ADFI blog closes

Sunset

Our final post

Neil Martin writes:

As of the 4th October 2016, the Australian Digital Futures Institute no longer exists as a research institute at USQ. It has been replaced by the USQ Digital Life Lab, a new entity that will examine how people experience the digital world in many life domains. You can follow the Digital Life Lab on Twitter at @USQDigitalLife  and it will begin engagement activity in early 2017.

The ADFI blog remains an archive of some of the communication around projects and research interests of ADFI staff over the past five years. In total 170 posts were made on many aspects of the digital future.

Thank you to all our contributors and readers.

Image credit: Sunset by Fidaus Latif used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence.

Towards Community Support

Hands at laptop

The project will provide positive stories and strategies from rural and remote students about what it is like to study at distance.

Kimberley Kerslake writes:

In recent years, the delivery of external study has changed. Hard copy study materials and hard copy assignment submissions have almost been completely replaced by online content and online assignment submission tools. With the number of courses available online ever increasing, significant opportunities for rural and remote community members to participate in higher education have arisen.

Whole communities of online students now exist in most parts of Australia. However, despite this, the drop-out rates amongst students attempting distance and online higher education remain significant. Unfortunately, despite many stories of online study success, few positive stories are told within these rural communities about successful distance education experiences of local community members.

Even with the flexibility of online study, and online student support initiatives, many potential students are nevertheless deterred from study due to issues with work, family, finances, a lack of perceived support and Internet connectivity. For those living in regional and metropolitan areas with almost instant Internet connection, it is often difficult to believe that some students, particularly in rural and remote areas, still struggle to achieve a reliable Internet connection faster than the dial-up speeds we saw in the mid-to-late-90s.

The Towards community-based resourcing for distance education & decision in rural and remote S Qld project will collate and publish positive stories and strategies from 6 rural and remote students about what it is like to study at distance (including online) and how to succeed in distance education programs. The videos produced from the project will be shared on social media and on DVDs in local libraries.

The project will assist in outlining and understanding many of the issues associated with participating in higher education in rural and remote areas. It will also develop bridging and scaffolding between community members from the higher education disadvantaged areas, their local resources (local government libraries and community groups) and people (both local and in online networks) who have the potential to act as mentors and can offer support with regards to undertaking distance and online education.

Research Week – a celebration for all USQ staff and students

Mt Kent by night

A trip to USQ’s Mount Kent Observatory is one of the many highlights of USQ Research Week

Marisa Parker writes:

USQ Research Week (19 to 23 October 2015) offers a rich and diverse program for all USQ staff and students. If you are a researcher or if you are passionate about research, then this is the opportunity you have been waiting for to gain insight into what is happening in USQ’s research space.

A few months ago, the Research Week Committee met and enthusiastically brainstormed ideas, which resulted in a very full program. The final program has been shaped to showcase the broad spectrum of expertise here at USQ and includes workshops, panel session and presentations. We even have Open House sessions: Research Week attendees can access the Materials Engineering environment, take a tour of NCEA’s Smart Farm or hop on a bus for a (free) morning trip to the Mount Kent Observatory.

The biggest and most glitzy spectacle of the week will be the Pitch Club Challenge, which is scheduled for Thursday night (22/10) in the Toowoomba Refectory from 5pm. Six PhD students and six Academic Staff will compete to win three prizes in the PhD Student category and two prizes in the Academic Staff group for best research pitch.

The most exciting element of the Pitch Club Challenge has undoubtedly resulted from discussions with the business group, Wiley and Co. Representatives from the company will judge and present the Better Future Award to a PhD student finalist whose research shows the most promise for commercialisation. The evening will conclude with light refreshments and a cash bar, which all USQ staff and students are welcome.

The generosity displayed has been truly gratifying – by our presenters (workshops, panel sessions, presentations) and directors and managers of centres for the Open Houses and trip to Mount Kent. Additionally, thank you to the support staff who have given their time to help out at the Pitch Club Challenge evening.

Research Week will be something not to miss. It is an opportunity to assuage curiosity on certain topics or areas that may be nebulous due to the vastness of an institution. This is a USQ community event and hopefully everyone will take some time out of their busy day, to participate in the very fabric that is USQ research.

