Sunday, November 15, 2009

Identity Crisis

The issue of identity rarely seems to come up in discussions of e-Learning. Identity, in this sense, is the ability for students or instructors to project a sense of themselves and their unique, individual characters. Without a sense of identity, online interaction with others can seem distant, flat, and does not engage or foster deep learning.

Granted, identity may be less of an issue in e-Learning with very small class sizes or where students already know one another. There are also benefits to online anonymity in that it shifts focus from judgments based on personality or physical features to the quality of one’s ideas – and writing. Researchers have found this allows some people to escape bias associated with disability, appearance, race, and gender. I'm not convinced, however, that for e-Learning the benefits an anonymity outweigh the obstacles it raises. Identity was a barrier in my experience - both in courses that were entirely online with students I never met before and with in-person courses that used online components.

e-Learning often relies heavily on student interaction, often in the form of forum and/or blog postings. When I first started my online program with 45 classmates, none of whom I had met or been introduced to, I found the experience bewildering and overwhelming. Adding to this, I found that most classmate posters did not sufficiently differentiate themselves. The medium, and to a lesser extent, the communicators’ (lack of) action resulted in postings that seemed like overhearing the din of multiple simultaneous speakers and unable to hear any one sufficiently to join in.

There are ways to remediate these issues, however. These include technological mechanisms (e.g. including students photos on all postings automatically, auto linking to profile and to past posts, allowing individual design customization), norms (e.g. limiting the amount of or size of interaction, use of signature lines), or individual mastery of existing devices (e.g. writing style). In my online class interactions, I try to include my (bad) sense of humour, include references to my personal details, and to use a conversational style. The instructor can also address this, for example by establishing expectations or beginning a course with mutual introductions.

In a discussion on this topic with a classmate, she felt that such identity issues were not unique to Internet media. She shared an example of a class with a rather hostile teacher who attacked students for expressing opinions diverging from the instructor's. Rather than expressing herself in class, she “felt that my personal identity, open for all to see, needed to be hidden. Based on how quiet many students were, they likely felt the same.” She adds, "this experience showed me that strong classroom management, teacher scaffolding, and respect, either online or off, is vital." Clearly, a respectful, welcoming climate is essential for any type of learning.

I agree that the challenges of projecting, revealing, or protecting identity apply to learning offline and online. Personally, I have found participating in e-Learning discussions allows me a more safe way to project my thoughts and myself than offline. The more deliberate and controlled online mechanisms allow me to take the time to compose and edit my thoughts and expressions, compared to in-class.

I do think that there could be more that e-Learning technology could do to enable identity to be projected (as desired). The the e-Learning platform Moodle, for example, allows students to include their picture and biography. Educators should also consider this issue in relation to educational goals when planning courses. This will not only help guide decisions of e-Learning technology to use but can also allow instructors to structure courses appropriately.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Participation Points

Recent studies have come out that present a sobering look at celebratory claims that online activities are an effective means of participatory democracy.

1) Pew’s study this month, The Internet and Civic Engagement,  finds that predominantly the people that participate in online political activity are largely the same people that participate offline. The Internet is not mobilizing any new people – except for a trend of more young people participating than before. As the study authors state “the internet is not changing the fundamental socio-economic character of civic engagement in America".

2) A July 2009 study, “Building an Architecture of Participation? Political Parties and Web 2.0 in Britain” by  Jackson and Lilleker found that most political parties in the UK had constructed online methods of participation but then civic leaders were largely not participating. The authors fear this veneer of participation actually will encourage greater political apathy.

3) An article by Jodie Dean “Communicative Capitism: Circulation and Foreclosure of Politics” (in Digital Media and Democracy, Boler, ed.) is critical of our culture’s technology fetish and that our seeming acts of online participation “enable us to go about the rest of our lives relieved of the guilt that we might not be doing our part and secure in the belief that we are all informed, engaged citizens”.  Dean is critical that online participation becomes an act in itself, and does not lead people to do the work that actually provokes change.

This led me to wonder whether the Canadian online political scene is more reciprocally participatory. I checked out the two sources I figured would be most apt to make good use of social media, Mayor of Toronto David Miller and the Green Party of Canada. This is an unscientific study, just quick observations.

I follow Miller on Twitter and Facebook.  He posts regularly but I haven’t noticed him reply, debate, or frankly participate. I do like his posts because they clearly come from him and not an aid who is doing the posting to make Miller look hip, get more votes, etc.

I checked out the Green Party's website figuring they would be more open to online political participation. I was hoping for a policy wiki, online polls, something to solicit participation in a strong way. All there is are some blogs. Elizabeth May has a blog, but in a quick review of it, she does not appear to reply to comments.

They are both using new digital media in an old analog way: to broadcast. I believe Miller or May could respond (or more often than rarely, if they do) to show that they are listening at the very least.

Granted, at least they are broadcasting where increasingly more people are, particularly young people (see Pew). I also acknowledge that Facebook and Twitter have different norms and rules (140 characters) that may make "serious" political debate a challenge. An example of this are posts by trolls, possibly political opponents in disguise, that dominate or degenerate conversation.

Why aren’t civic leaders interacting more? Are civic leaders really just too busy to participate? Are they worried, or not allowed, that they’ll stray from the party line?

If Dean is correct that online participation is a distraction from the real work, then what steps are needed to make online participatory democracy vital, effective, inclusive, and democratic?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Need Help Coming up with a Suitable Research Area

Just two weeks into my PhD studies and already I will soon have to submit a research proposal. It's a class requirements to help us submit for grants, so we're not tied to it.

Still, I've been frantically trying to narrow down my areas of research interest to prepare for my grant submissions. Although a useful process, it comes ages before I planned. I had hoped taking classes and pursuing an independent study plan would lead to suitable research questions.

The overall area I wanted to focus on was online participatory democracy and civic engagement.  All research I have found on this has been rather nihilistic - almost convincing me that it is the wrong track.

So I need your help to devise a feasible, interesting, and original (multiyear) study.

Here are my top ideas so far (in order of my greatest interest in first):
1) Will introducing new mechanisms to filter noise in a political website increase users' [both citizens and civic leaders] sense of engagement (or satisfaction)?
2) How can noise filtration and serendipity (to avoid "inbreeding homophily") co-exist in an online interface in a manner users find useful?
3) How to overcome usability limitations of the use of QR codes and the mobile web?
4) Are genre specific usability guidelines more useful to web practitioners than generic ones?
5) Will Google's Rich Snippets provide the impetus for the use of microformats to hit critical mass?

Two topics I've discounted already are:
a) Can features be added to Facebook to resegment and recontextualize our domestic, work, and familial identies?
b) How can web accessibility support be more transparent in authoring tools, particularly Dreamweaver?

Any help in any regard is greatly appreciated!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Recommendations to Improve Web Accessibility

In July, I completed my MA thesis researching diffusion issues for web accessibility. I'm hoping to get the full thesis published, so any journal suggestions would be appreciated. In the meantime, below are the recommendations that developed out of consultations with 21 web practitioners (designers, managers, producers, consultants, & developers).

Recommendation #1: Make WCAG More Accessible
The W3C should consult web practitioners to uncover their specific difficulties using and understanding the guidelines. The guidelines and support material should then be rewritten to address deficiencies. Possible improvements include using better organization schemes, clearer language, alternate access points, and simplified checklists.

Recommendation #2: Support Material Is Needed
Adequate support material is difficult to find and often insufficient. Therefore, a prominent free website should be set up to provide detailed, clear instruction. This may include a code library and design tips. As the W3C is already a central resource and education is already in their mandate, it follows that they should consider assuming this role in a more effective manner that reflected by their current offerings.

Recommendation #3: Education Should Address Accessibility
Both academic and training organizations must start or continue to cover disability and accessibility. Not only is training in the specific techniques required, but also an appreciation of the needs of disabled people. As some small businesses and non-profits have minimal training budgets, ideally education costs should be affordable or free. This may be a suitable role for local advocacy or industry associations to assume.

