Antisocial Media


Placebo’s ‘Too Many People’, anthem for the Facebook generation

I’ve started to notice myself becoming disenfranchised and disillusioned with social media, both in terms of how I interact with it and the effect it’s having on me personally, and what it’s doing to our society as a whole.

Like many in education I was an early adopter, and fan, of Twitter. It’s was the anti-Facebook at a time when I still wasn’t on Facebook. New, exciting, open, posts were deliberately short and sweet and you got them in a simple, clear chronological timeline. But as it got bigger and more popular it started filling with bots, fake accounts and became a haven for the extreme right due to the lax and variable application of its own rules and, of course, the disgraceful impunity given to Trump to spread his hatred and fearmongering. The gradual change to an algorithmic feed annoyed me, but I understand the reasons for that, as I do the logic behind the more recent increase to the character limit. I’m not sold on the ability to thread a series of Tweets though, and taken together all of these things have made the platform lose the brevity that was part of Twitter’s initial appeal. Seeing the word ‘thread’ proclaimed in a Tweet has come to fill me with dread as what could be an interesting discussion is shoehorned into a bunch of 280 character chunks which is harder to read and follow than a blog post or an article, which is what they should have been in the first place.

I did eventually succumb to Facebook as a matter of convenience, just like a quarter of the planet has. I never trusted Facebook though, and kept a tight rein on my privacy settings and was careful about what I posted and shared. Nevertheless, I came to like it well enough until recently when I’ve found myself quietly groaning at the banality of so much of what I’m seeing on my newsfeed. I can’t place when exactly this happened, but I suspect it’s something that has been triggered as the number of my ‘friends’, groups and pages has grown. Like Twitter, Facebook now has its own wider problems with bots, fake news, hate speech, and the inconsistent application of its rules. A recent post by one of Facebook’s senior managers did a quite excellent job of identifying its various problems, for which kudos, but then shamelessly places the burden of responsibility for change on its users, meaning it’s not going to actually do anything. To paraphrase, the solution to Facebook’s problems is to use Facebook more.

From Facebook to Instagram, which I joined more voluntarily and like for its ability to push posts into Twitter and Facebook. It is perhaps because it’s the most recent platform I’ve joined that it’s the one that least troubles me. LinkedIn I’ve been on for years as a matter of professional etiquette, but it’s a quagmire of corporate bullshit that I do my best to ignore. Similarly, Google enrolled me to Google+ whether I wanted to be on it or not, though fortunately no-one uses that. And finally, I do have my own YouTube channel (again, thanks Google!) which I use to back-up my dodgy gig vids more than anything else.

The bots, the spread of hate speech, and the fake news is one thing, but there is now an increasing body of research showing tangible harm being done to the psychological development of the generation growing up who’ve never not known a world without social media. I’ve read more than one piece linking social media and smartphone use with increasing incidence of depression in children and teenagers. Part of the problem is how these services and devices use push notifications to constantly update you about new content, something called digital distraction.

That’s definitely part of my problem. I hate all such notifications and pop-ups and like to clear them straight away. My inbox at work has nothing unread in it, and at any one time there’s likely only to be around a half dozen emails flagged for future work as they can’t be done immediately for whatever reason. This in contrast to a colleague who mocks me with his 6,968 unread emails (at the time of writing), though he claims it’s okay because only 356 of them are on the work account.

So, having identified the problem, what actions have I taken to address it? The big change I’ve made is to turn off notifications for all social media apps on my phone. I’ve had them off for LinkedIn pretty much since I joined, and only check it when I have something to update, which is a couple of times a year, or when the app gets updated (to clear the notification that the app has been updated… I know, I’m a lost cause). For Twitter and Facebook, I have left on the badge icon, otherwise, knowing myself, I would end up checking them to see if some such has been commented on or whatever. Finally, I’ve started being a bit more critical when I am scrolling and actively unfollowing and muting accounts that I don’t get something from.

The result of these changes is that I’m using these services far less often, checking them at times of my choosing, and when I need a distraction from whatever I’m doing, instead of going to one or other endless feed I’m choosing something more useful like Memrise or picking up a book for a little while.

Twitter has actually been the easiest to let go, and I’m now only accessing it once or twice a day. Facebook is a little more regular, but I’ve always gotten a lot more notifications there so the badge icon is pretty much always on. I’ve noticed an improvement in my battery life! And it would seem that I have upset the algorithms. Phantom notifications have become a thing – the icon is lit, but nothing is there when I check, and I’m getting many more irrelevant notifications trying to suck me back in. I feel like I’m seeing a lot more ads in Twitter, and have even had ‘recommended tweets’ appearing in the notifications tab itself. That, I found out how to turn off thankfully!