More information on Research Week, including a PDF of the final program, is located at the Research Week website. Please observe that some events require registration and some will be live streamed to accommodate our different campuses.

Mobile reading and China’s emerging reading publics

Mobile reading in the The Museum of Qin Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses, Xi'an, China.

Mobile reading in the The Museum of Qin Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses, Xi’an, China.

Dr Xiang Ren writes:

Mobile reading (sometimes known as ‘phone reading) is fast growing in China. With 527 million active mobile Internet users in 2014, mobile reading has become a billion dollar market (Enfodesk, 2013).

Mobile reading refers to the act of reading and consuming digital content on mobile devices, such as smart phones, tablets, and e-readers. The content of mobile reading is beyond the electronic versions of print books, magazines, and newspapers, and includes huge amounts of born digital online content.

Mobile reading evolves in an open Internet world where users are creative, participative, and connected. All these dynamics are transforming the ways content is created, distributed, consumed and monetized in the publishing industry, which is also fundamentally changing public reading in China.

Widening access

Mobile reading has widened access to digital content and enlarged the scale and scope of Chinese public reading. A 2014 national survey on reading habits reported that 41.9 % of Chinese people have read published content on mobile phones.[i] A similar study on people who have read digital content suggests that the percentage using mobile phones for reading is as high as 87.4 % (iResearch 2014).

The portability of mobile devices as well as the touchscreen-based experiences makes digital reading much more convenient and enjoyable than desktop computers. Mobile reading enables Chinese readers to read anywhere and anytime: public transport, office, and even toilets are places where people prefer to read via mobile devices; night time, lunch break, and bed times are the peak periods of mobile reading (CNNIC 2014; Enfodesk 2013).

Mobile reading has also made an unparalleled contribution to connecting traditionally disadvantaged reading populations to digital content, bridging knowledge gaps and digital divides.

The increased affordability of mobile devices and ubiquitous Internet connections have widened access to the online world for people with low educational levels, low digital literacy and low incomes. Nowadays, hundreds of millions of rural migrants working in big cities and people in rural areas connect to the Internet via mobile devices.

74.3% of the new generation of migrant rural workers (nong min gong) in cities use mobile phone to access Internet (Zhou and Lü 2011); 75.3% of rural people use mobile Internet, even slightly higher than their urban counterparts.[ii]

New demand for knowledge

Mobile reading has become one of the primary sources of information, education, and entertainment for the emerging digital reading publics and is increasingly an essential part of their everyday digital life. The easy-to-use interfaces, engaging born digital content, and free content access (either through open initiatives or copyright infringement) make digital knowledge more accessible than ever.

This dramatically widens public knowledge access in China. Similar to the role of print technology in the Western Enlightenment (Darnton 2009), mobile reading is democratising knowledge and contributing to the digital enlightenment of China.

The rise of mobile publishing and reading aligns with China’s dynamic socio-economic transition, notably urbanization, the creative economy and the knowledge-based society. This transformation has generated new demands for knowledge, represented by the fast growing markets for new forms of public reading.

While reading publics are expanding the decreasing average levels of education, income, and literacy of readers (and authors as well since self-publishing is democratising authorship) is also reshaping the business and culture of digital publishing in China.

There are some worrisome trends in mobile reading, in particular the dominance of entertainment, consumerism, and infotainment driven by for-profit media enterprises; for example, online fan-generated literature becomes the most popular genre of mobile reading content. Further, there is concern that serious and in-depth reading is being replaced by “shallow reading”, making mobile reading a waste of time.

Like any new technology, mobile reading is not free of controversies and its impact is highly uncertain at this early stage. However, it is clear that, along with the rise of new generation of reading publics, mobile reading is playing an increasingly significant role in China’s digital public reading as well as broad economic and social transitions as a new digital intermediary of knowledge.

References

CNNIC. (2014), 2014 Chinese Mobile Interent Research Report. Beijing.

Enfodesk. (2013), 2013 Research Report on China’s Mobile Reading Industry, Beijing.

iResearch. (2014), China Mobile Digital Reading Report. Beijing.