Recommendation #4: A Canadian Web Accessibility Champion is Needed
No disability organization in Canada is currently effectively leading the charge for web accessibility, leading to inattention and missed opportunities. A Canadian government or advocacy organization is required to take the lead to initiate and maintain momentum on this issue. Duties may include instigating awareness campaigns, appearing at events, promoting education, and acting as an informational resource.

Recommendation #5: Media and Industry Should Cover This Topic
For web practitioners to gain awareness of web accessibility, learn specifics, and appreciate its social importance, media and industry must not ignore this issue. Industry should make a point of addressing this topic in events and newsletters and ensure the topic is raised at conferences. Media, particularly trade reporting, should cover the topic through individual articles on the topic and raising it within the context of other topics as applicable.

Recommendation #6: Authoring and Testing Tools Should Better Facilitate Accessibility
While some authoring tools are increasing accessibility support, continued work is required both to make producing accessible content easier and to render accessibility features transparent.

Recommendation #7: Financial Incentives Should Be Offered
Cost was raised as an issue by all participants, yet the Canadian government offers no specific financial incentives to mitigate the cost of web accessibility work. Although full funding for all organizations to implement accessibility would likely be unattainable, Canadian government should, at the least, allow special tax deductions for accessibility initiatives.

Recommendation #8: Web Practitioners Need to Feel Individually Responsible
Some web practitioners felt unable to implement accessibility without supervisory permission. These practitioners should be encouraged to understand both that their actions can improve the quality of life of disabled people and that not complying contributes to disabled people’s exclusion from full participation in society.

Friday, September 11, 2009

End of the Royal Roads

As I get ready to start my PhD classes at UofT's iSchool next week, I wanted to wrap up my master’s studies with a post summarizing my experience of Royal Roads masters of Professional Communication program. Also, I thought it might provide useful information for people considering this or similar programs.

Blogging has been a useful way for me to record my academic experience from my search to find a master’s program to study the Internet, how I chose Royal Roads, my experience as an old student, winning my scholarship, and my thesis research.

Overall impression
The main strengths of the program in my experience were the flexibility to manage learning with work and family, solid foundation in communication theory, interaction with classmates, helpful and friendly faculty and staff, and the beautiful campus. The main weaknesses were the lackluster use of e-Learning techniques and over use of team work.

Program structure
The online master’s programs at Royals Roads combine distance and on-campus learning. The program lasts about two years, with the last few months spent working on a thesis or major project. One can extend the deadline, but there are hefty fees to do so. 

There are two three-week residency periods (one a year) at Royal Roads’ incredible Victoria, BC campus. In between these residencies, one takes an online course one at a time. There were no electives for online courses and only a small choice of electives for the final residency component. 

The program follows a cohort model with one annual intake. This means one studies for the next two years with the same classmates, which in my case was approximately 40 students. 

With distance learning it can be difficult to get to know one’s classmates, but the cohort model allows one to have the time to get to know one’s classmates and build relationships. The program is available to students around the world, but the bulk of students came from Victoria and Vancouver followed by southern Ontario. There were students from most provinces and a couple from abroad. 

As this program is targeted to working professionals and as it is a graduate degree, I found that the background of classmates was impressive and diverse. There were a few students in my cohort who were young and beginning their career, but the average student was 30-50, mid-level career, and female. The ratio was about one male for ten females – but this seems typical of the communication field.

The program requires residency of three weeks per year. The residency follows traditional university format, ie. lectures with profs, essays, student presentations, team meetings, occasional guest speakers, and symposia. This period is intensive, covering most of 3-4 courses in that period. One has a few hours of class a day and essays and readings to work on at night. The first residency is lighter, so this is definitely the time to get to know one’s classmates.

Spending time on campus is an absolute treat as it is the most beautiful campus in Canada (if not anywhere). Take a look at my pictures. Vancouver Islands itself is beautiful and the campus is sandwiched between the ocean and primeval forest. Studying post-modernism in a Japanese Zen garden or spending a coffee break amongst giant trees are highlights of my experience. Google Maps has a good satellite image of campus.

Be sure to try the trails that run through or next to the campus. Students get a free guided tour of the national historic site, Hatley Castle and access to the gardens that one would otherwise have to pay for entry.  X-Men movies were filmed here – Hatley Castle was used for Xavier’s school for mutants. I loved telling my daughter I went to Xavier’s school. The campus library even has copies of all the X-Men movies which was a lot of fun to watch in the student lounge (the library has a bunch of free movies).

Other than the incredible beauty of the location, the campus is much like any other, except smaller.  There is only one place to eat, and while most of the dishes were fairly good, the menu is limited and a bit pricey. I made some meals in the kitchen RRU provides to save some money. There are nearby restaurants (short drive or 20 minute walk) but they are rather mediocre. There is a grocery store and wine and bear store nearby, as well as other amenities like a post office, pharmacy, etc. 

Some classmates elected to stay off-campus – and while that does allow one a calming separation, these classmates didn’t get the same degree of interaction with classmates. I’d recommend staying on campus if only for the chance to get to know one’s classmates better. 

The only downside is that the campus is rather far from downtown Victoria. Bus service is less than ideal and cabs downtown are expensive. Some nights when we wanted to go downtown we would wait half an hour or more to even get a cab to pick us up. Also, cabs from the airport are expensive, so arrange cab sharing with classmates. 

Online courses
All courses make use of Moodle for their online interaction (forums, chat) and resources (links, readings). I previously criticized Royal Roads non-innovative use of e-Learning techniques. Having finished my degree now, I stand by that post. While some professors used effective e-Learning techniques, most classes were based on extensive discussions with classmates, often in the form of discussions and projects amongst a team of 5-6 students.  I also posted on the benefits and challenges of relying on online interaction for learning.

Most classmates felt there was way too much teamwork. This is probably my biggest complaint. Although teamwork does enable one to get to know classmates better, it becomes overwhelming doing the actual work and managing the team (which is just as much, if not more, work). Teams for online courses are randomly assigned, but even out of 45 classmates I ended up with a bunch of the same people repeating on my teams. I lucked out and had teams (except one) where everyone participated and was pleasant. However, I talked to classmates who had bad experiences with teams, mostly in the form of people not participating. Considering that most students at Royal Roads are working professionals and thus encounter/cannot avoid extensive team experience, positioning team work as building skills is dubious (easier for professors to mark – is probably the real reason).

Program flexibility
The main reason I chose the program was that I could cater my learning around my schedule. Even living in a city with three universities, I would not have been able to have sufficient flexibility to continue to work and spend time with my family. This program is therefore ideal for those that need flexibility.

But it is not as flexible as some of my classmates thought it would be. Most classes required one to post to discussions frequently and at least every few days. Some classes had tight, rigid deadlines for team work that was quite difficult to orchestrate when combined with busy work schedules and various time zones. I could not participate in some class chats as a result and would also have a one day turnaround on some team work.

Kids - I was the only one in my cohort with a young family and I don't recommend doing this and working too if one has young kids.

Subject matter
I feel this program gave me a solid foundation in communication theory and cultural studies and honed academic skills, such as research, writing, and formatting (APA).  I had not studied communication before but had encountered some concepts from my bachelor’s film studies and journalism classes. I think the program did well in not assuming a prior knowledge set, teaching the essentials, and moving quickly enough through concepts to be appropriate for master’s level courses.

There were professional development courses geared to communication professionals, but reviews from classmates were rather mixed on these. The courses on research methodology were extremely useful both for preparing one for future study or performing research in a workplace. Other courses cover the gamut of communication theory from interpersonal to organizational and from computer to culturally meditated. 

