What I think about when I think about maps

Back in January I gave a short presentation to some of my Jisc colleagues on maps and map making. The format of the event meant we could choose anything to talk about and I tried to not make it about storytelling, I really did but… well, you’ll see. Best laid plans and that.

You can have a good laugh at me struggling to work out how to get the Mac to play video about halfway through.

The headlines

  • I’m a big fan of maps because I did geography at university. Or maybe I did geography because I’m a big fan of maps. Who knows?
  • For me, maps are as important for understanding the world as stories are. If Stories make sense of experiences, maps make sense of places.
  • We’re mentally making maps all the time, even when we’re lost. That’s part of the fun of being lost.
  • Showing things spatially, particularly data, allows a deeper understanding of something and can help make data easier to relate to.

But my conclusion went a bit meta. Maps are still important to me, not just because of their usefulness and appearance, but because they’re a thread that connects me to m time studying at university. That was where I started my life as a learning professional and forms a big part of my identity.

And having a strong sense of identity and purpose is important when going through periods of change and upheaval as we’ve been experiencing in Jisc for the last year or thereabouts.

So, I could have said all that in 30 seconds rather then 10 mins. Never mind. It was a good exercise in planning and delivering a tight presentation and I learnt a lot from watching my colleagues deliver theirs. It’s one of the best aspects of working at Jisc, that we get these opportunities to be a bit more creative and spend time learning for the sake of it.

Geography – so much more than the sum of its parts

It’s a bit of a stereotype that the main transferable skill you learn as a geographer is how to colour stuff in.

Ordnance Survey has latched onto the trend for colouring-in for grown-ups and released a set of lines-only PDFs of some of its city maps for that very purpose. So grab your felt-tips and get colouring!

My main degree is in geography and I’m proud of it so my reaction to this partly giggle and partly groan. Anything that gets people interested in maps and places gets a thumbs up from me, even if it subtly reinforces that old image of geographers.

Despite it not being directly related to my day job I still find what I learned impacting on my understanding and appreciation of the world. As students, we were accutely aware that some viewed geography with suspicion; neither a fully fledged science nor a proper “art” – the spork of the academic world.

For me, that was always its strength. We could study a part of the globe like Southern Africa and begin to get an understanding of how the interplay of geology, economics, history, demographics and anthropology shapes a region like no other discipline.

So, it was with a certain sense of glee that I saw this Guardian editorial on how geography is the must-have A level for that very reason.

Image credit: © Copyright Siobhan Brennan-Raymond and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Technology isn’t about to kill map-reading

The Royal Institute of Navigation have been in the news today with a press-release titled “Society “Sedated By Software”, Needs Nav Skills Taught At School”.

It’s about the demise of traditional map-reading and navigation skills. They say, with the growth of digital mapping and GPS-enabled devices:

“generations are now growing up utterly dependent on signals and software to find their way around.”

Now, I’m a bit disappointed they’ve gone with the hackneyed line invoking the technology-as-sedative argument and inevitably saying the solution lies in schools but I do have a lot of sympathy with their main point.

I love maps. No, wait. I bloody love maps! They’re how we represent place to ourselves and, more importantly, how we relate to that place. And they’re beautiful and functional at the same time.

So, being able to read a map, place yourself in relation to it or even carry around a reliable mental map are, I think, an essential part of learning about the world. I hope I can help my kids become good map readers.

But I also think that this isn’t a maps-good: technology-bad  debate which some people might see it as. Technology has got a crucial role to play in engagement with mapping and interpretation of place.

The UK’s Ordnance Survey maps are the gold standard for mapping. Although tools like Google Earth and Streetview don’t come close they still offer a massive amount in the way of data layering, scaling, interactivity and social media. It can only be a good thing that children (and grown-ups!) spend ages flying through Google Earth to find their house as well as exploring far off destinations, enjoying the experience of maps.

And we shouldn’t see GPS-enabled mobile devices as necessarily meaning the death of navigation skills either. I use apps like Strava and Google Maps routinely on my phone when I’m cycling round Northumberland. Combining the use of the apps with the actual experience of being in the landscape has really helped me develop my geographical understanding of a part of the country I love.

If our aim is better spatial awareness and understanding of place then we need to combine the best aspects of traditional mapping, digital technology and physically being out in the field.