Darnton, Robert (2009), The Business of Enlightenment: a publishing history of the Encyclopédie, 1775-1800, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Zhou, Baohua & Lü Shuning (2011). ‘An Empirical Study on the Uses of New Media by New Generation of Migrant Rural Workers in Shanghai. (Shanghai Shi Xinshengdai nongmingong xinmeiti shiyong yu pingjia de shizheng yanjiu) ’ Journalism Quartlery (Xinwen Daxue). (2): 145-150

Notes

[i] See a press release of the report at http://mil.chinanews.com/cul/2014/04-21/6088016.shtml

[ii] See an investigation of Internet use by rural people at http://it.21cn.com/tel/a/2014/0211/16/26364581.shtml

Image credit: Drawn away, from a wonder of the world by Michael Davis-Burchat used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) licence.

Smart assistive technologies

Neil Martin writes:

Many years ago I had the opportunity to watch a demonstration by a blind web user on how he accessed a website. Using JAWS screen reader software and a browser, he navigated to a news article on the BBC website and listened to the audio of the text on the web page.

I was amazed at how different the experience of accessing a website is for a visually impaired user; I was, for example, completely unable to comprehend the content being played back at the rate preferred by the user, who had developed the cognitive skills to process the information at high speed.

Screen readers are just one example of an assistive technology. Assistive technologies are devices or systems that enable the owner to be able to do things that they would otherwise find difficult or impossible. In the past, assistive technologies were designed to be functional and could often be large or clunky and sometimes drew unwanted attention to the owner.

Meaningful experiences rather than assistance

In the last ten to fifteen years, however, there has been a strong move towards developing assistive technologies that provide meaningful experiences to the user, rather than simply attempting to assist by reducing barriers to access. For example, there has been more of an emphasis on following universal design principles that will benefit all users and not just disabled users. The approach adopted by the World Wide Web Consortium, for instance, helps to ensure that the web is accessible for all. They have employed:

  • Web standards (HTML, CSS, XML, etc.) that if adhered to provide access to all different devices whether assistive or not. A website can be made responsive to mobile phones, tablets, and so on.
  • Accessibility guidelines for content developers, content creation tools, and companies that develop assistive technologies such as screen readers that help to ensure that the content is universally accessible.
  • A stronger focus on the experience of using technology (UX) rather than simply making it usable and accessible.

Smart assistive technology

The Community Care Smart Assistive Technology Collaborative platform in Queensland launched on September 8. It is a community hub website that will facilitate knowledge sharing about new assistive technologies for disabled and aged users, carers and policy makers. The launch event included guest speaker Dr Kevin Doughty, a world-leading expert in assistive technology and tele-health, from the Centre for Usable Home Technology in the UK.

Dr Doughty was interviewed on ABC Radio National’s Life Matters this week and informed the listeners about some of the latest smart assistive technologies for disabled and aged people. He characterised smart assistive technologies as those that can help disabled people lead fulfilling lives and contribute to positive wellbeing. Some examples discussed in the program included:

  • Smart walking sticks with built in internet connectivity, GPS, sensors to prevent the owner from getting lost or putting themselves at risk, to distribute weight effectively, and to monitor heart beat.
  • Smart home sensors developed by CSIRO that help elderly Australians and people with disabilities in the home and provide health information to carers of disabled or elderly occupiers. The premise behind these sensors is that they enable the individual to maintain a level of independence at home, and the carer equally has the opportunity to maintain some level of normal life in that they can go to work and bring a stable income to the household.

Responsive street furniture

Responsive street furniture is a technology that has the potential to offer help to blind or partially sighted people navigating their city environment independently. The thinking behind the furniture is that people with low vision can log their phone or a tag online, which will subsequently help the furniture provide audio information, high contrast maps, or adjust street lighting based on their preferences as they pass the furniture. The video above explains the concept.

Smart assistive technology will likely become more ubiquitous over time.  Undoubtedly there are potential markets for this technology, not only for existing disabled users, but also for the baby boomer generation who wish to maintain their independence in old age, and the subsequent generation who have become accustomed to technology being embedded in their lives.

Technology is at its best when it helps make our lives better by providing meaningful experiences and giving us autonomy throughout in different contexts. These are the qualities that any successful smart assistive technology will potentially have.