Studying the Internet
I took communication, but I really wanted to take Internet Studies. As Internet Studies is such a new discipline, there were not a lot of options to study this remotely. I felt, however, that studying communication would give me a good foundation to study this aspect of the Internet. Plus, I hoped to examine specific instances when I could. A lot of the professors and classmates were unwired luddites, so Internet topics did not often come up – or with much depth. I have a multimedia background so I enjoyed discussing and learning about other media.

I told my professors of my career path and research interests and they were all open and encouraging to me applying course concepts to Internet cases.  Since I started Royal Roads has added “thematic paths” which is essentially what I did, but Internet Studies is still not an official path or focus.  Considering how much of the concepts do apply to the Internet, I’m surprised they don’t offer this.

Final thoughts
Over the years, I have studied at six post-secondary institutions. Never have I encountered such helpful, pleasant staff and faculty as my time with Royal Roads. Even the support staff and tenured professors were nice! Whether I was on campus, emailing, or telephone everyone was incredibly friendly and cared about helping me. There was one difficult nutty professor, but that's to be expected. Time and time again, Royal Roads staff and faculty spent extra time and effort to really help and talk to me, whether it was applying for scholarships, getting research approval, ordering food, finding library resources, discussing semiotics, etc. I'm not sure if it is a West Coast vs. Toronto thing, but it sure makes a difference to study at such a welcoming place.

I definitely recommend the program and university. If there is anything else you'd like to know, please feel free to ask below.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Oh What a Night - Jersey Boys Highlights Problems with Web Usability

Going to see Jersey Boys last night confirmed the value in me studying web usability. The websites to book the tickets and the theatre had such appalling usability it is unbelievable.

Here are the problems I encountered.

To book our tickets, we went to Ordering tickets is fine if you're familiar with the theatre and don't have any special requests.

The site does not allow one to refine a search by any criteria other than date and price. One clicks on a button to "Find Seats" within a price range and is given up to two options of seats.To check out where those seats are and if they have an less-than-desirable view, there's not much help. They do have a good feature that lets you click on a seat to see its view.

But ideally, the seat you're considering buying should be highlighted on a map of the theatre. One can find the seat for oneself by searching through their maps of theatres. A bunch of theatres are shown not just the one hosting the show you want to see, so you have to remember the name of the theatre (and with Toronto theatres changing names regularly this is not easy). The initial theatre maps are impossible to read, so one has to download the high-resolution PDF. It's not worth the download as even at full zoom the seat numbers are unreadable (my vision BTW is fine - recently tested even).

Better not have any special requests for seats as there is no criteria to refine a search or information provided about the seats other than their number. The site does have a feature to find "Best available seats". I can see the up-selling value to the company in that feature - but does anyone use it? What constitutes best available - surely people have some preference.

We like aisle seats (extra legroom and great for any hasty exits), to not to be under a balcony (bad acoustics and views), and to not be too close to the front (avoid neck craning). There's no way to find any of this out except to run a search, manually look up the two options of seats on their poor maps, and repeat ad nauseum until fate smiles upon you.

Or you get sick and tired of it and call Ticketmaster and get connected with someone who can find your customized seats in moments. Which is what I had to do.

No other online problems (they did forget to mail us our tickets, however) until the day of showtime when the show's websites let us down. I "Jersey Boys" and clicked on the first hit, the "official site". I can almost forgive them for their first two crimes as it is an entertainment sites and more "fun" is permitted. First crime - a splash page. Second crime - slow download. Then I discover I'm in the wrong site as even though I used Google's Canadian service the website for the Broadway version is the first to come up. But they do have an inconspicious link to international versions of the show, which gets me to the Toronto version site (and another slow-to-load splash page).

I usually take the subway to this theatre, but was driving this night and wanted to know where the nearest parking lots were located. I expected the site to have a "Directions" or "Getting There" link. To find parking info one has to guess. I tried the "Theatre" nav link and it seems like it is not there, except until below the fold there's the following text (I have to quote it as I just couldn't believe it:
For those who wish to drive to the theatre, please view the presentation on the left side of the page 'Where is the Toronto Centre for the Arts?' by clicking the 'Learn More' button for more detailed information, directions, parking information and maps."

The presentation looks like an ad, so one would never intrinsically click it. But when instructed to do so, I thought I'd get the parking instructions right away. Instead I have to click through 12 slides manually to first find out about the architects, the neighbourhood, the grand opening, its first show, the decor, the acoustics, the air conditioning, 3 more slides, then driving instructions, then a link to a PDF of a parking map. The map was exactly what I was looking for - excellent even - so I printed it out. I just couldn't believe all the b.s. they put me through in order to get it!

I love that someone must have noticed that parking info was hard to find, so they took the time to add the copy I quoted above. If they noticed the problem and had the time to address it, why not just include the info or link to a map right on the page? Why make someone wade through a presentation of useless information?

In preparing for this posting, I checked if there was another link elsewhere and the is parking info buried under FAQs. It is great info - but completely different. This info actually lists the rates (that is really good to know in Toronto) but does not have a link to their great map PDF.

I saw a link to "Jersey Boys radio" while on the site. After the show, I wanted to my wife to hear their songs, so I thought of this cool feature. But despite offering the radio in Windows Media and Real Player, it would not play for me in Internet Explorer or Firefox that night. This may not be the site's fault, but I didn't get any helpful messages or explanations. Today, it works for me - but such mysteries should not remain at this stage of the Internet's development.

Most of these usability errors and a lot that I encounter in general are so serious and so obvious that I find it hard to believe any web professional could miss it. After all don't people that make websites want to make money, by selling things, providing information to avoid phone calls, etc.? So lately I've been thinking what needs studying is not uncovering usability issues but rather why web practitioners fail to implement such basic practices?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

New AGO Shows Strength of Good Design

I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) today for the first time since their extensive renovations. Although this doesn’t have anything to do with Internet topics, it does relate my thoughts on design and functionality.

My wife and I were members of the AGO for years, but with the arrival of my daughter, we let our membership lapse. Considering that the ROM’s remake has made it child-hostile and with Toronto’s equally hostile climate, we needed something to do indoors. So we renewed our membership (the coming of King Tut was a determining factor).

Overall, I really like the new AGO. If you haven’t seen it, check out these Flickr pix. The collection and architecture are quite good. But there are few missteps and missed opportunities.

Here are my thoughts as we traversed the gallery:

The old building was drearily forgettable. The new building isn’t Gehry at his most delightfully whimsical, but considering the restraints of the retrofit, I think it is excellent. (I was hoping he’d get a brand new site, but that’s too grand for Toronto).The new façade gives the front grandeur and drama. While passing aboard the streetcar, the gallery is stylish and inviting. The back has a new blue, squarish building floating above the Grange. The building is a nice companion to its colourful, eccentric neighbour, OCAD. At night or sunset, the building is even more dramatic and striking.

Glad to see Henry Moore’s sculpture is still present to greet visitors and now has more space around it to show it off properly. My daughter loved climbing it and remarked “It’s so nice they have art for kids”.

The gallery is set close to the street and I like how the gallery shops and restaurants open out directly to encompass the activity of the street. However the space under the façade is otherwise lackluster. Toronto has some great outdoor out, which I’ve blogged about, but other than the Henry Moore, there’s none at the AGO. Even two pieces along Dundas St. would not only invite people into the gallery but interact with the community. Come to think of it, considering Grange Park’s attachment to the AGO and OCAD, why isn't there any public art there? (Okay why don’t most Toronto parks and civic locales?)

Entrance (ground floor)
The first thing one notices – its not the Gehry touches - but the reception desk. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it sets the tone for a drab entrance. A serpentine wheelchair ramp is the only point of interest, albeit a really imaginative and child-pleasing one.

I love how Gehry re/aligned the central axis of the building to include the entrance, Walker Court, and the Grange. It is definitely easier to situate oneself now. This is about the only improvement to way-finding as signage is otherwise missing or vaguely useless.