I haven’t talked about the possibility of quitting, because I haven’t seriously considered it. What I wanted to do was assert boundaries on their intrusion into my life and in so doing establish a healthier relationship, though I have plenty of friends who have quit or, especially for younger people, never joined in the first place. This is not a trend unique to my peer group either. For me, Twitter is too useful in my professional practice and, like LinkedIn, and indeed this blog, it’s something that’s just sort of expected of someone in my line of work. Facebook for its part has become my primary means of discovering gigs, and is still great for managing and organising events. So, in essence what I’ve done is reduce my use of these services to their core functionalities, what they’re good at and were initially built for – Facebook for event management and Twitter for news.

I’ll leave with one last article, this in the New York Times ostensibly about the Bitcoin bubble, but interesting for its insight into how Facebook became the de facto standard for establishing identity on the internet, and how the blockchain could provide a better, more democratic solution.

Positive Allies Online Training

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Proud to have been able to help my colleague, Drew Dalton, with the creation of a new Positive Allies Charter Mark which is designed for organisations to show that they are HIV friendly. This was a huge project, and my part was to convert Drew’s lecture on the subject into a stand-alone online training module.

As is typically the case when I decide to show off something on my blog, I’m proud of my work, and it’s probably the best thing I’ve made yet. That said, there’s nothing radically new or different about this one, it’s just very polished, although I did finally update my Storyline template to match the university’s new blue branding.

The Charter Mark will be officially launched on the 23rd of February at the university’s London Campus – full details and tickets are available from Eventbrite – but the website is live now at https://sunderland.ac.uk/positiveallies. Click on the link ‘Positive Allies online training’ to see my handiwork.

Paramedic Innovation Event

I was invited along to this event today to contribute to the continuing development of our medical programmes, specifically with regards to the integrations between various systems. Representatives were there from VEO and SMOTS, who provide systems for video based observation. They gave us updates on their services – VEO have been developing integrations for ePortfolio systems and a bespoke VLE used by one of their clients, and SMOTS can now take any video input as a feed. We will shortly be acquiring an ambulance outfitted with cameras and SMOTS integration to add to our range of training environments.

To provide students with the best possible experience we want to be able to give them a single point of access for all of our systems, including something new, possible just a web form, for booking the various rooms and equipment which are available to them for practice. That place will be the VLE, Canvas. The representative from VEO couldn’t say how the integrations they have been working on have been developed, but knowing the company and having met someone from their development team previously, I would be surprised if this wasn’t an LTI. And if it is an LTI, then integrating into Canvas should be pretty straightforward. It’s another case of having the right tool for the job, choosing Canvas the best decision the University could have made. This wouldn’t even have been a possibility with LearningStudio.

Respondus Demonstration

lockdown_browser

Following ExamSoft last week, today it was Respondus who gave us a demonstration of their software.

Their quiz tool is Respondus 4, which was described as a legacy product, and it did look old. It was demonstrated running on a Windows 7 machine which is sufficiently old now that when I see Windows 7 I wonder why, does it not work on 10? Despite that, Respondus integrates with a number of VLEs and mirrors the available quiz questions types and settings which are available there. Importing and exporting from text files and Word documents was demonstrated and it seemed to work pretty well, though questions and answers have to be in exactly the right format to be recognised. I’m not sure why we would use this over using the quiz tool directly in Canvas though, and it doesn’t give us something that can replace the EDPAC system.

That comes instead from their LockDown Browser product, the one we were interested in. This allows you to set quizzes that can only be taken through LockDown Browser, a stripped down web browser which only allows access to the VLE and once the quiz begins blocks students from opening any other applications or webpages. I was a little concerned about accessibility as it relies on user’s own screen reading software and blocks certain keyboard shortcuts. Nevertheless, it seems to be popular in UK HE so it can’t be too bad.

And then there was the weird one, Monitor, which they tried to sell alongside LockDown Browser. Monitor is designed to be used for remote invigilation, and does so by recording from students’ webcams. On starting up Monitor students have to take a photo and show their university ID for verification purposes, and then Monitor will record them through the duration of the quiz and flag up any ‘unusual’ practices if detected, e.g. going away from the computer or someone else coming into the picture, which then have to be reviewed by a tutor. Recordings are stored online for up to five years on Amazon’s web services. I didn’t quite get a clear answer on whether or not they have access to a data centre in the UK / EU. Is it just me or does this all sound a bit creepy? I also didn’t get a clear answer on whether or not any UK / EU customers were using Monitor. They bundle 200 free licenses of Monitor with LockDown Browser, so there was a fudged ‘yes’, leaving open the possibility that although institutions have Monitor they aren’t using it. Bizarrely they have a completely different pricing model for LockDown Browser and Monitor, and then there are the technical problems. All of the webcam recording and playback functionality uses Flash which Adobe are finally killing in 2020. I asked about their plans on migrating to another solution and they couldn’t answer that either, saying it was all down to Amazon.

