Anti-social software

Social software is good for learning if, and only if, the society of learners is, or can be persuaded to be, positive towards learning. But what if you’re a teenager in a peer group in which learning is uncool? Perhaps we need software that expressly excludes the peer group?

I was at a meeting in Birkbeck, London, November 18th, called “Workshop on Personalised Technologies for Lifelong Learning”, which included outcomes (I missed) from the MyPlan project – generally to do with e-portfolio systems, lifelong learning, etc. In the general discussion, “Next Generation Environments for Lifelong Learning”, it was Andrew Ravenscroft (who manages the fascinating InterLoc) who came out with the phrase “antisocial software”, but I thought is was so apt, even though a bit extreme, that it needs popularising.

There’s enough of a serious point there to be well worth thinking about carefully. The general assumption that social software is a potential positive force for learning (among those keen on social software) needs challenging, not because is isn’t often true, but because it isn’t true always. Rather, you have to start by thinking about what the social group norms and values are. It has been said that in some school environments, achievement is a serious handicap to social success in the peer group. Surely, in these environments, it is not a good idea to use social software for learning, in the sense of doing learning in a group which involves all the peer group by default.

Instead, learning ideally needs to be done out of the view of the peer group, or in a setting where the peer group social norms and values do not apply. One way of doing this for traditional classroom learning is to introduce strong behaviour rules that are very different from behaviour outside the classroom. This approach would be the one proposed by various “old school” teachers, and there are books which I remember from teacher training days where these approaches are promulgated. Another way of doing this, which could also now be thought of as traditional, is through a more personalised approach, where learners work on their own worksheets. But for e-learning in these environments, what is needed is to separate the learning experience from the social group, not link it.

Of course, learning software that works that way would not really be “antisocial”, and this for two reasons. Firstly, one could have social software with varying degrees of privacy. Learners could use the more openly social facilities with the peer group, and private ones with teachers. Indeed, learners actually interested in learning might benefit from support in their interactions in the peer group. Secondly, social software with these capabilities could help learners find those other minority individuals who also want to learn, and smaller groups could be formed, outside the view of the majority.

A wider point relates to other things of interest to me, particularly about the multiplicity of personality. Teenagers in particular have different “personas”, or whatever you want to call this phenomenon of behaving in different ways in different contexts, and being embarrassed if behaviour displaying the values from one context slips through into the other. E-portfolio tools, as I will be describing in my book, could be used to help young learners to recognise the differences between the different contexts they find themselves in, and to adapt their personality differently in those different contexts.

To end with a much wider-reaching question, could we use anti-social software, not only in schools, to subvert social norms which do not value learning, but also perhaps as an aid to subversion in an organisation where the peer culture has turned against really effective work, or a country being ruled by a force which is fundamentally against democratic and accountable government?

Doing XML semantically

When looking at XML specifications, first look for what are the resources, or objects, or entities. When you have one of these contained in another, ask, what is their relationship? That will help inform a sensible version of the XML spec, if you really must have one.

Didn’t I do well getting the core ideas into less than however many words? OK, now for the full version…

Yesterday we (Scott and I) were visited by Karim Derrick of TAG Learning. Karim and TAG are championing a BSI initiative, scheduled to be BS 8518, for the transfer of assessment data – particularly focused on coursework. They are being generous: they are doing the development work, based on their own and their clients’ needs, and handing it over to BSI for standardisation, so that all can benefit.

One of the things that we are keen on in CETIS is doing standards and specifications in a sensible way. We have long had a strong line in discouraging people from doing ill-advised things (perhaps a bit like the supposed Google message of not being evil) but I’m not very well-adapted for that, so I welcome the complementary approach of positively trying to encourage people to do sensible things, which I think is gaining strength in CETIS. The inherent challenge is coming to some kind of collective view on how to standardise the subject matter in hand – even if this is, wait (until something happens), and only then, do it. Within this line of doing good things, one that we seem to agree on is to do with XML specifications. And so I come back to the main thrust of this post.