Walker Court (ground floor)
This is Gehry’s interior piece-de-resistance here. The spiral staircase is incredible, such that a security guard described it as “the feature staircase”. Architecture is an art, so its fitting it’s featured in a gallery. Unlike the ROM none of Gehry’s features get in the way of displaying objects, navigating space, or overshadow the collection. The AGO seems so set on showcasing this staircase they have denuded the Court of all other objects, save some dubious cow sculptures. I like the openness and lightness of this room, but its minimalism is sterile. I wonder if this minimalism based on aesthetics or economics as keeping it empty makes it easier to set up for cashcow weddings – hey, now the cows make sense.

Tanenbaum Sculpture Atrium (ground floor)
This used to be my favourite room in the old gallery. The atrium was glass above and to the side that beautifully embraced the historic first gallery, the Grange. It was (and still is) a lovely setting for sculptures. But to call it an atrium now is a stretch. The new back building has reduced it significantly, a necessary trade-off, no doubt. There is a wonderful, surrealist sculpture that fills and invites one to play with the space and work.

The Grange (ground floor)
This is now the member’s lounge. It is a pleasant place to relax or have a coffee. Membership has its privileges. Much as I like this lounge, I was saddened to see history purged from it as it is one of Toronto’s most historically significant sites. I recall much of the Grange furnished in period pieces and volunteers baking period snacks in the basement oven (I definitely remember free yummy food). I can see how the art gallery would want to stick to its mandate, but I think they could have found a more appropriate use for the building than as a lounge.

Kids Area (basement)
My daughter had fun here, so that’s the ultimate appraisal. It had inventive and playful ways to engage children in creating. Their best feature are sculptures to assemble using found art of crocs, dishes, pool noodles, toys, etc. Flower pots and walls can be decorated with chalk. There were also the obligatory drawing, Lego, and reading centres. We also devised a scavenger hunt to help engage (and placate) my daughter. We were golden for one trip. But overall, I am a bit worried that repeat visits with kids may be strained. So hopefully the kids area will evolve (unlike the ROM’s).

Ship Models (basement)
I am eternally grateful to Ken Thompson’s unprecedented cultural philanthropy. However, what is up with the huge space in an art gallery devoted to hundreds of ship models. Yes, they are beautifully presented and yes the workmanship is exquisite, but whom is this extensive collection serving?

Galleria Italia (second floor)
The only thing that would make a stroll down this enchanting space more pleasant is a gelato – and maybe more pleasing artwork. Fronting Dundas, this curved atrium of glass and douglas firm beams affords an engaging view of the pretty Victorian buildings across the street that now house cafes, galleries, and art supply shops. With this space, Gehry has taken the old, closed box that was the AGO and integrated it into the community. Art should be part of society not elitist and cloistered. If Gehry had got a blank slate of a site, it would have never been this close to the streets of the city and consequently been able to so successfully bridge this gap. The artworks in the space (3 variations on tree themes) blend so well with the architecture they are seemingly invisible. More engaging, dare I say colourful, artwork that could be seen from street would further strengthen the effect.

Third floor
The third floor is devoted to event space. Considering insufficient support for arts in Canada, I appreciate that such spaces generate necessary income. Still it is sad that an art gallery has to devote so much of its space not to showing or fostering art or even administrative functions, but to catering to the rich.

Fourth floor
I believe this new space now houses Canadian contemporary art, with many pieces previously undisplayed. The AGO should be proud of so significantly increasing its ability to showcase this type of work.

Fifth floor
A photography collection will be coming. Currently the main reason to come to this floor (other than the café) is for the good view of the city and to begin one’s descent down Gehry’s two staircases. The vantage point to view the city is one of the best in the city.

Looking out at the city from a Gehry building, I was struck by how little of the cityscape is actually worth viewing (OCAD, CN Tower, Canada Life, & TD Centre are worth a look). While standing in the gallery that puts architecture on view as art with its “feature” staircases, the view of architecture was largely dismal.

I haven’t mentioned the AGO art collection. I noticed some new ways of organizing the artwork that were interesting. Toronoist seems to be the only site covering this curatorial departure. For years, I’ve enjoyed the AGO collection with its one of every great artist and strong Group of 7 and Inuit art - now there's more to love.

After the debacle that was the ROM renovation (which I have also blogged about), I was worried that once again I’d feel like the scorned lover (the ROM left me for a narcissistic affair). The new AGO may not provoke a mad a passion in me, but it has definitely rekindled a love affair.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Is Online Learning Better than Traditional?

The US Department of Education recently published a report on online and face to face (F2F) learning which was covered nicely by the NY Times.

The study found "On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction." This is a surprise finding for those that believe online learning is inferior. This report sparked discussion on the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) listerv. It also got me thinking about my Royal Roads e-Learning experience.

Points raised in the AoIR listserv questioned whether the study’s population was representative enough to make such a claim. Some suggested that online learners are more motivated and have a tendency to be over-achievers. With my Royal Roads classmates there were a large percentage of over-achievers, but this could also be due to the program being a graduate degree and marketed to working professionals.

Others AoIRers thought that online learning had the advantage over F2F as it tends to encourage greater teacher-to-student and student-to-student interaction. I agree with posters who believed that such interaction is more apt to instill knowledge than just listen-to-learn lecture classes.

In my experience of online learning at Royal Roads, there was a great deal of such interaction (via Moodle forums). While it had challenges, it definitely was a compelling and enjoyable way to learn.

There are challenges affecting interaction in online learning:

1) Time zones challenges – As students are from across Canada and some from abroad, real-time communication (e.g. chats, Skype calls) can be very difficult. Often I or other classmates couldn’t attend at the chosen time or had to do so at an ungodly hour.
2)Managing volume – Our courses had about 40 students. At this number both real-time online communication and forum postings was difficult. One professor attempted to do Q&As via chat and Skype call. At first, there were no rules in place to manage the volume besieging the professor and chaos naturally ensued. Even with a few ground rules in place, there were still people who joined late or weren’t following the conversation and asked questions already answered. It was also difficult to follow forum postings with that many classmates and with some people posting lengthy epistles. We also introduced the voluntary rule of limiting posts to 100-300 words or less to help, but still speed and selective reading was the only way to manage.
3) Presence of the professor - The volume of postings also affects a professor’s ability to participate. Either the professors spend an insane amount of time reading and replying to everything or selectively respond. All my professors responded to specific questions posed to them in designated forums. For these types of Q&A forums to work, it is important that timely responses be made or someone will resorst to calls, emails, or give up on that venue. Royal Roads professors were incredible in replying to such posts day, night, and weekends. When it came to the general forum, professor behaviour varied. Some commented on most postings, while others only a handful. Some offered insight or a helpful link, while others simply offered a quick response or simple encouragement.
4) Teams – Royal Roads randomly assigns students into teams of 5-6 for the duration of a course. This made managing the quantity of interaction more manageable and allowed one to get to know one’s classmates better. However, this is not without challenges. When the teams meshed well, it was great. But if they didn’t, the discussions languished. Considering that inevitably it seems out of a group of 6 at least 2 will not participate at all or at the bare minimum, it did seem one was communicating with the same couple people a bit too much.
5) Quality of writing – Some postings were hard to read whether due to their untenable length, mistakes, or an inability to adequately organize and articulate thoughts. Forums by their nature tend to be more conversational than other forms of writing, but nonetheless it would help if some people spent a bit more time writing and editing to ensure clarity. Some people are just not good writers and never will be.
6) Time commitment – Courses that required posting could result in a significant time commitment (worsened by the workload of obligatory readings and assignments). Some courses had tight deadlines for postings. This added up to more of a time commitment than occured in my offline studies.