Image from Pixabay – Public Domain



Choosing a university is like buying a telly. Discuss.

First off, choosing a university or college is NOT like buying a telly but something I heard in a presentation today about a learner’s journey through university reminded me of some of the things I thought when we replaced our telly recently. (You remember, the one I mentioned in this post? Of course you do.)

It’s to do with what you look at when you’re choosing a new TV versus the actual experience of owning one.

A shiny new telly

What do most people look for in a new TV? I’m going to guess things like, in no particular order:

  • Price
  • Screen size (for aesthetics and/or practicality)
  • Picture and sound quality
  • Function – what will it allow me to do over and above watching channels.
  • Brand

What I suspect a sizeable number of people don’t think about is what is it going to be like to interact with. OK, I did but I’m a professional geek. I don’t count.

How much time do we spend in the showroom navigating through the menu and settings? Our last TV setup was pretty cruddy. We had to swap between inputs frequently, the digital programme guide was clunky and uncustomisable, lacking a favourites function and there were a host of other minor irritations.

I know, #firstworldproblems.

Each thing was fairly trivial but when you add up the time you have to spend over the lifetime of the TV battling these annoying inefficiencies it turns out to be a major part of the “telly experience”.

So that’s like university, how?

This is something I suspect, but don’t know for sure. You can correct me.

I suspect many people choose a university or college based on the educational equivalent of picture quality, brand, price and features. Read: course content, institutional reputation, fees, accommodation, social experience and so on.

In mobile terms it’s the difference between the design of the phone and the apps it runs versus the OS.

These are, of course, crucial. But they’re not the entirety of the student experience. What about the equivalent of navigating through menus, personalising the settings etc? In other words, course administration, finance systems, accommodation services, IT systems and processes…

If these things work well, they disappear into the background and just happen. When they go wrong, as Ruth Drysdale, the presenter today said, they can be the things that sometimes push students over the edge!

Ellen Lessner challenged me asking how many prospective students make choices about college on university based on this level of detail. Very few, I guess.

But the important thing is for institutions to think about these aspects of the student experience as much as the learning experience. Are they designed around the students’ needs or the institution’s? Do they merge into the background or does dealing with them become a frustrating battle that ends up taking up much of a learner’s time and effort to deal with?

It’s important because these things can have an impact on student satisfaction, retention, attainment and the bottom line.

In other news

I’ve been encouraged to read Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier and The Circle by Dave Eggers

Image by Pawel Kadysz – CC0 – from Unsplash

A house of cards? – Netflix as a model for elearning

I subscribed to Netflix a few weeks ago so I could finally watch the US version of House of Cards (enjoying it, btw) so I read Donald Clark’s recent post on “what does learning have to learn from Netflix” with some interest.

Donald paints a picture of a learning landscape that I just can’t get excited about. He says:

“We badly need some big, global education content delivery. Brilliant, scalable content that teachers and learners love.”

So much of the debate about elearning revolves around the question “will it scale?” but I want to resist the idea that this is how we do elearning now. Bigger doesn’t always mean better.

It’s a question of experience. Technology allows us to do really interesting and exciting things with learning but what works for a group of a dozen won’t always work for a group of thousands.

The tyranny of the algorithm

One of the reasons that we need algorithms to curate learning experiences is if we want large scale in our online learning programmes.  The job is just too big if you have 150,000 individuals taking a course or are subscribed to your platform.

I’m just not that impressed by the ability of algorithms to shape my online experience, at least at the moment. The complicated, messy reality of any online interaction has to be reduced to something very simplistic in order to make it computable.

I reflected on this last year when Facebook presented me with a robot-compiled video of my life called Look Back that felt like the story of a stranger!

I’ve given Netflix a lot of clues as to my preferences by the things I watch and the quite sizeable favourites list I’ve created but of the things it recommends for me I’m interested in a very small proportion. It’s not a good hit rate and it would be interesting to compare it against a list of randomly selected titles.

If that’s the adaptive engine that $1million dollars buys you I don’t think it’s great value for money. Sure, it’s early days in my use of Netflix but it’s a pattern I see repeated in my experiences of Facebook, Amazon, Spotify and so on.