Doing XML semantically is what has happened in XCRI (thanks to Scott Wilson and others) and now, with my involvement, in LEAP2A. It is easy in an Atom-based specification to follow this pattern, because Atom’s simple basic structure invites any kind of portfolio item to be an entry, and the relationships between them to be Atom links. For the same reason, Atom tends to be easy to read. But it is not too difficult to do this as well in your own XML language, if you just take a little care. You should look at every element, to see whether it is a thing, a relationship, or data – in RDF terms, a resource, a property or predicate, or a literal. TAG’s draft specification has pupils, as it is designed primarily for schools, rather than students. Pupils are things, in these terms! It has centres, which are often where the teaching and the coursework assessment takes place. What is the relationship between a student and a centre? Just taking leave of the TAG proposal for a minute, and thinking of other possibilities, if there were always only one centre, and all the students belonged to that centre, there would be no need even to represent the students within (in XML terms) the centre. If there are different groups of students within a centre, it might make sense to have within the centre element, elements defining what the relationship is between the centre and this particular group of students.

Then, one part of the draft has pupil elements containing marksheets. Again, what is the relationship? If there is only one possible, you don’t need a container element standing between the pupil and individual marksheet elements. If there is more than one possible relationship, then it would make sense for to have a pupil element containing a wrapper for marksheets, and that wrapper would be associated with the relationship (properly; predicate in RDF terms).

I hope that gives some kind of hint, at least, on how to do XML in a way that makes sense both from the domain point of view, and semantically. The payoff is this. If the mapping to RDF is clear, then someone should be able, without too much difficulty, to create an XSLT to do the transform. Then, if someone else wants to do a different XML spec, or has already done so, and it also transforms to RDF, there is a good basis for knowing whether similar information presented in the two XML specs is actually the same, or not.

One particularly attractive version of this is to have an RDFa representation, which of course of its very nature yeilds RDF on transformation. So you can present exactly the same information in XHTML, readable by anyone in a browser, and formatted to make it easy to read and to understand, and still have all the information just as machine-processable as any XML spec. That’s just what I want to do for LEAP2.

All this is an extension on what I wrote earlier

Forum overkill

You’ve probably noticed for quite a while that many of us now apply considerable caution at being invited to join a new list, a new forum, a new network, a new way of interacting, or anything similar. Not surprising, I agree. But until now I didn’t have a good formulation of why. I’ve just read a message from a colleague, bemoaning – well that would be too strong a word, but you can guess what I mean and he meant – the lack of activity on a forum that he set up for us a while back. Even when it was being set up, as well as wishing him well, I had a sneaking feeling that there were already too many.

If you know my ideas at all, you will probably know that I’ve been developing ideas on multiplicity of personality/persona/whatever-you-like-to-call-it. Particularly the idea that a set of values attaches to a particular context of value, and in each one of these we usually manage to achieve one or more clear roles, a certain consistency of behaviour, and of personal values. This is the sort of context like “family”, “work”, “club”, except that each person has their own, probably different, list of the value contexts which they distinguish.

And you may have read about another related key idea for the future: that portfolio-like tools could well help us both recognise and manage the information and values relevant to these contexts, contributing to a process of ethical development, to the benefit of individuals and society.

But you are less likely to know about my PhD work, which was more about the cognitive contexts of complex tasks. We can manage a complex task by dividing it up into a set of contexts, in each of which we have a certain appropriate set of rules for action (small-scale behaviour), prompted and fed by a corresponding set of information that is relevant to those rule.

If we think back to the very old days before the Web, when Usenet News seemed to be mainly for technical folk, it was apparent that one newsgroup seemed appropriate for each distinct and separate topic; or maybe task. It was when life on the Net became a little more complex and less easily separable, that I started to think that it would be nicer if we could have fewer newsgroups, but more choices to filter within them. That kind of system still hasn’t become widespread – or at least not that I can tell. I’m still expected to join many different lists, many of which overlap.

Or at least, it has come to pass in a strange way: through blogs. A blog is no longer written in a particular group, but available to anyone, who then filter it: usually only on the person of the writer, but sometimes on the tags which are associated with each post. And I’ll stick with the idea that it is strange, because when writing a blog, I feel disconnected; I cannot be sure of who the audience is. Thus, I am not sure of the values that I want to display or put forward. Perhaps blogs only really work for people with complete integrity?

I’m going around this the long way, but I feel the need for the circuit. If we want to be comfortable with a non-universal value set, we need the security of a known group, where values can be observed, sensed, and acted on. Where those who don’t share the values stand out, and preferably get out. But on the other hand, we want to separate discussions where the topic is of interest to different sets of people.

So, please, someone out there who is writing code, here is a request for the kind of forum where I can join with other people who share my values in a large group, but where everyone only gets to see posts on the topics that interest them.

And I’m still going to be reluctant to join new forums of any kind.