The benefits of more discussion-based learning were:

1) Get to know my classmates much better - Participation is usually a component of offline learning classes, but online it tends to be essential. Most of the F2F classes I have been in have had a large percentage of classmates that never or only rarely participate even when encouraged to do so or graded on it. With online learning I got to hear from all my classmates and regularly, so I got to know all of them and some of them (particularly those assigned in my teams) very well. Living in residence or participating in campus organizations is the only way I found that comes close to this degree of interaction.
2) Depth of subject-matter interaction is better than offline - I have found that students tend to talk rarely about academic topics with peers outside of the classroom. I enjoyed hearing my classmates’ perspective and experience on course material. I also enjoyed getting feedback from classmates on my thoughts. One Royal Roads class had a professor provide uniformly negative comments, so the positive feedback from classmates was really beneficial.
3) More engaged and more often - I have attended good lectures; I’ve fallen asleep at others. Offline classes (even with tutorials) tend to be about 3 hours a week, so even the best of them has a fleeting engagement. Regular posting can foster deeper and more constant pondering. I really did feel that I learned more as a result. And when the material was personally interesting, it was exciting to learn.

Quality and quantity of interactions I found were predominantly affected by the following factors:
  • Optional versus required posting
  • Seeded versus free topic posting
  • Team versus all-class posting

Requiring posting tended to result in huge quantity, serial monologues, and monosyllabic replies. Students focus on meeting the requirments, impressing the professor, and appearing as if adequately participating rather than prioritizing actual interaction and conversation. It also meant that those not inclined or confident to participate are heard from. When participation was optional, only the same keeners tended to chime in, but these students tend to be more interesting and engaged. Even requiring participation did not result in some people actually participating, so optional participation does not work for these students at all.

Seeded forum threads helps students delve into the discussions, but can fail to spark discussions of interst to students. This can result in students just going through the motions making for unispiring reading. Allowing students to post on their own topics resulted in some of the most interesting and educational discussions.

Having the entire class post results in an overwhelming volume, but increases the odds that one will find someone discussing the topics you find interesting and offering insight. Confining postings to small teams makes managing the volume easier, but limits the breadth of discussion.

My experience of studying online showed the complexity involved in setting up systems and norms to adequately foster interaction. When done properly or through happenstance, the experience can be more engaing and effective than F2F education.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Is This the End of Caped Crusaders (In Print)??

I finally logged into my neglected Netvibes page. (My blog wasn’t the only thing I’ve neglected these past few months.)

I remembered why I used to check my Netvibes page regularly, as one of the first items I read captured my interest. The article Marvel Moves Into Motion Comics With Spider-Woman describes how comic publishers are releasing “motion comics” with Marvel’s first major foray into the form with a new Spider-Woman series.

Over the last couple, during the down time of my thesis, I’ve been reading a lot of comics. Toronto’s public library has a bunch (kudos to them for realizing it is a legitimate literary and artistic medium). It started with my young daughter’s growing love of superheroes (one of my proudest moments of her is when she chose to go as Spider-Girl for Halloween) and I wanted to get some comics and DVDs to share with her.

I haven’t read comics at all since the 1980s, so my sudden return has provided an occasion for reflection and nostalgia.

Back in the 1980s most comics were still printed on newsprint which limited the artistic possibilities (colour palette, tones, etc.). But, I don’t think it is better stock that is responsible for the changes alone. I’m not sure if more adults are reading comics are its being taken more professionally, but the quality of the artwork has improved dramatically. The individual cells of the comics are much more vivid, imaginative, and better drawn. The relationship between cells and elements has evolved significantly, having moved away from mostly linear organization.

Current story-telling is a bit more adult. The villains are more complicated, as are the inevitable nefarious plots. I don’t remember any mention of sex in comics in the 80s, and death was rare. Not so, nowadays. Superheroines costumes definitely seem to have gotten ludicrously trampy to the point that there’s no way they could fight crime in them without constantly revealing their secret identities. I don’t think superhero comic story-telling has matured as much as the artwork has – perhaps the still tiny size of most comic books limits greater depth. (Of course, there are non-superhero graphic novels that have richer stories and there's the odd exception, eg. Watchmen and more recently Marvel’s Civil War.)

I've regained my love of comics and have now added appreciation for their artistry. The main reason I stopped reading comics back in the day was due to their hefty price, considering that one normally reads a bunch of titles every month. So I was initially excited to see the prospect of comics online in a way more than just scanning old print copies and offering them online.

Apparently, “motion comics” have been gaining ground since last year’s version of the Watchmen. Although the term “motion comics” implies a new medium, the article’s author, Scott Thill, astutely points out that motion comics are not new:
Motion comics, crudely put, are usually Flash versions of their paper counterparts enhanced by voice-over narration, musical scores, camera pans and other cinematic tricks. In other words, animation.”

Watch the Spider-Woman clip below to get the full picture.

But is this the end for caped crusaders? Thill questions if this digital form will eventually be the end for print comic books. But he notes that print has its strengths,“Part of comics’ inherent charm was the soundtrack, voiceover or extra-textual material they inspired in readers’ heads.”

Motion comics/animation and print comic books are completely different art forms. I don’t think one form is better than the other.

Certainly the animation does do some of the work that the print readers did themselves, such as decoding the relationship between cells and between words and art. Readers filling in the story in the spaces between cells, called closure, is fundamental to the form. Granted closure and spatial decoding exist in motion pictures too, but I would argue in a less deliberate and less open manner.

I also think the speed is a defining difference. While animation by its nature does not have to be fast-paced, we do want motion and thus work tends to move from item to item fairly quickly resulting in more visceral responses. Reading the words of print comics, observing the artwork, and decoding the story require a slower pace that I think is more contemplative and imaginative. (Of course, this is a simplification.)

I heard that with the phenomenal popularity of digital music (i.e. iTunes) and consumers downloading mostly single songs, the album as an artistic form will largely cease to exist.

Certainly, the Internet has enabled a much greater spread of artistic work than otherwise possible by price efficiencies and vast reach. But I lament the possible end to an art form that I just recently rediscovered I love.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What To Do With an Old, Neglected Site

This blog is like the dilapidated house down the street. Suffering from ages of neglect, one wonders if it is even possible to restore or it's time to tear it down.

In the last few months, I have not had time – or frankly inclination – to maintain this blog. I have found Twitter provides me a venue to share interesting news and observations in a more manageable form (although the rose is fading for me on this site too). Personally, I find too many bloggers shoot off a post with nothing really to say, adding their yelps to the mind-crushing noise of the Web.

Like most others, I'm a busy guy trying to juggle family and career. Even a hasty blog post takes time to plan and craft. Getting paid to do something is probably the best motivator. But when I was offered money to blog, I felt that it would end up prioritizing my blog higher than my career or family. Since the offer wasn’t that compelling, I opted for the freedom of blogging when I had time and inclination to do so.

Obviously, this hasn't happened a lot lately.

Still, I am rather attached to this old thing. It has opened doors for me – helping me get into conferences, providing a publishing source to add to my resume, recruiting participants for my research, etc. Plus, I've enjoyed the visitors here too and the conversation.

The subdivision of my career is being redeveloped with my plans to start PhD fulltime at University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information. I really have no idea what the future is going to look like. I’m hoping to learn some interesting applicable things and do some cool research that could be shared here. I am hesitant to share research here if it will compromise my chances of getting it published in academic journals (a necessity).

I'm not ready to tear down this blog. I can't promise a glorious restoration. I do hope that it will continue to have enough activity to keep murmurs going about that site house down the way.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Mesh Day 1 - Too Wired

Couldn't make it to Mesh for day two as the babysitter didn't show, but fortunately today's episode of Tyra show is about Twitter addiction and Facebook breakups, so it's almost the same but with Tyra's sassy attitude.

Yesterday, the first day of Mesh Conference was my third year attending Mesh and the fourth year of the conference. As anticipated it is indeed Canada's web conference and the line-up of keynotes and speakers is good. The highlight keynote address yesterday was from Jessica Jackley, a founder of Kiva. In addition to helping facilitating microloans to entrepreneurs in developing nations, Jessica explains a key goal was to change the face of poverty, beyond images of helpluss pitiful creatures to allow people around the world to connect one another. She mentioned that work like this doesn't pay a lot but Jessica states "I could retire on happiness". As one who quit a good paying job in financial services to pursue more meaningful work, I can relate.