Lack of access to specialist medical services in the bush

Drovers on quad bike

Regional Australians are trying to cope with unique life challenges including a fragile local economy, geographical isolation, and increasing natural disasters due to climate change

Dr Amy Antonio and Dr Renee Ireland write:

The situation

Country Australians face unique challenges that affect their mental health and wellbeing—drought and natural disasters, the threat of climate change, isolation, rural unemployment and poor access to health services. Worse still, health care providers face challenges recruiting and retaining highly qualified staff in the areas where they are needed the most.

About 7 million people, or 32% of Australia’s total population, live outside metropolitan areas but nearly 90% of psychiatrists are located in cities. While the overall prevalence of mental illness is broadly similar in rural and urban Australia, the suicide rate is higher in rural areas. Despite this, a recent study found that people in rural and remote areas accessed mental health services the least.

For men aged between 15 and 29 and men over 85 in remote areas, suicide rates are twice that of comparable groups living in major cities. Farmers are 2.2 times more likely to die by suicide than the generally employed public and self-harm is particularly prevalent among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

A sense of pessimism about future prospects, unemployment, isolation and the greater availability of lethal means of self-harm are all factors contributing to the higher rates of suicide in rural areas.

Why does the situation exist?

The following factors contribute to the prevalence of suicide and self-harm in rural and remote communities.

The regional economy:

Events such as drought, flood and bushfire can have an adverse impact on mental health, especially in agricultural areas. Weather-related adversities are harmful for mental wellbeing and they disproportionately affect people in rural areas who already labour under multiple hardships.

Distance and isolation:

Geographical isolation can affect access to mental health services. Although outreach services play an important role in preventing mental crises for those living outside population centres, poor weather and road conditions affect workers’ ability to reach people in need.

Cultural factors:

A culture of self-resilience in rural areas can make people reluctant to seek help. And there can also be stigma attached to mental illness, even more so than in cities. Due to the closeness of these often small communities, patients in rural areas are often less likely to report mental health problems.

Access to Services:

Mental health workers in regional and remote areas are stretched thin and staff burnout is a concern as the demand for mental health services is high and support for employees is often unavailable. A higher turnover of staff also impacts consumers, who lack continuity of care, often being passed from one mental health worker to the next.

What is being done?

The Mental Health Services in Rural and Remote Areas (MHSRRA) Program provides funding to non-government health organisations, such as Medicare Local and the Royal Flying Doctors Service, to deliver mental health services in rural and remote communities that would not otherwise have access.

Beyondblue currently has a community bus touring regional areas to raise awareness of mental health issues and SANE Australia have launched two online forums—one for people living with mental illness and one for carers of those with mental illness. The peer support provided through forums is thought to break down the isolation felt by people with a mental illness.

Can technology be leveraged to make the situation better?

When face-to-face consultations are unavailable, innovative technologies could be leveraged to improve access to services and support. The Government could make better use of resources like e-health and tele-health programs to improve access to services for people in rural and remote areas.

The advantage of tele-health is that it offers the privacy and convenience of being able to access help from home anytime. However, a fast Internet connection and a reliable computer is essential to the effective use of online services and this is often not the case.

We are yet to see if the 2014-2015 National Suicide Prevention Programme—a Government funded initiative to provide 23 national and local community-based suicide prevention projects that target rural and remote areas—will result in better access to mental health services for the people who need it the most—those living in rural and remote Australia.

Image credit: A model style of droving by Cgoodwin used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

HEPPP Making the Connection Project: Delivering USQ courses offline

offline

Courses are for students with unreliable internet access

Catherine Abraham writes:

The Making the Connection Project has received federal government funding under the Higher Education Participation and Partnership Program to develop a model for delivery of higher education programs and courses to students who do not have reliable internet access. The project is currently focussed on providing course material to students in correctional centres throughout Australia; however, the technology and course material that is currently being developed could also be applied to a broader student cohort, such as some international students, rural and remote students, defence force or FIFO workers, or indeed anyone who does not have reliable internet access.

The majority of incarcerated students in Australia have no direct access to the internet. For many years, tertiary education providers have increasingly sought to integrate a rich collection of internet based resources, activities and environments into their courses and programs with the goal of exposing students to the cutting-edge discipline knowledge available in the global arena. Courses that are heavily dependent on the internet have limited compatibility with the corrections environment. The level of internet dependence also influences the choices students make about whether study is a realistic option while they are incarcerated and their employability upon release.

