Seconds out, Life 2.0

As mentioned in my last post, the final week of the Learning 2.0 programme was about virtual worlds and gaming.

If you have a look at the games I listed in the previous post, you can see that although I flirted with adventure type games in the past (and as a teenage nerd, I played ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ and other role-playing games, but not on a computer), my more recent games history does not include any ‘immersive’ games like World of Warcraft.

This means that joining a Virtual World such as Second Life is essentially a new experience for me. I joined Second Life sometime ago, and went in, did the ‘orientation’ etc. and after flying around for a short while, not talking to anyone, and getting bored, I logged off. My overall feeling was that SL and the like were vaguely interesting developments, but they really didn’t do anything for me – you can see my thinking at the time in my comment on the efoundations blog

Apart from leaving comments like this on various blogs I didn’t really do anything with SL, and when I came back to it about 6 months ago, I had to create a new account, having lost all my previous details.

So, at the ‘hands on’ session it was really the first time I’d actually gone into Second Life and interacted with anyone. This (unsuprisingly!) made it all seem a bit more worth while. I found the fact we were working under our SL names a bit problematic – since I didn’t know who I was talking to, which might not have mattered so much except for the fact that I actually knew most of the people in there – that is, it was more frustrating than it would have been if I was just interacting with ‘strangers’.

I followed up my experience in the session by attending a Second Life ‘event’, about using Second Life to support events. This was part of a JISC ‘skills day’ called Illuminating event management, and Andy Powell from Eduserv spoke simultaneously in RL (real life) and SL (where he is Art Fosset).

I found this worked well. Although it wasn’t the same as being there in person of course, it was I think better than just looking at the slides while listening to an audio stream from Andy.

What the SL venue definitely offered was a ‘backchannel’ – i.e. a way of talking (using SL chat in this case) about what was being said while it was being said. I tend to use back channels at RL conferences – either ones that are provided by the conference, or via Twitter or other 3rd party services – and always find they add to the richness of the experience. They are by nature always mixed – relevant and irrelevant stuff, both serious and for fun.

I’m not sure how much the ‘immersive’ nature of SL is a factor here – you might be able to achieve something similar with various text based tools, but my guess is that there is a feeling of ‘place’ that SL offers that subtlely changes your relation to the event and the others attending. Getting sound from the RL delegates (esp. laughter) was also interesting, and combined with the SL venue made me feel much more ‘part’ of the experience – something we were sharing rather than (as so often with online events) something I was ‘looking at’. The fact that Andy was obviously showing the SL venue space to the RL participants also helped I think, as they could react to things happening in the SL venue.

So, where am I on SL now? I definitely can see more value than I had previously, and to some extent I am more of a ‘convert’. I suspect I’m never going to spend enough time in SL to really form a ‘relationship’ with my avatar, or others, and I’d really prefer to appear as ‘myself’ rather than my alter ego (Owain Blessed). On the otherhand, for attending ‘virtual events’ I can definitely see SL or something similar as a useful tool.

Finally, several blog postings from the Learning 2.0 programme have questionned whether there is a role for Imperial College libraries in SL. It is worth noting that if you wander around the Imperial College Virtual Hospital you will find ‘virtual library materials’ – journals which if you click on them show you the URL for the e-journal. This is a pretty limited function, but I think it shows that the users creating this space see the need for some interaction here. I’m not advocating us building an SL branch of the library, but I do think we should be looking at how we can build systems that can be exposed in SL easily (by us or our users – see my comments at http://yadayada20.wordpress.com/2008/08/21/put-the-facebook-down-and-step-away-slowly/ for thoughts about how we can make it easier to embed library services in a variety of environments)

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This Gaming Life

The tenth and last week of the Learning 2.0 programme here at Imperial College Library is on Gaming and Virtual worlds. I started a post saying "I'm not really a gamer", but as I started to write more about the games I played I realised that this really wasn't going to wash.

I guess you could say I'm a first generation 'native' (or 'resident') computer gamer – that is, I played computer games growing up, whereas my parents were well in the pre-computer game era when they were children. I think it is fair to say that my parents have never really become real 'natives', although they do occasionally try stuff out (usually at my behest).