We’ll never get Monitor. I can’t imagine any UK university using it. We may get LockDown Browser. The third system demonstration we’ve had as part of this project is Speedwell, but I missed that one as I had another meeting. Other solutions are also under investigation.

ExamSoft Demonstration

edpac

We’re looking at options for a secure eAssessment system that would be able to replace our archaic EDPAC forms, and ExamSoft were the first company to provide a demonstration and discussion for us this morning. For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, EDPAC forms are the old pink sheets that you complete by penciling in a cross in the correct answer box (and it does have to be a pencil of the correct weight too!) Those forms are then scanned by a machine we dub the bacon slicer and then we spend hours correcting all the mistakes and typing the comments manually. Everything about it is awful, and we’ve wanted to get rid for years, but there are pockets of use where people are wedded to this system and won’t switch to using MCQs in the VLE. So it is for them that we are looking for a new solution.

ExamSoft’s big selling point is that it can be used on student’s own devices, computers or iPads, which their software can completely lock down for the duration of the exam. This means that we could still get hundreds of students in one secure location all taking the same exam at the same time, one of the arguments in favour of EDPAC. Otherwise, ExamSoft is a fairly standard MCQ system. Questions can be tagged according to the subject or taxonomy of your choice, it can export and import from most other similar systems, integrates with Canvas, etc. I was a little concerned about what seemed to be the limited number of question types – I didn’t see drop-down or calculated questions for example – and I have doubts about how successful it could be as a bring-your-own-device solution for us.

It’s one thing for students to willingly have and use their personal devices to complement their studies, but if we as an institution require them to provide their own kit in order to take exams we’re opening up issues of responsibility as well as imposing an additional financial burden. If someone is bringing in their laptop and it is broken or stolen on the way for example, is that on us? Our insurance? Then there is the issue of technical support, both with the ExamSoft software itself, and logistical considerations such as ensuring that we have sufficient power sockets for the inevitable dead batteries (we don’t) and that our wireless network is robust enough to handle hundreds of simultaneous connections in a small area (it isn’t). Providing our own equipment via something like a laptop safe could offer a solution to some of these problems.

No-Platforming and a Ridiculous Appointment

Happy New Year everyone!

Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, and that I’m back at work properly, it’s time to engage with the idiotic announcements made by our government concerning HE over the Christmas break.

First up, Jo Johnson made an announcement on Boxing Day stating that the new Office for Students could fine universities if their students’ unions are deemed to be no-platforming speakers. (Guardian) My instincts are, actually, broadly in alignment. I think universities should be places where anything and everything is open for discussion, and that students should be exposed to new ideas that challenge their existing thoughts and beliefs. I’ve always been particularly sympathetic to Mill’s ‘dead dogma’ argument on why freedom of thought and expression must be allowed, that if beliefs are not subject to challenge and defence, then the reasoning for the belief is lost and they come to be held as dead dogmas. (SEP) But that’s not quite what Jo Johnson is saying, and his statement is both malicious and his argument unsound.

It’s malicious because Johnson is proposing that universities are fined, but it is students’ unions, and particularly the National Union of Students, that have a policy of no-platforming particular organisations and individuals at their events. In so doing Johnson is forcing a particular opinion held by government onto universities, and threatening them with financial consequences if they in turn do not impose and police this policy on their students’ unions. But students’ unions and the NUS are independent organisations, democratically ran by students according to their own rules and regulations. Neither government or universities have, and nor should they have, any say on the policies of those independent bodies. Free speech and the challenging of beliefs is in no danger in universities, but it happens where is should – in the classroom where controversial arguments can be introduced in a safe and responsible manner.

It’s unsound because there is an unstated premise in his argument to the effect that there is either no harm in free speech, or that no-platforming is more harmful than allowing unfettered free speech, and this is not true. This takes us back to Mill, who argued that the only legitimate limit to freedom of expression was the likelihood of causing harm to someone. The example he gives in On Liberty is the difference between saying that corn dealers are responsible for starving the poor in a printed publication, and saying it to an angry mob outside the house of a corn dealer as an act of incitement. There are limits on free speech, there must be for civil society to function properly. The more contemporary example is that you can’t walk into a crowded movie theatre and shout ‘bomb!’. The question is, as it has always been, to define those limits.