Modifying course materials

Stream 2 of the Making the Connection Project is currently in the process of coordinating the modification of existing USQ Internet-reliant course material for Internet-independent delivery. The goal of this work is to modify courses from the Tertiary Preparation Pathways Program, the Indigenous Higher Education Pathways Program, the Diploma of Business Administration, the Diploma of Science and the Diploma of Arts (Social Science). Upon completion of this course modification work, students will be able to study courses from a suite of 33 offline courses.

A number of factors were taken into account when choosing the courses for modification:

  • The average sentence length of the prisoners
  • The previous academic achievements and experiences of the students many of which have low levels of academic achievement
  • The overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the criminal justice system
  • Previous enrolment patterns for incarcerated students at USQ
  • The need to achieve vocational outcomes for students and
  • A focus on courses which had the potential to be modified for delivery in a correctional environment.

Since January 2015 a team of academic and professional staff have been progressively modifying courses for delivery via the USQ Offline StudyDesk. The USQ Offline StudyDesk looks similar to the online StudyDesk; however, the functionality of the Internet-dependent StudyDesk has been removed for the offline version. Using the USQ Offline StudyDesk to deliver these courses means a better level of integration with existing university processes and the opportunity for students to develop their digital literacy skills.

Courses are modified during a sprint, which is an eight-week period of intensive course modification activity. During the sprint the academic staff members responsible for the course work collaboratively with professional staff from USQ who can provide a range of course development expertise. A series of six sprints are scheduled from January to December 2015. While not all courses are completed in eight weeks, a significant amount of work can be achieved during this timeframe. When the modifications are complete, courses are tested in a special offline testing environment and authorised for release to the correctional centres by the relevant academic staff member.

Course deployment

By the end of the year, around 60 academic and professional staff from the university will have been involved in modifying these courses. The Making the Connection Project Team have been working with Heads of School, Course Examiners and Directors from the Open Access College; the School of Arts and Communication; the School of Commerce; the School of Agricultural, Computational and Environmental Sciences; the School of Law and Justice and the School of Management and Enterprise. Support is available to the course examiners as they modify their courses in the areas of educational design, eLearning design, visual design, multimedia and graphic design, indigenous and cultural perspectives advice, copyright advice, library and technical support.

Modified courses have been deployed to correctional centres for both Semester 1 and Semester 2, 2015. In Semester 2, seven correctional centres in Queensland and one in Western Australia will be accessing USQ courses via the USQ Offline StudyDesk. These courses are part of the Tertiary Preparation Program and the Diploma of Science. The first release of modified course materials from the Diploma of Business Administration and the Diploma of Arts are scheduled for Semester 3, 2015 and Semester 1, 2016. It is anticipated that courses from the Indigenous Higher Education Pathways Program will be available in an offline format in 2016.

Courses will continue to be refined iteratively each semester. Some course examiners have decided to adopt the new ideas or approaches in their offline course into the on-line version of the course. The Education Officers in the correctional centres have provided positive feedback about the ‘new look’ courses that have been made available via the USQ Offline StudyDesk. They are keen for their students to access more courses in this way and are looking forward to accessing the full suite of courses in the future.

What is technology violence?

Woman crying

Technology can be misused in relationships to damaging psychological effect

Dr Jenny Ostini writes:

I’ve used the term technology violence for a while and often have to define it as it’s not a term most people are familiar or comfortable with. The core of the term is the idea that power and control drive people’s behaviour within relationships, including within intimate relationships.

With increasing dependence on technology in our everyday lives, power and control extend beyond the physical world to the online world and may affect our wellbeing.

As our social world is increasingly mediated through communication technologies, relationships, identities, sexual and social selves are also increasingly played out online.

As a result, domestic violence prevention and other social services are increasingly concerned with the misuse of technology in relationships and are calling for education intervention and prevention programs in this emerging area.

Legislation is rarely at the forefront of radical thinking, but domestic violence legislation in recent years has extended the definition of violence from purely physical abuse to emotional and psychological violence.