For the remainder of the day, I attended panel sessions on education & technlogy, hyperlocal media, and using the Web for good. The sessions were good, but what I found more interesting actually was following the tweets about the conference.

Tweeting and IMing during a conference is definitely a way to add interactivity to sessions and keep attendees awake (as are Red Bull, a much-loved Mesh fixture). However, the downside to tweeting and surfing during talks is that it really is hard to fully pay attention to the speakers. I found I would actively listen for awhile and then whent the speaker either said something good that I had to tweet or conversely started to bore me, my attention would turn to my computer and even after finishing my post I found it hard to follow, let alone regain engagement.

I consider myself and expert multitasker, so I'm dubious that even todays hird-wired youth can adeptly pull both off simultaneously. Granted, some conferences and classes I have attended have been so killer boring that if attendees stay awake that is a huge victory.

This was the first Web conference I've attended in over a year that had free and working WiFi, so the experience of live tweeting, blogging & IM is relatively new to me - although it is now a conference mainstay (many moderators at Mesh announced the sessions hashtag before commencing). I enjoyed tweeting during the conference immensely, I don't intend to stop, but I am curious its impact, particularly in education settings, on learning.

My Twitter feed is syndicated on the right column of my blog. But as the experience of live, running Twitter commentary was relatively new for me I thought I'd include my Mesh tweets below:

At #webgood of #mesh09 on how use web tools for good, but why aren't these used (largely) for web issue of accessibility for disabled users?

Tip to encourage online participation. Spacing gets story ideas from commenters, recruits them to write articles & has local parties

Spacing has writers who know how to write a blog post that generates comments -- I could use their advice

@sachac session went well but would been good if 1 panelist was from nontraditional learning eg. corporate learning as you mentioned

Attending #mesh09 listening to talk about Web, while IM friend, monitoring Facebook, Tweeting session & working on blog. Perhaps too wired!

People organizing pillow fights downtown don't send PR to Star but to blogs so cover it first - but do we need to cover this at all?

Hyperlocal media don't get much local advertisers (too small ad budget & not web savvy)

#mesh09 session on hyperlocal media aren't doing quality investigative local journalism, but good at aggregating user generated content

Sachua asked for speakers of #meshlearn to wrap up in 140 characters or less.

Relate to Sachua's #meshlearn point: Net allows one share school research beyond just teachers. As student like that my work is out & useful

good point at #meshlearn Canada's digital divide not just boonies but hour from major cities only dial-up or nothing so school can be vital (about 21 hours ago from web

not finding current session of #mesh09 useful - but keynote by Jessica Jackley from Kiva worth coming to entire conference. Inspirational! (about 21 hours ago from web

#meshlearn need integrate tech & education. True but today's Western youth adept at tech, perhaps school should be bastion other ways learn? (about 21 hours ago from web

At #mesh09 had great lunch, got great seat with power & leg room - think I'll stay in this spot for all sessions regardless of topic

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Help Getting Started with Web Accessibility

I'm working on my thesis on web accessibility, I'm supposed to be writing it up now but I can't seem to end my literature review as there are so many resources on this topic. I think the lack of one central source of necessary information and the unorganized, dated, and at times dubious information out there is part of the problem (but that discussion is for another day & likely the thesis of my thesis).

During my endless literature review (going on 4 plus months), I have weeded through a ton of web resources on the topic. I've compiled the best sources for those beginning in this topic. These sources cover the various crucial facets of the issue.

I've tried to only include information below that is current or that holds up to the test of time. The W3C (the internationally-recognized leader for web standards) recently released a new version of their web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG 2) upon which many, if not most, others base their work upon. Plus technology and coding practices change rather quickly. Therefore, a lot of information is dated and at times to the point of being inaccurate, so be careful of this when researching the topic.

Introductory Help
A good place to start is WebAIM's broad and brief Introduction to Web Accessibility.

Then it's best to head over to the W3C site, since they are the official source of the guidelines. Their Quick Tips to Make Accessible Web Sites is a good high-level summary of the most important techniques.

What To Do
Then there is the complete Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, it's a lot to wade through but it's the best source of what specifically to do.

Webcredible's 10 Common Errors When Implementing Accessibility will also help steer you in the right direction.

To get a sense of the human, inclusive side, there's an excellent free e-Book by Shawn Lawton Henry, Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design.

Why To Do It
The Internet has the power to improve people's lives (as well as disable via inaccessibility). Liz Ball's article The Internet Was Made for Deafblind People outlines how the Net has profoundly improved her life.

Software Support
If you use any Adobe products to build your website (eg. Dreamweaver, PDFs, Flash, ColdFusion) then head to Adobe's site for their Adobe Accessibility Resource Center.

In my opinion there is no good free accessibility testing software - they are too complicated, dated, or present too much and ambiguous information. Not to mention that there are elements software can't test (e.g. the alt text for an image that says "graph" may pass, but it's hardly helpful). WebAIM's Wave tester is probably the best. It should not be used by beginners as it can cause more harm (too confusing and thus intimidating) than good. But for those more familiar with accessibility, it can point out some things you may have missed.

Making a Case for Accessibility
Web developers, designers, producers, managers, this is directed at you - the article Why Accessibility? Because It’s Our Job! is a call to embrace accessibility as part of being a professional.

There are many benefits to making a site accessible, such as improved usability for all and enhanced search engine optimization. Trenton Moss' article How To Sell Accessibility is a good overview of the various benefits and how to frame them as a business case.

If you do go ahead with accessibility and are looking to hire help then Beware the Charlatans. Accessibility expert Geof Collis describes the problems (which I have also encountered) with firms who claim to know accessibility, Collis advises on what to look out for.

Many sites that work towards accessibility will have a page on their site with details. Despite that many of these statements overemphasize the degree of accessibility, there are pros and cons as Leona Tomlinson outlines in Are Accessibility Statements Useful?.

The question over whether accessibility is legally required in Canada depends on who you talk to. There are no express laws or policy in this regards beyond the federal government requiring all their sites to be accessible via their Common Look and Feel rules. The Ontario government is moving ahead to making web accessibility required in the near future for Ontario government sites and much later for all Ontario businesses via the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. As far as I know this is the only Canadian jurisdiction pursuing web accessibility as law. Tt does seem like this is the way the tide is turning in Canada and elsewhere, so complying with WCAG now might save time & effort later on.

Further Reading
Overall the best sources of information, news, and tools are:
Plus my web accessibility bookmarks on Delicious.

And the definitive source is W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative site.

If I missed an important component or if you know of a better source, please let me know.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Share your Experience with Web Accessibility

I've started my research for my master's thesis and would really appreciate your help. I'm researching why aren't more Canadian websites accessible for disabled people.

I'm talking to web professionals in Canada about their experiences and thoughts on this issue so that hopefully recommendations can be made to encourage adoption of this issue in a manner that is realistically achievable.

Please share your experiences on this issue here.
Questions about web accessibility
  • What are the challenges of making a website accessible?
  • What support would you need?
  • Have you heard of W3C's guidelines (WCAG)? Thoughts?
  • Is your site accessible? Why? Why not?
  • What's your experience - pro or con?
Any thoughts, criticisms, suggestions, or experiences you have on this issue, I'd love to know.

Please note that comments included below may be used in my research and published. Please read more about my research and the provision of your consent to participate. Replying below indicates you agree to participate.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Two Journal Articles of Mine Published

Last month, two essays I wrote about Internet topics for Royal Road classes were published in journals. Researching Delicious and Rotten Tomatoes (see below) was a blast and proved a fertile source for a lot of interesting stuff. Hopefully as my academic careers progresses, I'll be able to continue to write and publish on Internet topics.

