Lecturer 3July 21st, 2009 — Marieke Guy
Professor Martin Weller
What is your current job/role?
I’m Professor of Educational Technology, working in the Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) of the Institute of Educational Technology, which is part of the Open University (OU).
I work on a number of projects at the Open University. My general area of interest is in e-learning. I’ve chaired a number of courses at the OU, including T171, which was the first major online course with 12,000 students, and H806, the first OU course designed around learning objects. I was the OU VLE project director and am currently working in the area of learning design, VLEs, open content and web 2.0 technologies. My OU staff profile has more details about my research interests.
How did you first get into using Web 2.0?
The first thing I tried was writing a blog. A couple of my friends were already writing blogs, so I thought I’d give it a go.
So was it as easy as they say?
Well, yes and no. I’ve actually started three blogs, starting about three years ago. I abandoned the first two (on Blogger) fairly quickly; the software wasn’t a problem but I was having difficulty in finding the right writing style for me and deciding on the focus of the blog. Both these early tries were too personal and lacked a theme. It was when I was working on a book that things came together and I started my current blog The Ed Techie (using Typepad).
What happened next?
I found that blogging was a really good way into the technology. I started off, as probably everyone does, with plain texts. But then I started looking at other peoples’ blogs and I could see they had extra interesting stuff in their posts. So I started searching Flickr and YouTube for images and videos I could embed in my posts. Then I started posting my presentations to Slideshare and Slidecast and embedding them too. So I see blogging as a sort of base camp; you gradually acquire skills and knowledge of what else is around. For instance, the latest thing I’ve started using is Gliffy to create diagrams that I can embed.
We’re using a blog to gather information for a JISC study but we’re not getting as many responses as we’d like. Do you have any thoughts on this?
I think it takes time to build an audience – I’d reckon on a year to get a good audience, and get yourself added to their blog reader or aggregator. And I think the Twitter network also helps, so I always Twitter when I put up a new blog post.
What are you using most at the moment?
At the moment my Web 2.0 usage is centred on my blog, my Twitter account and Tumblr. I started using Twitter a couple of years ago; originally I didn’t think it would be useful to me, but I’ve changed my mind on this. I use it in a more social way than the blog, though I also find it a useful way to alert people to a new post on my blog.
I’ve only recently started using Tumblr. This is another blogging platform but you only post short entries. You can post all sorts of stuff – text, photos, video, links, audio, etc. It’s a bit like Twitter in that you can follow other people’s Tumblr blogs and they can follow yours. I use it as a quick way to keep track of references and resources that catch my eye. It’s really easy to use and very quick to sign up to and you can customise easily too.
I do use Slideshare and Slidecast quite a bit for my talks. I also post stuff to both Flickr and YouTube occasionally, but more often I search them to find resources I can re-use.
Do you use Web 2.0 in teaching?
Last year I was teaching a masters’ level course on e-learning, so I used various things throughout the course. I wasn’t trying to get them to use something specific; the only purpose was to get them used to the various tools and services out there. That said, Twitter turned out to be a useful way for them to stay in touch once the course was over.
Are you currently thinking of trying something else?
I’m always trying things out and I have accounts on all sorts of services. I might try something only once, or more than once. Sometimes I try to sign up for something and find I’m already signed up! For instance, when I first tried Tumblr I used it very little, then six months later it came into its own. It’s a case of matching the service with the problem you want to solve.
I’ve just discovered Xtranormal – this service creates little animated movie sequences from text you type in. This might have some potential for alternatives to straight text instructions in some situations.
You’re currently working with VLE research, so what’s your take on them?
VLEs can be an example of the ‘walled garden’ mentality. Now sometimes there’s a good reason for this but sometimes they restrict unnecessarily. Blog and wiki features in VLEs tend not to be very good; often you can’t embed stuff from elsewhere and outside people can’t subscribe to and follow your blog. Externally hosted services offer more flexibility. In fact, I would say that externally hosted blogs can work as a VLE in their own right. I recently debated some of this with Niall Sclater and it’s been recorded as a podcast.
How do you judge what’s good and what’s not in the Web 2.0 world?
Things need to be pretty instant. Anything where I need to go and read up a manual I won’t pursue.
Shareable – definitely a resource has to be shareable. I don’t want to keep things to myself, I want to get things out there.
It’s usually a good sign if there are widgets so you can embed things from one place or service in something else. It’s all about being joined up.
What about the social networking scene?
Facebook is a big site. I don’t use it much personally, though I did develop a couple of applications for OU students. The OU has a good Facebook group, and in fact people prefer it to the VLE forum. I’d say that Facebook is definitely the favourite with our students, though I don’t know whether there is some age range effect in this. The OU also has a YouTube channel; we not only post stuff ourselves but we encourage students to post as well.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
I’m not a big fan of repositories. For me, Slideshare is a much more attractive option; it has bigger traffic, nice embedding code and its easy to use, find and share resources.
The learning materials that the OU produces have changed over the years. We do still produce quite a bit of print. Audio tapes and video cassettes have gone, but we do have quite a few DVDs. The actual mix depends on the course. However, I do feel that we don’t use enough 3rd party material – that’s a challenge for the future for the OU.
The UK HE sector is not all at the same stage, and specific departments have differing approaches to Web 2.0. While there are some traditional librarians still rooted in old practices, there are a lot who are active in trying out new things. When the OU recently had some consultants looking at influential sites for distance learning; they found that the top ratings went to the OU, myself, Tony Hurst and Brian Kelly (UKOLN), all coming ahead of the BBC and the Guardian.
And your final thoughts?
My current role doesn’t require me to be on campus the whole time and I wonder whether there is a correlation with Web 2.0 use and people who work from home. Since we don’t see people face-to-face so often, there’s a need for keeping the profile high and visible and maybe we utilise these tools more often. And there’s my specific role at the OU, where I see that it’s part of my remit to explore these tools.