Our understanding of what constitutes harm has advanced since Mill wrote On Liberty in 1859, and even if no-one is physically harmed in a stampede of people exiting the movie theatre, I think it is uncontentious to suggest that the fear, panic and distress caused to those people is unacceptable and reasonable steps should be taken to prevent such an incident from happening. This is what students’ unions are doing when they take the decision to refuse a platform for problematic figures, such as the misogynist no-platformed by Manchester’s Students Union who has a well-documented record of using such platforms to mock and degrade specific individuals as well as entire communities.

Speaking of odious individuals, the government on Monday announced the appointment of Toby Young to the board of the Office for Students, a man utterly unqualified and unsuitable for such a role. Young’s only experience in HE was as a teaching assistant while studying for a doctorate which he didn’t complete. At most this would have entailed a few hours teaching a week. His vociferous advocacy of the government’s free school policy ended in humiliation in 2016 when he resigned as CEO of the free school he helped to establish stating that he ‘hadn’t grasped how difficult it is to do better, and to bring about system-wide improvement.’ (Independent)

That he is wholly unsuited to the post is rooted principally in the very clear and unequivocal statements he has made against inclusivity and the widening participation agenda, part of government policy since the early naughties, and which he himself benefited from, gaining entry to Oxford with sub-standard BBC grades thanks to an access programme for children educated in comprehensive schools. He’s called students from working class background ‘stains’, decried the inclusion of wheelchair ramps for accessible access, and written dozens of Tweets that are homophobic, misogynistic, or just plain vile. He’s deleted most of those now, but you can’t erase history. Business Insider has helpfully archives some of his worst. Aren’t screenshots wonderful? Almost as wonderful as Kathy Burke who was more succinct than I have been:

burke_tweet

I’m not sure how effective these things are, but there is a petition for his appointment to be revoked on Change.org, and you could write to your local MP asking them to raise the issue in Parliament.

Analytics 2 Webinar and Consultation

Attended a webinar for a demonstration of the new version of Analytics currently being developed for Canvas. The new version will bring a new look and make it easier for staff to get an overview of student performance in their modules and how it compares with other students. This is still in the early stages of development and the webinar was also to gain my feedback. What I think is missing from the demonstrated design is the ability to view and compare a student’s performance across different assignments in the same module, which was noted and should be fairly easy to implement, and across different modules in the same programme, much more difficult due to the way different institutions manage the relationship between programme and module spaces. With that in mind I have a follow up call next week to discuss how we would like to see this work, which is part of a broader consultation Instructure is having with the UK HE sector to better meet our needs in this area.

To Do: Take Over the World

Some very interesting and productive conversations this afternoon about my future. Last year, as part of the PG Cert AP, I taught on some sessions of the technology module, EDPM08, for experience. This year, responsibility for teaching of this module will come under full responsibility of the CELT, my team, so I’m going to be doing a lot more with it – teaching all of the sessions and acting as the de facto module leader. I won’t officially be the module leader as I don’t have experience of this, and there is a certain amount of paperwork and process which I’m not familiar with. So for this year the official module leader will be the programme leader, but they will be teaching me everything I need to know so that I can take over full responsibility next year. Exciting!

I also had a discussion about what I’m going to do next for my own professional development. Since confirmation that I passed the PG Cert AP a few weeks ago I actually stopped being a student for the first time in a decade. It’s a tad disconcerting. (Shh! Don’t tell the NUS, I still have 18 months left on my card!) The next logical step for me, in my mind, is Senior Fellow of the HEA, and based on the conversation I’m now happy and confident that I would be able to get this.

Blueprint Courses Webinar

Watched a webinar recording explaining how the new(ish) Blueprint Courses tool works in Canvas. This is the tool that allows a kind of parent – child relationship between courses which gives you the ability to add and update content in the parent course and push it into any children. Potentially very useful to us here as Sunderland has multiple instances of courses for our various campuses and partner institutes.

Blueprint Courses was released just before we went live with Canvas in June, but not in time for us to test and integrate into our deployment plans. Instead, we created a ‘Master’ occurrence of every module with no student enrolments which gave staff a space to create the generic content which can then be copied into each live occurrence, but it’s a manual process. Blueprint Courses could give us a more elegant solution, or it could be used by us to control and deploy the university module template. Can it be used for both though, a Blueprint course deployed into another Blueprint course? That would allow us to use the tool for both purposes. Something to experiment with.