So instead of the first post I was going to do, here is a meme style thing instead – my life through games, listing the games (plus platforms) that standout somehow in my life to date, with the platform I played them on – so here it is, my life in 20 games:

  1. Manic Miner (ZX Spectrum) – a platform game starring 'Miner Willy'
  2. Atic Atac (ZX Spectrum) – a type of graphic adventure, you had to explore, find keys, eat food etc.
  3. Impossible Mission (Commodore 64) – another platformer "Stay a while… stay – forever!”
  4. Summer/Winter Games (Commodore 64) – sports key/joystick bashing games of various types
  5. Arcadians (BBC B/BBC Master) – a space invaders game, very fond memories of this
  6. Colossal Cave (BBC B) – a text adventure game (aka interactive fiction), based on the classic ‘Adventure’ – the very first game of this type
  7. Dunjunz (BBC B/BBC Master) – a type of graphic ‘adventure’ (although more ‘kill the monsters/collect the treasure than anything more strategic), but notable for 4 way split screen with 4 player option and level design option to create your own levels
  8. Great Britain Ltd (BBC B) – a turn based ‘simulation’ where you set various aspects of government policy – e.g. spend on law and order – and saw the outcome (rate of inflation, riots, etc. etc.)
  9. Chuckie Egg (BBC B) – a platform game – many hours spent on this one
  10. Twin Kingdom Valley (BBC B) – the first ‘graphical’ adventure – I guess a precursor to the ‘point and click’ adventure game
  11. Myst (Mac) – classic ‘point and click’ adventure
  12. Tomb Raider Series (PC/PS2) – essentially a 3d platform game I suppose – I liked the combination of storyline/puzzles/dexterity
  13. Dancing Stage (PS1) – a ‘Dance Dance Revolution’ clone – using a ‘dance mat’ that plugs into the console, move your feet in
  14. Singstar (PS2) – competitive Karaoke, I love it!
  15. Brain Training (Nintendo DS) – solve sums and word games etc. on Nintendo’s touch screen handheld
  16. Guitar Hero (PS2) – competitive guitar playing! Essentially hit combinations of keys (on a guitar shaped controller) in time with the music
  17. Scene It! (XBox 360) – Movie quiz game, spent several hours enjoying beating my nephews and nieces at this
  18. Bejewelled (Mac/iPhone/Online) – a ‘puzzle’ type game – line up jewels to score points
  19. Scrabulous (Online/Facebook) – Scrabble clone (now removed), my wife and I played jointly against others on her account
  20. Wii Play (Wii) – collection of mini-games designed to show off the capabilities of the Wii – Cow Racing is my favourite

If anyone wants to follow my meme, then post a list and trackback to here…

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Twitter me this

Week 8 of Imperial Library's Learning 2.0 programme was 'Social Networking Sites', encompassing Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Ning, LinkedIn, etc.

I've got a LinkedIn account but I don't tend to use it for 'social networking', and more really as a 'contacts' list – while some people clearly use LinkedIn to 'work' their business contacts, I can't say that I've ever been terribly good at this.

Facebook is more my thing, and I do use it to keep in touch with quite a few friends and family. I do find that Facebook raises the issue of how I mix my professional and personal life – whereas on LinkedIn everyone is one there as a 'professional contact' (even those people who are also friends), in Facebook I have some professional contacts, and some personal contacts. Although it hasn't happened yet, there is a clearly a risk that in the future there could be a conflict between how I want to present myself professionally, and how I do personally – I'm not sure I'd want my boss (not singling out my current boss) to be my 'Friend' on Facebook.

I've not got a MySpace account, but have to admit when I looked at some MySpace pages quite a while ago I was completely put off by the busy-ness of the pages – it felt a lot 'younger' than Facebook (which I think it probably is). I know it has a good reputation for music as well, but again I haven't really explored it that much. Bebo I did look at ages ago, but can't remember if I setup an account or not!

Ning is a bit different to the others in that it is a social networking platform, which hosts a variety of social networks. In a sense it is more a toolset which can be used to provide social networking functions. I've used it as a 'user' as a member of http://library20.ning.com/ and also to contribute to discussion of the JISC TILE project.

A few months ago, I would have said that Facebook was the SN I used most. However, then I started to use 'Twitter'. Strictly Twitter is, I guess, a 'microblogging' service rather than an SN. Microblogging is where you post very brief updates, frequently, to the web. With Twitter, the length of 'posts' (or Tweets) is limited to 140 characters – because it was designed to work with SMS on mobile phones, and this is the maximum size of a single text. Essentially you can think of it as a stream of Facebook 'status updates' (and I actually have it so everytime I tweet, it automatically updates my Facebook status with the same text) – in a previous post I described it as Facebook statuses without the rest of Facebook.

