Beyond Email: Wikis, Blogs and Other Strange Beasts
Many working in Higher Education are now thoroughly familiar with the particular problems and opportunities presented by the use of the Web and email, the applications that up to now have been the 'killer' applications which made the Internet such a vital part of the communications armoury of universities. However, new applications and ways of communicating are now starting to appear which push the accepted paradigms and demand both new perceptions and levels of technical awareness.
This one-day workshop was promoted with the aim of helping IT Services and the UK Higher Education Web community work out how to respond to use of new devices. A particular problem that has been identified is that many of these devices are personally owned by students or staff, and are not under the control of IT services in the usual way.
An innovative feature of this workshop was the accent on collaborative working within the workshop. A wireless LAN (Local Area Network) was provided with a gateway to the Internet. A Wiki was established for participants to add their own comments as the workshop sessions developed, and a number of participants were able to download, install and run applications mentioned in the sessions.
The participants were a mixture of senior IT and IS managers from universities, IT and ISA staff and Web professionals.
The Event at a Glance
Welcome and Introduction
Talk: About / Wiki page
Talk 1: Setting the Context - Emerging Collaborative Environments
Case Study 1 - 'The Perspective from the Research User' - Paul Shabajee, ILRT, University of Bristol
Discussion Groups: IM (Instant Messaging), Newsfeeds and Mobile Devices
Case Study 2 - 'Weblogs: Niche or Nucleus?' - Derek Morrison, CDNTL, University of Bath
Discussion Groups: Blogs and Wikis
A Vendor View from Mirapoint
Addressing the Challenges of New Devices and New Web Technologies
Brian Kelly, Web Focus, UKOLN
Brian Kelly outlined the day. He made the point that although we all believe that content is king, it is in fact communication that rules. Pointing to the extraordinary growth in Short Message Service (SMS or text messaging), he drew the conclusion that if communication is a social activity, then people will learn from each other and the content will flow. Brian went on to discuss the importance of interoperability given the plethora of handheld and mobile devices now available.
Another challenge facing IT departments is the question of the need for and the contents of an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP). It has to be recognised that students will have grown up using Instant Messaging (IM) and SMS with far more confidence than the IT departments of the universities that they attend. There are also major questions for pedagogy around these emerging technologies and issues to be resolved about the balance of use between email, by now a traditional and well-embedded technology with almost complete take-up by users, and the new paradigms.
Case Study 1 - The Perspective from the Research User
Paul Shabajee, Institute of Learning and Teaching Research (ILRT), University of Bristol
Paul Shabajee shared experiences of previous events where live Internet Relay Chat (IRC) or blogging had been made available for real time discussion of the sessions. He also explained the way that ILRT use an IRC channel to facilitate team working. Problems that have been encountered in the use of IRC chat or blogs at conferences were outlined. These included the worries expressed by presenters that either participants would be writing critical things about the presenter, or perhaps more worryingly, would be chatting among themselves or playing 'Quake'!
One major benefit of live use of interactive devices at a conference or lecture was the ability it conferred on participants quickly, and in real time, to look up references, links, other relevant matter, and to post this information to the IRC channel. This provides a really powerful multiplier effect to the process of enquiry and changes the paradigm of a conference presentation considerably.
Discussion Groups: IM, Newsfeeds and Mobile Devices
For each of these discussions, groups were asked to hold the following questions in mind:
- What uses do you envisage making of the technology within your institution?
- How do you intend evaluating the technology? What are the key requirements?
- What are the 'softer' issues which you will need to address before deploying the technology in a service environment?
Instant Messaging (IM)
The thrust of this discussion was that while the use of IM in Higher Education was happening in some places, there were reservations about whether it could ever move beyond an adjunct to email. The fact that IM is synchronous makes it more suitable for small group use in an academic setting, and its use in answering questions from prospective students was cited. One point made was that it very often comes down to infrastructure, and that a good approach is to make this available and allow the users to see what use they can make of it.
Newsfeeds were reported to be in use in various institutions' portals, with a mixture of external and internal newsfeeds being offered. Some organisations are aggregating blogs used internally for communications into a newsfeed. There was discussion of RSS (Rich Site Summary), but confusion about the various standards that exist in that area. One problem was that of actually getting people to start using the portal in which the newsfeeds are offered. It was seen as vital to deal with the editorial and news generation issues and not get bogged down in technology for its own sake.
Among the issues identified here were the difficulty of interoperability and the increase in support needs to which use of such devices in institutions can lead to. There was a need for small-scale pilot schemes and for bringing support teams on board at an early stage. At some point a choice would have to be made about which platform to support, for instance Pocket PC or Palm OS.
Case Study 2 - Weblogs: Niche or Nucleus?
