Tearing Down the Walls
In this article, Dr. Elayne Coakes analyses the project Tearing Down the Walls, which draws upon a Web 2.0 infrastructure to provide an environment in which students develop applications in accordance with their needs. The project idea came from Roger James, Information Systems Director at the University of Westminster. He wondered what would happen if students were allowed to develop new applications for other students and maybe staff within the existing ‘garden walls’ of the university’s applications. The project is called internally TWOLER where the ‘LER’ stands for Lightweight Enterprise RSS and the ‘TWO’ for Web 2.0.
By Elayne Coakes
Most universities have walls that limit access to applications, that limit who can come into the university environment and use the facilities, and that limit who can suggest and develop new applications.
Additionally, university applications are clumsy and for our new generation of students, not intuitive in use. This is the generation, after all, of FaceBook and Bebo, of iPhones and Twitter... Our interfaces do not match those already within the students’ experiences and our garden walls prevent the linking between these applications that they are used to.
The Tearing Down the Walls project has been based on the idea of ‘let a 1000 flowers bloom’ – not all will set seed and flourish in our garden and produce healthy plants next year, and even then, some may have cross-bred along the way. Yet those few plants that do flower next year will be healthy and strong and adapted to the environment in which they exist.
In all this excitement about technology we must continue to remember that technology cannot solve all problems, after all pull works better than push and some solutions may well be social but facilitated through technology.
The project has already some 12 major funded applications under way by students. The necessity to provide financial aid and incentives was perhaps a disappointing but inevitable outcome so far of this project. Our students live hectic lives and few can afford not devote any time left over from their studies away from earning their next year’s fees and living expenses. So our students needed financial assistance to give them, [or encourage them to find] time to develop these applications.
This project is part of the HE Innovation programme [run by JISC] and it is hoped that it will do a number of things: it might encourage students to spend more time within the university’s learning spaces as the environment will be more familiar to them and may have cross-overs from external spaces; students might build learning structures that have more meaning for them and this learning might extend out to bring in more within the university; positive graffiti might evolve [see graffiti on FaceBook]; and more commercial commodity systems will join seamlessly into the university’s environment.
So what sort of things are students working on?
One student is developing a talent space whereby he is finding all the artistic talent – musicians, dancers, actors and artists and so on, around our four campuses, and putting them together and enabling them to showcase their endeavours on video and by links to their own websites and so on.
Another student is providing a four campus map of accessibility for disabled students to be uploaded as an iPhone app. Yet another is looking to provide an alumni mentoring system for current and continuing students. This can now happen because Alumni will have continuing access to the university’s environment for the future. Not only will they have an email for life, which may useful to them, but there is an issue around IP, privacy Vs. connection and security against tearing down the walls.
Another student wants fellow students to tweet all through lectures and then these tweets will be aggregated into their Virtual Learning Environment [VLE] to see what students thought were the most important aspects of the lecture. Now here I put my pedagogy hat on and wonder just how useful it is for students to twit all through the sessions? Are they really listening, interacting and participating? Will they learn more from the twits than the lecture notes- especially if the twits are not aggregated and selected for relevance by the tutor?
In Biosciences a student is preparing a mashup for First Years with various scientific databases. The main idea is to make a student forum where bioscience students can discuss lectures, practicals, coursework, student life etc on a fun and informal basis. It will include views and opinions and gather feedback from upper year students whether work-related or based on student life that can be specific to course needs. Details of the modules, contacts of the module leaders and lecturer reviews will be included. Furthermore, module handbooks and specifications will be simplified down into key sections and key Youtube videos in difficult topics with a glossary as, for instance some pharmacology recommended book do not contain the meanings of important words. There would also be a section dedicated to careers for each of the modules, with key skills that are required and work experience places that may benefit others. Students or staff can contribute to this.
Additional proposed applications
PLACES OF INTERESTS: As a student studying at a campus, the student may be new to the area and not know the area very well. Therefore it would be useful to create an application that for searches places of interest around the campus. For example restaurants, shopping malls, post office, cinemas etc. it would include a feature where students can rate these places. The rating with then be displayed when the user searches for a particular place. This app could be used on a mobile device such as the iPhone and Google G1.
MESSAGE ALERTS: An Application system that gives alerts to a mobile device about lectures/tutorials such as cancellations. It can also alert the students when new VLE content is uploaded.
BOOK BEEPER: When taking out a book from the library, most students do not remember the date they have to bring it back. Therefore there should be a widget which acts as a beeper to notify the student that their library book is due/over due. This widget can be implemented on the main university account and can also be used on mobile devices. Yet another student is proposing a Gadget to Mash up the Google maps API and the information about news and events around campuses. Using the zooming interface of Google maps the access of the live feed would be easy and fun. Because of the overview and detail attributes location based information would be easy to display even on the small screens of mobile phones. Open classes, meetings, special events would have a journey time calculation in a similar manner as tubejp.co.uk provides such information.
Yet more suggestions include:
COLLEAGUE FINDER based on a delicious account. The gadget would support cross-campus collaboration by helping students find the right colleague for a specific project. Therefore student life would not be constrained by the distance between campuses. Using one's delicious tags students could find others with similar interests. The gadget could have a project proposal part too where people would advert open positions for group work.
University library mashed with an AMAZON WISHLIST. Accessing one's Amazon wishlist the library could recommend books available now or in the future which are relevant to one's interests. Using the ratings attribute the gadget could make a list or comparisons of most popular and course relevant books.
Mobile application for finding out the locations of the COMPUTERS THAT ARE NOT IN USE around the university.
A web based USED BOOK auction system for university students to sell their used books and other academic materials. This will specially be helpful for the students, who have completed their final year and are going home.
A data mashup such as BLOOMBERG’S MARKET DATA for each day mashup against university calendar especially helpful for the Westminster Business School Finance students
TRANSLATION mashup which includes previous student experience with the subject and how to choose your optional modules based on the experience of previous students. Overcoming difficulties in Translation through providing links to Reliable Dictionaries including online dictionaries; Reliable sites that help in translation; personal glossaries ( a collection of terms and expression researched by previous students); Extra free courses related to translation such as Trados sessions, ECDL sessions, Extra language tuition available. A law student wants to make a visual spider-net of one chosen area of law (European Law). The first level would be the EU in general. The second level would be case law and the Third level would be directives, regulations and decisions.
One thing we see clearly here is the sociotechnical imperative of user direction in terms of providing systems that work how they want them to work and when they want them to work, in operation. The project is, of course, specifically designed to permit users, in this case the university students, to do this. We also see that many, if not most, of these sites apps are being used to share implicit knowledge. They want to know the experiences of past students explicated for them to save them time and effort, but also to understand better their chosen topics. Variance control as advocated by Cherns in his seminal work and as applied to Knowledge Management in my book of 2002, is happening – the social systems of the students are deciding what these apps should be, how they should be ‘mashed up’ – put together, and who by - the person with the requisite knowledge and understanding of requirements. Truly a user-designed and user-programmed set of systems.
We also see that information flow is happening as the garden walls are broken down and management are not permitted to interfere, checks and barriers are being broken down, with students being given the power and authority, with the responsibility, to decide what resources they need and when. The multifunctional principle with the organisation making sense of its environment through the use of its human and technological resources is at work here. It seems that through this tearing down of the walls the University of Westminster is truly looking to become a sociotechnical knowledge sharing [at least at the student level] organisation. We have yet to see, as the project progresses, just what the change imperative within the university, will make of this project and just how much the student experience will change as a result.
About the author
Dr. Elayne Coakes is senior lecturer and leader of the Organisational and Complexity Research Group at Westminster Business School.