The attraction of Twitter is quite hard to pin down. In general people are sharing trivia, but I guess the truth is that 'sharing trivia' is what we do a lot of time face-to-face – where we went on holiday, what the weather is like, what we are doing this weekend etc. and I think it is amazing the way that we build relationships through sharing small details – both in real life, and online. I also like the way with Twitter that relationships aren't "mutual" – I can 'follow' someone, and they don't have to follow you back if they don't want – and vice versa. You can see my tweets on the lefthand side of this blog (or at http://twitter.com/ostephens) and judge for yourself.

I think that the web can be an excellent communications platform, and SNs and services like Twitter go along way to realising that potential.

Revenge of the Pod People

I'm still somewhat behind in my blog posts reflecting my experience of the Learning 2.0 programme at Imperial. Week 7 (three weeks ago) was on podcasts and multimedia.

First a bee in my bonnet about podcasts. I always get annoyed when people refer to an online mp3 file as a 'podcast' – it isn't – stop it! A podcast is a series of audio (possibly multimedia?) files distributed via an RSS feed. Perhaps the mechanics aren't that important – but I think a key point is that it is something that can automatically appear on your iPod (or other mp3 player) at regular intervals, without any need for intervention – that is what is so great about them. If the things I list below were just shoved on the web as an mp3 file, I'm pretty sure I'd never listen to them. The key is that, like RSS, is that the information comes to you, not the other way round.

Now I've got that off my chest, I do enjoy a few podcasts, although I tend towards the 'professional' end of the market. The main issue I have is finding the time. Like the radio, I don't tend to listen to things at home, but more often when travelling. When I travelled to work by train/tube I had an ideal time to listen to podcasts that had downloaded to my iPod. However, I now try to cycle to work at least 3 times a week, which has cut my opportunity to listen to anything. However, I still save them up, and on long car journeys they provide a welcome break from the radio.

My favourites are all Guardian produced ones:
Media Talk
Tech Weekly
Science Weekly

These and others are free from http://www.guardian.co.uk/audio – or of course, iTunes store (which is where I get them so they load automatically to my iPod/iPhone)

I also enjoy the BBC World Service podcast 'Digital Planet' which is presented by Imperial College's own Gareth Mitchell . The Radio 4 Friday evening comedy show (usually one of "The Now Show" or the "News Quiz" depending on the time of year) is also available, so I keep subscribed to that.

I sometimes listen to the Talking with Talis podcasts (http://talk.talis.com/), but find them slightly drier. I suppose the issue here is that I'm trying to absorb information – it's a bit less 'leisure', and I don't find the medium as good for that – essentially someone else is setting the pace at which I get the information, whereas if I'm reading it, I have control – I can't 'skim listen' in the way I can skim read.

Other multimedia stuff – I enjoy the occasional viral on YouTube – "Charlie bit my finger" is a particular favourite. I'd also recommend having a look at the talk about YouTube given by Michael Wesch at the Library of Congress – it's a fascinating examination of YouTube. In fact, just about any video by Michael Wesch is probably worth a look – and The Machine is Us/ing Us is four and a half minutes of thought provoking brilliance – so good, I've decided to embed it here – watch it now!

However, by far the biggest impact on me when it comes to online multimedia has been the iPlayer (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer) – this is absolutely brilliant. We (my wife and I) regularly catchup with stuff via the iPlayer, either on our laptop, iPhone, or on the TV (we have a Mac Mini hooked up to the TV in our bedroom) – combined with our PVR it means we watch less and less TV as it is broadcast.

Playing catchup

Due to general busy-ness and also a week off last week I'm well behind with the Learning 2.0 Programme.

A couple of weeks ago, Social Bookmarking and Tagging were covered. I have to admit that bookmarking is something that I've always thought a really useful idea, but don't use a lot in reality – and I find social bookmarking exactly the same. I tend to bookmark a few things which I use a lot, and everything else I either search for, or remember. I've defended the approach of social bookmarking elsewhere by highlighting the 'social' aspects – following what others bookmark, but in reality I don't tend to use this aspect either – I rely on blogs and twitter to surface interesting stuff for me (occaisionally people include lists of bookmarks in their RSS feed, and so I suppose I use them indirectly in these cases). Anyway, I have a delicious account at http://delicious.com/ostephens if you want to see what I've bookmarked. I've also got a Flickr Photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/23577728@N07/, but I don't use it at all, as I tend to share photos from my blog instead – of course, this lacks the social aspects, but I'm only really trying to share with my Friends and Family, so really not a big deal for me. However, I am a huge fan of Flickr, and use it extensively when putting together presentations, using CC Licensed images for illustrations (I'm meant to be doing this right now, but I'm writing this instead!)

