market place and transparency is a good thing (especially for customers).

8. WordPress (including the WordPress.com network) and FocusWriter
Writing is probably one of the best learning processes out there and writing for other people is even better. WordPress is used to publish this post, while I use a simple cross-platform tool called FocusWriter to give me a completely uncluttered screen with just the words (no menus, window edges or status bars!). WordPress is completely free to use. You can either opt for a free (as in beer) hosted version that you can set up within seconds on http://www.wordpress.com or you can go the free (as in speech) version where you download the application, modify it to your needs and host it where you want. If I was still a teacher now, this would be the one tool that I would let all of my students use as much as possible.

9. Youtube
The quantity of videos posted on Youtube is not comprehensible. It was Rob Hubbard who first showed me how you could use the large amount of great tutorials to great effect. He rightfully thought: Why would I put a lot of effort into developing a course on how to shoot a great video if I can just link to a couple of excellent, well produced, short, free videos that explain all the most important concepts? The most obvious topics to learn about are music (listening to music and learning how to play music) and games (walkthroughs and cheat codes) , but there are already lots of great videos on other topics too.

10. Moodle and the community on Moodle.org
Moodle is slowly slipping to the bottom of my list. In the last few years a lot of my professional development was centred around Moodle and I still owe many of the things I know about educational technology, open source and programming/systems administration to my interactions in the forums at Moodle.org. Two things are the cause for Moodle being less important to my own learning:
1. I now have a job in which I am tasked to try and look ahead and see what is coming in the world of enterprise learning technology. That is a broad field to survey and I have been forced to generalise my knowledge on the topic.
2. I have become increasingly frustrated with the teacher led pedagogical model that all Virtual Learning Environments use. I do believe that VLEs “are dead”: they don’t fully leverage the potential of the net as a connection machine, instead they are usually silos that see themselves as the centre of the learning technology experience and lack capabilities to support a more distributed experience.

Previous versions of my Top 10 list can be found here for 2008 and here for 2009. A big thank you again to Jane for aggregating and freely sharing this hugely valuable resource!

5 Things I Cannot Live Without

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. For this post we agreed to write about things we cannot live without. The restriction is that the things should have a hierarchical relationship where the lowest level of hierarchy is the microprocessor and the highest level is the Internet. Each thing should be described in 100 words. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

Please don’t take the title of this post too literally: yes, even I realise that I will be able to live without these things. Instead consider this a tribute to these five things. Also be aware that the title is not “The 5 Things I Cannot Live Without”, there are many other things that I find way more useful and crucial (think bed, dishwasher, etc.).

So here goes, in a loose hierarchy from local to global:

Microprocessor

CC licensed by Flickr user Stéfan

1. The Microprocessor
What do you know about the microprocessor? If it as much as I used to, then it will be very little! Did you know that the first microprocessors appeared in the early seventies and that they were mostly used for calculators? Did you know that their capacity follows Moore’s law? Did you know that microprocessors not only integrated in computers, but also in cars, toasters, TVs, dishwashers (again!) and most other electrical equipment with some advanced functionality? Finally, did you know the Wikipedia article for Microprocessors needs additional citations and references? Why don’t you get to work and fix it?

2. My iPhone
I don’t think I have yet waxed lyrical about my iPhone. First of all I am late to the party: I have only bought one last December. This is because I resisted buying a closed down Apple product for as long as possible. I really really wanted to buy an Android phone, but all the ones that I tried were seriously less capable than the iPhone. So why is it that much better? Because thought has been put into every single element of the software and hardware design. Nothing is accidental, everything is considered. No other company is there yet.

3. Xs4all
My Internet provider is XS4ALL. There are a couple of reasons why this will be the case for the foreseeable future (even though their price/speed ratio is not competitive):

4. Google Services
Over the last couple of years I have come to rely more and more on Google’s services. So much so that it has become increasingly hard to even list all the Google services that I have an account for or use regularly otherwise. As an excercise I have used this Wikipedia page to list all the products I use regularly (on Ubuntu or iPhone): Chrome, Sketchup, Gears, Calendar, Gmail, Product Search, Reader, Apps, Feedburner, Youtube, OpenSocial, Maps, Aardvark, Alerts, Translate, Groups, Image Search, Scholar, Web search, Analytics, Gapminder, Trends and Zeitgeist. Couldn’t be bothered to link them all: Google them!

5. The Internet
It is a cliché to call the Internet a “game changer”. However, it cannot be denied that it is the most disruptive technology out there. It creates feasibility spaces for social practice (thank you Benkler) and it forces you to rethink traditional ways of doing things. In the field of educational technology for example it has led to, among other things, new course paradigms, an Edupunk movement and deep critiques of the learning function. We cannot fathom what the near future of the Internet will look like as the pace of change is continually accelerating. I cannot wait for it!

P.S. This post was inspired by Techcruch’s Products I Can’t Live Without.

Summary of and Reflections on “Learning in 3D”, Chapter 1

The first chapter of Learning in 3D titled “Here Comes the Immersive Internet” consists of three parts. The first part gives an overview of the three “Webvolution Waves”, the second part focuses on four convergence points that all lead to a next-generation Immersive Internet architecture and the chapter closes with a short analysis of what this might mean for the enterprise.