According to the Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act 2012:

Domestic violence means behaviour by a person (the first person) towards another person (the second person) with whom the first person is in a relevant relationship that—

a) is physically or sexually abusive; or
b) is emotionally or psychologically abusive; or
c) is economically abusive; or
d) is threatening; or
e) is coercive; or
f) in any other way controls or dominates the second person and causes the second person to fear for the second person’s safety or wellbeing or that of someone else.

In the research being done by Susan Hopkins at the Open Access College and myself, we think the definition can likewise be extended to the technological realm. While the Queensland Special Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence has recommended expanding technology to support victims of domestic violence in rural areas, it has not adequately acknowledged that, in some respects, technology is part of the problem.

Safety campaigns need to be updated to include information on the myriad of complex and emerging technologies, which enable the perpetration of violence in social and intimate contexts.

Ultimately, technology violence is different only in its method from other more traditional forms of violence. Intimate violence is not just about a black eye, a hole in the wall, a threatening glare. It is also a seized phone, a disabled account, a misrepresentation or a keystroke tracker.

All violence is about a person or person(s) having power and control over another. The uses and misuses of technology are part of this daily power struggle, especially for girls and women. The solutions aren’t easy.

One approach is education and empowerment. If you understand technology and are in control of your online life, then violence is less likely to happen. But there are always new technologies and ways of social interaction that need new methods.

And what if you aren’t engaged with the education system or lack belief (or have been made to lack belief) in your own technological abilities? One option is Luddism, eschewing technology for the “simple life”.

The other option is what we are exploring in our research: how we can live good and fulfilling online lives as full citizens without being fearful or threatened. A comprehensive understanding of technology violence in contemporary social life must include a review of the use and misuse of internet-enabled technologies between intimate partners.

Effective intervention needs to address these concerns in socio-political contexts and in electronic, as well as physical, spaces. The interconnection between “private” problems and wider political and social structures can and should be used to address the systematic nature of domestic violence in contemporary Australian culture.

Education programs need to move beyond a simplistic “skills” development model to consider the connections between gender, technology, power and technologies of power in the 21st century.

What we know about developing online communities of teachers

Classroom teaching

Building an online community for teachers is a challenge

Dr Nick Kelly writes

Online communities are perhaps for the current decade (for which we still have no adequate name) what “Web 2.0” was for the noughties. Web 2.0 spawned terms such as “prosumer” and “produser” amidst other various contorted contractions aimed at highlighting what was genuinely revolutionary – that users were no longer passive receivers of content but could rather contribute actively to sites that they visited.

Fast forwarding to the current decade (apparently the term ‘one-ders’ was the winner in an Australian competition to name it, but I can’t quite bring myself to use it) the equivalent advance is in the area of online communities. These days every site has a ‘social’ aspect and many have inherited values from Lave and Wenger’s Communities of Practice.

We can speculate that this has happened for a variety of reasons: the enormous uptake of smartphones for internet access anywhere (over 65% of people have them in Australia), combined with the increasing ubiquity of wireless broadband and the examples provided by the huge success of Facebook and its successors are potential candidates.

The point of this post is to write about online communities for teachers. Many other professions and groups have strong, functioning online communities that serve their needs but it is my belief that online communities of teachers still have a great deal of unrealised potential. In this short blog post I try to outline what is missing; what teacher needs are not being met by what is currently available.

Strong online communities

What does a strong, functioning online community look like? A good (if unscientific) heuristic is a well-known, single location that ‘most people’ within the community know about. For example, most IT professionals know that StackOverflow is ‘the place to go’ for any information or troubleshooting needed when programming. Or a more esoteric example: ‘most rock climbers’ know that The Crag is ‘the place to go’ for information about climbing around Australia.

These sites have gained their dominance through a combination of:

  1. Strongly customising the platform to meet user needs;
  2. Working passionately with an initial group of dedicated users to build a group culture;
  3. Spreading because they are fundamentally useful in a way that can be accessed minimal commitment (e.g. signup) or learning required.