Then while I was away Learning 2.0 covered online applications and web tools. I've used these a lot, and there is far too much to cover in a brief post (and I really need to get back to writing that presentation), however I'll just touch briefly on the areas listed:

1. Personalised homepages

I have an iGoogle page, but don't really use it. I tend to personalise my environment by using browser setup and PC settings to give me access to all my commonly used stuff. It isn't as portable, but I kind of have minimal needs, so seems to work OK for me.

2. Mobile phones

Until recently I wasn't a huge mobile phone user – then I got an iPhone… I know that I'm going to come across all Apple fanboy (and this is probably true to some extent), the iPhone is just amazing – I really don't think you can compare it to other phones (certainly not ones I've used) – I'm convinced that it (and devices like it) are going to change how we use mobile devices – it has certainly changed the way I use my mobile. If anyone from the Learning 2.0 programme wants to have a play, please come and find me, I love showing it off…

3. Web browsers

I'm a Firefox fan, and Firefox 3 is currently my browser of choice. I've toyed with Opera, but not really got on with it that well (although I do think Opera does some really interesting stuff, and the 'Quickdial' feature is great – although duplicated, not quite as well, by a Firefox plugin)

I've also played round with Flock, based on Firefox, and quite liked it, but in the end got irritated with long startup times.

Yesterday Google announced that they were entering the browser market with an Open Source browser called (at the moment at least) 'Chrome'. This should be available sometime today (2nd September 2008), and in the meantime you can read the comic (really). There are several aspects highlighted in the comic several of which are about developing a browser optimised to run web applications – such as GMail and Google Docs.

4. Google documents

I use this for personal stuff – especially as we don't currently have a copy of MS Word on our Mac at home – and generally find it good. I think the Spreadsheets are especially interesting in the integration they offer with some of Googles visulisation tools – e.g. Google Maps – this introduces a new element to spreadsheets for me…

5. Toolbars

I use the Google Toolbar and tend to avoid the others – you only really need one I think. I should mention the LibX toolbar though, which is aimed at library users – I'd like to get an Imperial version up and running, and if we did I would install that…

6. Widgets

So I guess I use these all over the place – this blog has several 'widgets' in the sidebars, I occaisionally use the Widgets on Apples 'Dashboard', and many, many, websites have widgets which I'll see when browsing. Hard to summarise really, as this is a bit like saying 'web pages', but there are some interesting questions for the library – should we develop 'widgets' to allow others to plug library services into their blogs and other web pages?

7. Mashups

Ok, I'm a bit of a geek, but Mashups are really the most exciting thing on the web at the moment for me. I love the way that more creative minds than mine take two or more disparate data sources or services and bring them together to produce something that is more than the sum of its parts. One person I follow who does a lot of 'mashup' work is Tony Hirst at OUseful – I admire the way he manages to think of these ideas, and implement them quickly.

But Mashups aren't just for techies – see the spreadsheet at http://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=pXyvc2H7k-HDnD32LNzx9LA (inspired by Tony Hirst). I've used completely standard Google Spreadsheet functionality to bring together information from an online Olympic Medals table and the CIA Worldfactbook to show on a map the highest number of medals per capita in the recent Olympics – nothing special perhaps, but shows what you can do.

For those looking to go a bit further, I'd also recommend playing around with Yahoo Pipes – a relatively easy way of getting into manipulating data online, and bringing together data from different sources.

One of my favourite mashups is TwitterVision – Twitter is a way of sharing your current 'status' (like Facebook status, but without the rest of Facebook hanging round it), and TwitterVision shows update statuses from around the world on a map – I'm not saying it is useful, but it is fascinating and curiously addictive

OK – I'd better wrap-up here as this is quite enough for one post really. Just finally, I mentioned in my last post that I would like to see more comments happening on the Learning 2.0 blogs. Well, I was really pleased to see that in the last few weeks some of the blogs have started to pickup comments from people outside the Learning 2.0 programme. I still remember the first time I got a comment from someone I didn't know, but really respected – what a thrill to realise that you are part of that conversation… also worth noting that this is without any particular effort (as far as I am aware) to promote these blogs – it is an indication of how easy it is to reach out on the web.

Monologue or Dialogue

As part of the Learning 2.0 programme at Imperial College, all those taking part have been asked to setup a blog, and use this to reflect on each week’s activities.

I’ve setup RSS feeds for all the blogs setup as part of Learning 2.0 to track what people think, and when I think I can usefully respond to a post, I leave a comment.

I think that one of the key features is that they not only allow anyone to easily publish to the web, but that they encourage a dialogue to take place – it isn’t just about the author, but about the readers as well.