Three Webvolution Waves
The web browser arrived in 1993 and was used to connect “to” the information that was available on the web. The web grew fast and businesses helping people with getting on the web (Internet Service Providers like AOL) or finding the information on the web (e.g. Yahoo and Google) where the clear winners of the first wave.

In the early noughties companies like Google and Amazon truly started to leverage “the aggregated behaviour of many users to differentiate their [..] offerings”. This insight combined with the increased ability of people to participate in the web by uploading their own content became the core of “Web 2.0“, characterised by the authors as connecting “through“.

Allegedly the next phase of the web will be about connecting “within” and immersive 3D  experiences will be a fundamental part of that. Kapp and O’Driscoll give a couple of examples, mainly from MMORPGs. In games like World of Warcraft people come together in a (semi-) three-dimensional worlds and collaborate as teams to battle other team. There is real economic value in these games as the practice of gold farming clearly shows.

The description of this third phase obviously has much less clarity than the first two phases: we are now in this “webvolution” and we are not sure which of these points are the most salient aspects. I don’t think that “immersiveness” is the only candidate to be at the heart of the next generation of web technology. It could still be that the semantic web will have more impact on social practice. Or alternatively it could the social graph which will be the all pervasive aspect of the new web. In that latter case Facebook seems to be in prime position to be the next Google with their recently announced Graph API. I am sure these trends reinforce each other, but I am not sure that 3-dimensionality will be as important as this book seems to think it will be.

Four Convergence Points
The authors think there are four current technologies that are integrating with each other, creating four convergence points in the process. All these points converge to the immersive Internet. I don’t want to steal their diagram (you can find it on page 18 of the book), so I’ll describe it here.

  • 2D synchronous learning and knowledge sharing spaces are combining to create immediate networked virtual spaces.
  • Knowledge sharing spaces and web 2.0 technologies are integrating into intuitive dynamic knowledge discovery.
  • Web 2.0 technologies and virtual world technologies are coming together in interactive 3D social networking.
  • Virtual world technologies and 2D synchronous learning together can create immersive 3D learning experiences.

I really like this model as it provides four clear spaces in which you could look at technology. The problem for me is that in my job I do indeed see immediate networked virtual space and am starting to see intuitive dynamic knowledge discovery, but I do not see the two 3D convergence points yet. This could be my lack of knowledge and experience of what is out there, in which case I would gladly see some examples and demonstrations!

What does this mean for business?
The web has had a profound impact on the way we do business and organise ourselves. I want  to address the points that I thought most interesting by quoting three passages from the book. The first quote is about information abundance and the subversion of hierarchy by networks:

As the Internet continues to pervade society, the scarcity paradigm that undergirds most modern economic theory is being challenged. Unlike currency, information is non-appropriable, which essentially means that it can be shared without being given away. Today, information no longer moves in one direction, from the top to the bottom or from teacher to student. Instead, it has a social life all its own.

The second quote is about how the web allows people to come together without needing formal organisations to do it:

As communication costs have decreased and the quality of web-based interactivity has increased, communities of co-creators no longer need to rely on a formal organization to become organized. Rather than employing an enterprise infrastructure to plan ahead of time, they leverage the pervasive and immersive affordances of the web to coordinate their activities in real time.

The above is one of the most important points (and actually the subtitle) of Clay Shirky’s wonderful Here Comes Everybody and I think this reading group is an example of how this can work.

And finally a quote about how companies have to innovate faster and how this affects the role of the learning function in the enterprise:

For change to occur it is a precondition that learning take place. [..] In the case of the centralize hierarchies, [organizations] must unlearn all that brought it success in the pre-webvolution era and quickly learn how to leverage the Immersive Internet to reconfigure its resources and capabilities to achieve sustainable competitive advantage in a world gone web. […] The perennial challenge of the learning function within the enterprise is to ensure that human capital investment yields a workforce capable of innovating faster than the competition and work processes that allow the organization to adapt to changes with minimal disruption. This suggests that the learning function should become increasingly strategic to the enterprise.

The last sentence is the step-up to the rest of the book. I am looking forward to it!

Questions for discussion
Please participate in these two polls:

In the teleconference I would like to discuss the following questions:

  • In what way has your company or organisation changed because of the webvolution? How has this affected the learning function?
  • What are your thoughts about the convergence to an immersive web? Do you have examples of how 2D synchronous learning and web 2.0 combine with 3D virtual worlds?
  • What will change when we make the shift from a scarcity paradigm to an abundance paradigm for information.

We will discuss these questions in our weekly teleconference on Monday April 26th at 15:30 CET. Please contact me if you want to call in and don’t have the dial in details.

(Auto) Presence: Increasing Team and Network (Communication) Efficiency and Productivity

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. For this post we agreed to write about how (auto)presence could increase team and network communication. The post also has to include some video or audio. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

I decided to put this month’s blogpost in a 17 minute long Slideshare presentation (download the 1.5MB PDF here):

My voice was recorded with VR+ on the iPhone. This cheap app converts the file to MP3 and allows you to upload it over wifi. The MP3 file is hosted by the Internet Archive.

I would love your comments and ideas on this matter!