I was just accepted into University of Toronto's Faculty of Information PhD program, so I think I'll have the venue and opportunity for some cool research (stay tuned).

Here are the journal article links and abstracts:

Does Rotten Tomatoes Spoil Users? Examining Whether Social Media Features Foster Participatory Culture

Participatory culture existed prior to the advent of the World Wide Web. Now, due to the increasing popularity of social media tools, participatory culture is flourishing online as well. One popular movie review website, Rotten Tomatoes, demonstrates this trend. The website includes a suite of interactive, social media tools. Based on an ethnographic observation, participatory culture was seen to be occurring on the site. The power of the website to provide an open and accessible means of cultural dialogue and to encourage civic participation can be observed particularly when online user activity moves beyond discussions of film aesthetics to encompass larger societal and cultural issues. However, despite the site’s intriguing potential, there are various flaws observed that prevent a greater flourishing of participatory culture.

On Tags and Signs: A Semiotic Analysis of Folksonomies

The practice of tagging resources on the Internet has become a popular activity on such websites as Delicious, Flickr, Technorati, CiteULike, and LibraryThing, making tagging a key method to enable online information retrieval and sharing. When tagging is done by members of the general public, it is known as a folksonomy. Folksonomies, unlike many other forms of communication, are created by individuals acting in isolation from one another and with no coordinated effort. Yet when the individual practice of tagging resources is shared openly difficulties in meaning arise, due in part to the lack of sufficient message coding and ambiguous connotations.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

My Submission to CRTC on Net Neutrality

I am very concerned about ISPs' Internet traffic shaping actions. While I am not completely opposed to traffic shaping, for example as we engage in more e-Health practices, it is acceptable if this type of Net usage is allowed to proceed in a quicker fashion. However, I strongly object to ISPs indiscriminately filtering traffic. If some Net users consume much more bandwidth than others, they should pursue this through other means, such as setting monthly bandwidth limits. The CRTC must guard against ISPs being allowed to have their or their partners' content download faster to their customers or slowing down access for non-customers. My main concern is that the Internet not end up like cable television in Canada, where instead of any real choice consumers are forced to purchase (at very costly rates) packages that reflect profit-maximization for companies and not consumer preference. The CRTC must preserve and facilitate the Internet's open model of access to information and freedom of choice as this is so foundational to our Canadian society and the future of innovation in Canada.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Social Media Marketing Conference

Today was the first day of OpenDialogue's Social Media Marketing conference in Toronto, at the Old Mill, where amidst the old world eclectic setting, we tried to make sense of the new media chaos that is social media. As if symbolizing the lingering role of old technology disrupting the promise of the digital age, an ornate chandelier obstructed the PowerPoint presentations from being fully viewable. Still, the Old Mill is the best location of any Toronto conference I have ever been to, not only for the beautiful building, natural setting, proper tables, but most importantly: comfy chairs and ample personal space. (Here’s a cardinal rule for conference organizers: if you expect people to sit all day, do not have crappy, hard plastic chairs stacked so tightly together I can’t exhale without knocking over my neighbour’s knee-straddled laptop.)

As one who follows social media developments, I’ve heard a lot of hype but haven’t seen a lot of proof on how it is actually transforming business. Today’s speakers presented case studies of impressive use of social media delivering business results and offered useful best practices and insight into the medium. I’ll focus on the points that particularly intrigued me.

NutriSystem presented on their Canadian launch. They recruited Canadian bloggers to try their products, for free, and blog about the results. That takes a lot of courage as bloggers are known for being opinionated and irrational at times (not this blogger of course). NutriSystem, and the bloggers themselves, were open and transparent about this arrangement, and NutriSystem did not direct or influence what the bloggers had to say, so there were no charges of “pimping”. According to NutriSystem, the bloggers delivered messages consistent with the company’s and were effective in generating interest and sales.

Perennial conference presenter Bryan Segal from comScore presented impressive statistics on Canada’s adoption of social media. Canadians have the highest rates of social media page views and visit durations and “Canada is a Facebook and YouTube nation” declared Bryan. I was dying to know why he felt we have such fondness (or in my case addiction) of social media, but figured it was too academic a question for this marketing-focused crowd.

Adrian Capobianco of Quizative offered a lot of useful guidance on social media, so I’ll just bullet his words:
• The Pope is into social marketing, are you?
• Should you be listening to social media? Absolutely? Should you be participating? Maybe.
• Social media is changing so fast it’s like running on sand instead of concrete
• Social media is popular as it is relevant, immediate, self expression, conversational, real, human
• To maximize engagement, reward contributions with badges/visibility, rankings, points, contests, discounts, gifts, cash
• Marketing structure is often campaign based, but social media is iterative & ongoing
• Companies using social media need to have an employee anointed to listen and empowered to respond

Focusing on the rewards of online niche marketing , Andrew Cherwenka from Trapeze described how highly targeted social networks are present in the mass social networks, like Facebook. I was impressed by his campaign he described for a car company. For a relatively small sum of money, they launched a microsite for a specific car, accessed from the main car company site. That microsite then feed to channels/groups on Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr where user fans could post their own content in an organized, social fashion. They advertised to initially get word out but then involvement snowballed.

Making similar innovate use of existing social media, Wayne MacPhail, presented how an Ontario charity made incredible use of wikis, delicious, Google, and Flickr, to enables individual across its many local chapters to organize and produce their own content. As he pointed out, what resulted was the “opposite of the tragedy of the commons” as there was a high degree of participation and surprisingly little negative behaviour. To get this level of involvement, they did have to do some one-on-one in-person training and have instructional aids, but with some inventive use of existing, free services (such as Flickr’s slideshows, Google Maps, RSS feeds from delicious) the users themselves were inspired and able to do it themselves.

Overall, the conference today had a lot useful advice to offer companies on how to enter social media, but the examples cited today and, in generally hyped by social media enthusiasts are that it enables companies to now have earnest conversations and responsive action with their customers. This is rather utopian and not new, as companies have been able to do this through their telephone and email customer support - and we all know how mixed this media service has been. We are at a social media conference, so we do need to hype cases where companies did have the culture to be open to this, but as some presenters acknowledge social media participation (everyone should be monitoring) is not for every company – and this, I would argue, is the main reason why.

I opened this post describing the irony of discussing new media at the Old Mill. In another old vs. new analogy: before I left for the conference this morning my four year old daughter asked me incredulously if I was going to be talking about YouTube for my work (she LOVES it, BTW). As an Internet vet (ten years last month) it makes me so happy that I can reply to her that yes I was going to talk about YouTube and yes this was my job – how cool is that!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Typology of Online User Participation

One of my main research interests and certainly a topic much discussed due to the flowering of social media and Web 2.0, is user participation. But I've been thinking what exactly are all the forms of online user participation? How does participation differ from interaction?

I would define user participation as an act on the part of a user to actively add or share their thoughts, opinion, or experience via online features or tools in an open manner. Interaction to me is an active engagement or customization an online feature or tool, but not leaving any of your own self with it. Participation doesn't have to be public or individual (one's efforts can be rolled into a collective result), but to me it's not something that is done entirely for yourself, so adding a news feed or uploading photos to a site but not sharing them with anyone would not be participation.