Derek Morrison, CDNTL, University of Bath
Maybe weblogs (blogs) are nothing new. Cave art and scribbled notes are in the same vein as they are about communication. Weblogs are 'An online journal or commentary usually written by an individual or a small group of people', and are: 'space where individual writers can easily publish texts that are easily accessed by interested readers'.
This is true micro-publishing; a system where individuals and groups can reach out to influence, inform, debate, campaign or just stay in touch. In the past five years of their existence, they have influenced politics and provided a platform for all kinds of political, religious and technical issues which can be expounded and then commented on.
Crucially Blogs are easy to use, requiring no knowledge of HTML or configuration of systems. Commonly they offer searching, indexing, categorisation tools, and trackback/shareback mechanisms, whereby content on a given topic can be aggregated and tracked.
A fundamental part of the Blog paradigm is the 'discrete addressability of information objects'. This contrasts with email, where 'information goes to die'.
This discreteness allows the content of Blogs to be pulled onto an individual's desktop via an RSS feed. This ability does not, however, spare the user the work of finding Blogs and other news sources that deliver quality content.
Some possible uses of Blogs in an academic environment were listed:
- Personal knowledge management
- Class/cohort Web site (announcements, schedules, readings etc)
- Posting student work for viewing/comment by peers
- Personal journal with viewing/comment by teacher/tutor
- Publication of tutor essays, links or commentary to seed discussion
- Community forum, e.g. Crooked Timber
- 'Citizen' reporting
It is clear that the use of Blogs in these ways in an academic environment is at an early and exciting stage of development at the present. There are issues, though, for academic institutions if they make this technology available to students, faculty or other staff. What should be done about messages that are 'off message' or slate the institution or are in conflict with perceived notions of taste and decency. Organisations may well want to look at the development of an acceptable use policy for Blogs running on university systems. They may also wonder why Blogs are of interest when they have a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) in place - but the point was made that the pace of development of a monolithic VLE is inevitably slower than that of Blogs where the open source movement timescales are what matter. Some VLEs are starting to asdd in Blog capabilities, while some organisations are looking to integrate Blogs into existing systems.
One final thought is that Blogs may well be being written, read and responded to on many different hardware systems - from PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), iPods and even devices yet to be conceived.
Discussion Groups: Blogs and Wikis
The point was made that many Blog implementations are not really designed with academic use in mind, and that universities may well want to tailor levels of access to take account of their different interest groups, viz: students, staff, academics, alumni, other academic institutions and the whole world.
There was some discussion about the differences and similarities of a Blog and a Wiki. A Wiki was seen as a 'read/write' Web page. One use identified would be in the development of system administration documentation. The capability of a Wiki to be made both searchable and indexed makes this an ideal Wiki application. Some people see content in Wikis as being tied up and inaccessible in a way that information in Blogs is not.
One problem of Wikis is that some of them are a bit cryptic to use, needing knowledge and experience of sometimes rather arcane mark-up languages, although some do have WYSIWYG editors (What You See Is What You Get), although many of these have problems with different browsers on different platforms.
As with Blogs, making a Wiki available to staff and students within an academic institution means thinking about and implementing an acceptable use policy and also working out mechanisms for exporting and maybe archiving the contents.
Uses for a Wiki could include:
- Virtual group study rooms
- Timetabling and course administration
- Shared resources for research groups
- User support and documentation
A Vendor View from Mirapoint
The final part of the workshop was a presentation from Mirapoint - a vendor of turnkey Email systems that provide:
'fast, reliable delivery to desktops and mobile workers. They'll protect your message network against spam and email-borne viruses. They'll provide extra collaboration features like calendar and address book. And they'll do it all at a TCO that's hundreds of dollars lower than competitive products - with minimal management requirements.' 
Mirapoint made the point that they were mostly at the workshop to learn what the UK academic community was doing with these technologies, but did make the point that a lot of the services that the workshop had dealt with were in fact available integrated with the email experience.
I came away from this workshop somewhat overloaded with information, and have found myself going back to the workshop Web site  many times for clarification and further information. On the Web site are not only links to the speakers' presentations, but also the Wiki pages that were being annotated as the speakers were talking, as well as the reporting from the various discussions sessions.
I could not help but wonder how I was ever to find the time to keep up with all this information - this is a rapidly changing field, and it seems the amount of information to be absorbed and tracked is growing exponentially. One day when I have a few moments I intend to set up a Wiki for use in the school where I work for the new Information Services committee we are setting up, and an RSS feed for the relevant Blogs that may help me keep up to date with this technology. One very useful thing to come out of the workshop was learning about Skype which describes itself as 'Free Internet telephony that just works'. I'd second that!
Editor's note: A main article and a Get Tooled Up column on Wikis are also available in this issue.
- Mirapoint Web site : "A Message from the Messaging Experts" http://www.mirapoint.com
- Workshop Web site http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/web-focus/events/workshops/ucisa-wlf-2004-11/
- Skype http://www.skype.com/