None of these insights are particularly new – they can be read as a response to Clay Shirky’s established wisdom for developing online communities (Shirky, 2011). The following summary is drawn from a précis of the book here:

  • Start small – projects that depend on growth for success generally won’t
    grow;
  • Understand what will motivate users – we must design and build our systems
    and tools once we know WHY people will use it (e.g. intrinsic vs. extrinsic
    motivations);
  • Understand what opportunity you are providing –  we must grasp what is
    being provided and how it will be used;
  • Default to social – growth comes from sharing, and it’s the defaults that
    drive reinforcing behaviours (e.g. open vs. closed);
  • Vary participation – groups bring diversity, so we must enable all levels
    and types of user engagement – people need a low threshold to get started;
  • Enable self-governance – central governance doesn’t scale so help the
    community form and regulate its own rules and behaviours (but provide
    mediation where needed);
  • Tweak as you grow – listen to the community, be responsive and open to
    feedback.

Developing online communities for teachers

So, what is the significance of this for developing communities of teachers?

Firstly, what does a community of teachers need? A recent article by Clara, Kelly, Mauri and Danaher (In press) teases out the fundamental need for teachers, which is to be able to reflect upon practice, and this requires trusted relationships that can only be built over time; as well as privacy which is often hard to come by on large online communities.

An ongoing study by Kelly and Antonio looks at existing online communities of teachers in Facebook and early results are showing that most of the sharing going on is limited to developing relationships and advocating practical strategies – very little reflection, modelling of practice, or giving of feedback is occurring.

Given these needs for an online community of teachers, what is the current landscape of communities for teachers in Australia? It can be seen from this brief overview of current online communities that there is still a need to be filled:

  • Scootle community (attached to the Scootle website) has been well-funded and has the advantage of the well-known Scootle brand, but has very little genuine teacher activity on the site
  • Other well-funded community dedicated community teacher sites (such as PLANE for teacher learning pathways) have ceased to exist within years of launching due to low activity
  • Some states have highly-utilized platforms, such as The Learning Place in Queensland which successfully offers professional development and resources to teachers as well as features for community engagement. However, the community aspects are not heavily used for reflection or modelling of practice, potentially due to the public nature of the site and that ownership of data lies with the teachers’ employer (the state)
  • Many teachers use Facebook for small groups, and these groups do work to provide support, especially closed groups. However, membership is restricted and any knowledge that is generated or shared is lost. Further, each small network is set up anew, and none of the benefits of a large community are realised (although the space for reflection on practice is gained)
  • Many institutions have dedicated communities for pre-service teachers that can continue to be used after graduation. For example, the University of Southern Queensland has the “Education Commons” which is a Moodle-powered site. Whilst it is useful for resource sharing, there is a lack of practice sharing and no possibility of cross-institutional pollination.

With this understanding of the gap that remains, a group of academics from universities and teacher education providers across Queensland are working together to develop a community, “TeachConnect”, slated for launch in September.

TeachConnect

Developing on online community is not a science – after a survey of the literature on the subject one might conclude that the main rule is “try, adapt and try again”. TeachConnnect is the second attempt to develop a community following a pilot of a different platform. This pilot was an empirical demonstration of the above principles, and an evaluation showed that the community was:

  • Too difficult to sign up to
  • Too restrictive in interactions (with not enough opportunity for dialogue)
  • Too public and not enough trust (no private spaces for interaction)
  • Not enough community engagement
  • Some principles for the TeachConnect community in response to this are:
  • Make the user interface and sign-up entirely intuitive (as well as more beautiful)
  • Have two integrated spaces in the platform – public knowledge that can be reused and private ‘mentorship circles’ where reflection can occur
  • Spend months of time travelling and talking to the lecturers, pre-service teachers and teachers who will be using the platform to build the community piece by piece

There are no short cuts for building an online community, but there is hope from what we know of teachers, from looking at examples of communities in other professions and from trial and error that something genuinely useful for teachers can be arrived at.