Based on my definition (and feel free to disagree with it), here are some forms of online user participation:
  1. Blogging
  2. Microblogging
  3. Status updates and "Wall" posts
  4. Commenting (on a blog, video, review, photograph, etc.)
  5. Discussing via message boards (a.k.a forums)
  6. Reviewing or recommending (eg. a book, movie, travel destination, etc.)
  7. Making lists to share (eg. playlists, favourites, books on Amazon)
  8. Voting (e.g. Digg, site polls, or via "Was this helpful" feature)
  9. Adding name to online petition
  10. Rating (eg. assigning a score to a film, book or review, etc.)
  11. Social bookmarking
  12. Tagging/folksonomies
  13. Creating & uploading videos
  14. Creating & uploading podcasts or online audio
  15. Creating & uploading photographs, stories, artwork, etc.
  16. Sharing (via email, posting to profile, or site forwarding feature, etc.)
  17. Creating or contributing to a website
  18. Contributing to a wiki
  19. Contributing to an online open source project (thanks Mouly)
  20. Friending
  21. Reporting abuse (i.e. self-policing features on sites)
Participate now by letting me know if you can think of any forms I missed...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

10 Years Working in the e-Biz

In honour of this month marking my tenth anniversary of my Internet career, I’m blogging about my experience working in the Internet in Canada for the past ten years. The preceding blog post covered my Internet-related education, which began my Internet career ten years ago when I began the Internet Management at Humber College.

Technically, my Internet career began the preceding December as I was hired by a temp agency for a week to help Macromedia with their Dreamweaver 2 Toronto launch. Back then the name Dream Weaver only conjured up a scene from "Wayne’s World" – now I can't imagine life without it.

While most of the Internet education programs I took have completely ceased to exist, about half of the companies I worked still exist. One company promised me “deferred pay” and years later I still haven’t got it. But considering the ups and downs of the industry, I’m not holding a grudge.

The first company I worked for is still doing well. In March 1999,I started writing online travelogues on Ontario for It was my first attempt at regular web writing. The Internet has opened up possibilities for writing to move beyond stifling rules or stuffy conventions of old media. With a clean slate, I was able to have a lot of fun and find an effective web style. The website has grown to be a main destination for off-the-beaten path and independent travelers.

I also wrote travelogues for Canadian Geographic Online. I started with Canadian Geographic for my internship at the end of 1999 to maintain and write for their site. The site hasn’t grown much since I worked there, which is a shame as there is so much potential. Canada is such a small market that I guess it's not viable to expand online properties like they do in the U.S. (e.g National Geographic is an amazing website with a wealth of information).

Internet years are like dog years, so I feel like an old-timer when I recall the good ol’ days of the boom. My first full-time Internet job was as a website developer with a start-up, Infopreneur. All the stereotypes were true – obligatory fussball table, staff meetings at Playdium, free food, parties, very casual hours and dress. This is where I began my habit at starting my day at 11am – a habit that I was only ever able to reduce to 10-10:30am). My supervisor was a wiz kid programmer who dropped out of highschool. I am proud of my work with, one of Canada’s first cooking websites. I introduced a classification and retrieval method for a recipe database that at the time was very innovative. It was through this project that I learned that enabling users to find information was as important as the information itself. This realization has resulted in my continued interest in the field of usability. Infopreneur did not survive but the animated web series they produced became as a successful enterprise; the show, Chilly Beach even made the move from web to TV as it is on CBC.

I spent the remainder of the dot comb irrational exuberance period and the resulting dot bomb crash at Rogers. I was only there two years but the names changes of the division (New Media, iMedia, Media) and website (, are indicative of the turbulence of this period. I was in charge of developing the personal finance channels and particularly enjoyed taking stuffy content and making it interactive (think I managed with my tools RRIF vs. Annuity, University Costs Planner, etc.). After my departure from Rogers, was folded into Canadian Business’ website – and essentially all vestiges were pretty much completely eradicated. It's sad to see that all the cost and effort to develop a lot of good evergreen tools and content was abandoned. But the most lasting memory of working there was the weekly occasions to celebrate, at one of the downstairs bars naturally.

When the regular layoffs at Rogers were too much, I moved to the security of the pension world to manage a website. This was the first job where I was acted pretty much solo in running a website. I’ve blogged about the pros and cons of running a website for small companies. It's great to be the master of a site's fate, but I missed the camaraderie of the incredible team I worked with at Rogers. The website launched some cool stuff while I was there, including being one of the first (if not the first) company to publish its annual report online only. I also managed to oversee a relaunch that completely changed almost everything (design, code, content, architecture) about the website to make it as user-centered and accessible as possible. I left the week we delivered a fully-transactional website for clients – the last great applicable online offering for the company.

Other Internet jobs include volunteer work for maintaining Heritage Toronto’s website, blogging for Backbone and my current project of trying to start an Ontario chapter of the Internet Society.

I really enjoyed being a part of the Web in its rather early days. It’s cool to actually have had a tiny role in helping create the conventions and properties of the medium – these opportunities so rarely happen (I think the only recent comparisons would be the birth of film and tv). One of the reasons why I decided to pursue grad studies was so that I could move away from doing the grunt work of developing and maintaining a website, email newsletters, etc. But while it’s rewarding to research developments in the industry that I would not feasibly be able to implement in my professional career, I will miss those glory days.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

My Ten Year Internet Anniversary

This month marks my tenth anniversary of my career in the Internet. It was ten Januarys ago that I went back to school for Humber’s Internet Management program. Shortly, thereafter I began writing monthly travelogues for The rest is mystory. After ten years’ of working and studying in the Internet almost few of the companies or programs remain. I don’t think this is attributable to my kiss-of-death presence, but the still rapidly evolving nature of the Internet.

In this blog posting I’ll look at my educational experience for the Internet. Subsequent posts will talk about Internet companies and organizations.

It is a shame that Humber’s Internet Management program shut down. It was rolled into the multimedia program, but seems to have lost the management component. The program, as far as I can tell, is unique in Ontario for teaching how to manage all aspects of managing a company’s Internet business and communications efforts. Too many programs teach web design or programming distinct and isolated from the overarching business requirements or overall environment. For example, web design has to work well with web writing, but I don’t see too many programs teaching both. Humber’s postgraduate (open only to university or college graduates) program was ideal for laying the groundwork for Internet management career by teaching programming, server management, graphic and site design, web writing, online marketing and promotion, and multimedia and interactive content production. One didn’t become an expert in all these areas, but they are crucial aspects to know if one is running Internet efforts. Still, to this day I met a lot of Internet professional that lack sufficient knowledge in these areas. The only reason why this program shut down is that I presume that management positions are developed through people’s work experience now. Back in 1999, there weren’t a lot of people with years of experience, so the program was particularly valuable and certainly helped me get my first producer position within a few months of graduating.

Another good Internet program that I took that has shut down and has not been replaced or merged is University of Toronto’s Strategic e-Business program. The program required students to learn some business fundamentals (marketing and accounting) and e-Business foundational concepts such as Internet business models and underlying technologies. There were also courses on moving business processes online and issues in cyberlaw. It was a useful program for those managing or implementing e-Business. It definitely helped me when I was a business lead for implementing a client-direct online transactional site.

Again, I'm not sure why this program shut down. I've heard that we are now at the point where the "e" no longer applies to fields as online components are so mainstream now – so e-Health is just Health, e-Learning is just Learning, and e-Business is just Business. The problem with this is that there Internet technologies, models and user behaviour is not so standardized as to not merit special attention. Again, I have met people working in these areas lacking sufficient exposure to key areas, so I do think there is still a need for these types of programs.

When I decided to do my master's there wasn't any options to study the Internet directly and few to study it indirectly. In the end, I decided on Royal Roads University's Communication program as not only was the field broad enough to encompasses a lot of what's happening on the Net, but also it was delivered in part through e-Learning and I thought it would be a good opportunity to be learn first hand about this huge aspect of the Net. There was one class at Royal Roads on human computer interaction that encompassed a lot of Internet issues. However, in all my classes professors were open to allowing me to tailor almost all my coursework to Internet topics (most of which were posted here). I did some research on folksonomies, social media, usability, website accessibility, intranets, and online music legal issues.

As for doing a doctorate, there really isn't anywhere in Canada that specializes in the Internet, the closest would be Simon Fraser’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology or various communication or information studies programs. In general, I find Canada is not keeping developing adequate programs in this area at a graduate or undergraduate level.

I'd love to hear any feedback on the state or needs of education for Internet professionals and scholars.