It seems a shame that I am one of the few people leaving comments on these blogs, as it is when people leave comments that you actually realise as an author that you have an audience who are engaging with what you write.

I’d suggest that commenting on blogs becomes part of the Learning 2.0 programme in the future.

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Focussing on Social Computing

The TFPL blog has an interesting post on some comments from a focus group on Social Computing (and it's use in the workplace)

To draw out some specific comments/points:

  • The Civil Service code for online participation
  • Example of the reduction of email "burden" by use of a wiki
  • A company responding (positively) to a negative 'Tweet' about them
  • "IT must learn to trust people with tools and increase its user focus"
  • How a tool is rolled out impacts on whether it increases or decreases workload
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Feed me Seymour

This week the Learning 2.0 at Imperial course is looking at RSS

One of the activities is to subscribe to 10 or more feeds on Bloglines or Google Reader, but as I've got loads of feeds in my reader already (I use Google Reader), I thought I could do something else instead. What I've done is create an 'OPML' (Outline Processor Markup Language) file for all the blogs created by participants in the Learning 2.0 programme.

What is an OPML file? It is essentially a format for lists, which computers can read (similar to RSS, it uses XML to give structure). Probably the most common use of OPML is to list RSS feeds for import or export to/from RSS readers like Bloglines and Google Reader.

The OPML file for all the Learning 2.0 blogs is available at http://www.meanboyfriend.com/overdue_ideas/learning_20/learning_20_opml.xml – if you click this link, and download the file, then you can import it into your feed reader software. For example in Google Reader, find the option 'Manage subscriptions', choose 'Import/Export', use the 'Browse' option to find the file on your computer (where you previously downloaded it) and click 'Upload' – this should get you all the RSS feeds for the Learning 2.0 blogs.

Bloglines also supports the import of OPML files – see http://www.bloglines.com/help/faq#import.

I've created a couple of other OPML files as well:

Feel free to download these and import them into your reader (although be warned that the last one has a lot of feeds in it, and following this number of feeds can be a bit intimidating)

A surfeit of usernames

I note that several participants in the Learning 2.0 programme at Imperial have
mentioned that dealing with all the additional accounts they are
creating as they take part in the course (so far, MSN/Windows Live,
Wordpress, Wetpaint, Bloglines or Google Reader)

Where services are offered by the Imperial ICT
service one advantage is that they usually integrate with the standard Imperial
username and password – so you only have to remember one login. It may
also be worth mentioning that Wetpaint supports a login method called ‘OpenID
which is a way of using a single username/password (owned by the user,
not by the service they are logging in to), to access many sites. In
theory it is a great idea, although in practice it isn’t always as easy
to use as you might wish (see http://electronicmuseum.org.uk/2008/07/16/openid-fail/ for a critique of OpenID)

Watching paint dry

I’ve been on holiday for a week, and so missed the ‘wiki’ week of the Learning 2.0 programme at Imperial. I’m playing catchup now, and have setup a page in the Wetpaint wiki that has been setup for the course – it’s members only I’m afraid.

Although many participants in the course have created a wiki page, I feel that a focus to the wiki activity would have been helpful. It seems to me that getting each person to setup a wiki page really is similar to the ‘create a blog’ exercise, and doesn’t encourage the collaborative working that wikis are ideal for.

The course organisers put together a list of all the participants, with their MSN account and blog details (these were setup in week 1) – I’d suggest that asking people to enter their own details into the wiki would have demonstrated the way a collaborative effort can work. Perhaps also a community Q and A page for the programme – where people on the course can both post questions, and answers, to get a sense of community to emerge.

We already have some great examples of using wikis in the library – the Spiral project, and the IRD team have used it to create documentation (two members of the IRM team comment on how well the wiki works for their documentation either on their wiki page or on their blogs), and I’ve used it for some brainstorming around the creation of a digital library strategy (something that I really need to get back to soon). These all use wiki software called Confluence which is supported by Imperial’s ICT service. Confluence is essentially a wiki, but also supports a few other functions, like blogs.

We have also started to try out ‘Sharepoint’ – a collaboration tool from Microsoft – this supports a wide range of different types of collaboration, including wiki-type functions – this is currently being trialled by the Learning Development team in the library.

What we haven’t done in the library at Imperial (yet) is try using wikis in a user-facing environment. The kind of thing we could look at is creating documentation which can be edited and updated by students – so that we can see some peer-to-peer support going on. I’m not sure if this would be successful – it may be that students are happy to share with their peers in other environments (in the cafe, on Facebook etc.) rather than in an ‘official’ library environment – but it would be an interesting experiment…