A value proposition

To this point, the blog post has made an implicit assumption that having an online community of teachers is a worthwhile endeavour. To make this assumption more transparent, imagine a platform that was entirely dedicated to improving the teaching profession:

  • Independent, all data private, owned only by the members of the community. It’s whole appearance and design makes it clear that it’s only goal is to help teachers with their practice of teaching – perhaps it even has inspirational quotes from educational theorists in the banner.
  • Knowledge about the pragmatic affairs of teaching (where to find resources, how to get accredited, how to navigate schools) can be re-used and built up over time by the community. Trusted spaces allow for gradual development of relationships over time, facilitating reflection upon practice between peers and facilitated by experienced teachers.
  • All teachers have access to this, regardless of their school or status of employment – but it’s restricted to anyone that’s ever been a pre-service teacher. The platform helps teachers to connect to other teachers in similar situations (if I’m the only STEM teacher in a rural school I can perhaps find another teacher teacher in the same situation).
  • It’s quick and easy to use and I can start using it even before I go on my first practical experience as a pre-service teacher. I know that it’s “the place to go” and that I’m likely to find either the person that I need to talk to or the knowledge that I need there.

If you’re reading this and think you’ve got something to contribute, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

References

Clara M, Kelly N, Mauri T and Danaher P, In press, Can Massive Communities of Teachers facilitate collaborative reflection? Fractal design as a possible answer, Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education

Kelly, N. (2013). An opportunity to support beginning teachers in the transition from higher education into practice. ASCILITE 2013, Macquarie University, Australia.

Kelly, N., Reushle, S., Chakrabarty, S., & Kinnane, A. (2014). Beginning Teacher Support in Australia: Towards an Online Community to Augment Current Support. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(4), 4.

Shirky, Clay. (2010) Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age. Penguin UK

Image Credit: Parraschool006.JPG by Marco Antonio Torres. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence

Joy ride. Mobile working on the Warrego Highway

USQ shuttle bus and driver Dave Beauchamp

USQ shuttle bus and driver Dave Beauchamp

Marisa Parker writes

When I promised to return to Toowoomba one day a week after relocating to the Springfield campus, I was relieved that the USQ shuttle bus initiative was in place; although it makes for a long day, if you catch the first bus out and the last bus back.

The great thing though is you can continue to work using your mobile device – just as I am doing now in writing this blog post! Yes, wifi is available on board and, as I look around me, people are busy on iPads, iPhones, android devices, net books and other laptops …

Except for the lady in front of me who got on the bus and, as her head is now wedged against the window, I suspect she has fallen asleep.

What a great mode of transport. In the three months since my move to Springfield and consequently, my twelve return trips SF-TW-SF, I have:

  • Continued working on my iPad/laptop making notes, sending emails or preparing documents for the next day’s work
  • Read documents in preparation for meetings (on the way) or marked up/provided feedback on documents (on my return)
  • Held meetings with fellow commuters – at first ad hoc, and now more formally known as A Bus Meeting
  • Had a phone meeting with someone back in Toowoomba as we hadn’t quite finished our conversation
  • The phone meeting then immediately resulted in an impromptu introduction to a fellow commuter as, when I realised that person was actually someone on the bus, I introduced myself when ending my phone call. Our conversation lasted until we arrived back at the Springfield campus and has led to further communications
  • Made new acquaintances and found out about other people either just by listening or chatting with someone – it is normally a busy bus in the morning but very quiet on the way back when everyone has had a busy day.

As a fellow traveller commented, he is certain his stress levels have reduced since taking the bus. Whilst travelling, he can attend to emails, documents, phone calls, etc and still arrive at the destination with a sense of achievement and purpose.

Previously, driving to and fro meant that his email inbox was a full screen of black and bold unread messages. Consequently, dinner was usually in front of his home PC, trying to clear the backlog.

So, I am sold on the USQ shuttle bus and wouldn’t travel any other way. What started out as just a few travellers is now, on average, a three-quarters full bus both there and back. I have taken the lunchtime bus back on two occasions and although it was less than fifty percent full, it was nice to have that option and get home a bit earlier.

And of course, there are the bus drivers. What a great cohort – welcoming us with a smile, asking if the aircon is too hot or cold and, cautioning us to ensure we have strapped on our safety belts. One of the bus drivers has recently promised to wear a ‘onesie’ one day for charity purposes. I hope I am on the bus that day – that would be a sight!

Well done USQ! You are looking after your workers by providing a safe travelling environment that also offers mobile connection. Of course, I realise this means we keep on working and, not everyone is comfortable doing that for one reason or another but for my part and many others, it is an efficient and welcome mode of transport. It is also promoting cross-campus travel and aiming for that one university adage.

Image credit: Marisa Parker