Learning as a collective endeavour

The masters I completed in 2013 was an online course but was very small scale, fewer than a dozen people in my cohort but it was a powerful, transformative experience for me.

What I responded to and kept me motivated and learning throughout was that fact that the model of curriculum design was collaborative. There were many opportunities for us to shape how the course was run as it was run. It was scarey, sometimes messy but ultimately very empowering. Technology helped us to do this with a group spread over the whole of the UK and beyond.

Also, one of the things I valued most was my relationship with the course tutors like Guy Merchant and Richard Pountney. There was something really exciting about the potential that not only could they change my mind about how I thought, the potential was there for me to do the same to them.

Online learning at scale, especially if it feels like a Netflix experience, is going to find it really difficult to accommodate that sort of thing. It only works if what you are concerned about is delivery of content and that’s only a part of what learning is about.

“Learners who studied this might also like…”

I was intrigued that House of Cards’ casting was shaped partially by the data on audience preferences.

If a+b+c=ratingssuccess, that doesn’t leave much room for surprises or creativity. It’s a way of baking existing preferences into the system, making it harder for new talents and voices to emerge. We hardly have a perfect system for nurturing new talent at the moment

I don’t necessarily know what I want when it comes to learning either. I want to be surprised as much as I want to find out stuff that is useful.

“Will it scale?”

The answers to education’s problems can’t be found purely in the economies of scale.

Technology gives us a great management tool when dealing with massive scale courses but I worry that we then compromise on the learner experience.

We should be as interested in what technology helps us to do at the small scale as well as the massive.

Image: Minihouseofcards.jpg by Arealast CC-BY-SA 3.0

How “smart” is your smart TV?

image: TV by Anuar Zhumaev http://thenounproject.com/term/tv/99975/, CC-BY 3.0

This recent Daily Beast news article has particular relevance to me as we’ve recently bought one of these Samsung tellies (although nowhere near as humongous as the one in this picture from the equivalent BBC article!).

The idea of “smart devices” is quite a cool one, and appears quite benign. Look, my telly is remembering the stuff I watch and making life easier for me.

Except the TV isn’t the thing that’s smart. The “smartness” of the device isn’t contained within the machine, it come from the data centre that holds all the information we give it. The data about my watching habits is collected by that frightfully useful  internet connection (on a TV! Imagine!) that transfers the information back to the TV manufacturer or another 3rd party so they can provide the services they think I will find most appealing, encourage me to use the device more and give them another product they can sell in the data about my family’s behaviour.

Now, I’m not going to be sending my TV back. I’m not shocked or surprised by the news story. I might turn off voice recognition which I never used anyway. It’s a really cool TV especially after the little bucket of visual fuzz we had previously.

But this goes back to my last post about being critical about the technology we use. Do we as a society understand enough about how our data is collected and exploited? The fact that the news article has gained such a lot of traction today suggests not.

TV’s have been a part of our living rooms for many decades and we’ve got used to their status as receivers of information. We now have to adjust to the idea that they are now computers and we should think about them as such.

As we grow accustomed to a world where more of our devices are connected (wifi kettle, anyone?), understanding this becomes an ever more important part of digital literacy.

Learners and technology: enabled but not empowered?

image: “_D3S9849” by US Embassy Tel Aviv https://flic.kr/p/bDjjUL CC-BY-SA

Something’s been bothering me recently. As learning technologists, people advocating the use of technology within education, are we helping learners to be sufficiently critical of the tools they are using?

I hope I’m not over simplifying, but much of the critique around using web-based tools, particularly social media,  focuses on issues of function and safeguarding. We talk less about examining the background, particularly the business model, of apps or services to determine whether using them is in the best interests of the individual.

I recognise I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone. We’re surrounded by free tools and apps and I’ve been eager to share these and to see how they shape the way people learn.

The implications of this were brought home to me a few months ago when I replaced my phone. Rather than backup from my previous phone’s settings I decided to do a digital life laundry and reinstall only the apps I actually needed.

If you try this you’ll know that you get regularly asked to accept that an app would like access to certain things on your phone like your camera or microphone but also your contacts list, location and so on. What they don’t always specify is why they need this.

A human rights issue?

Of course, it’s not news to say that what these apps are after in many cases is your data because that is a commodity the app producer can sell. I was encouraged to think about this differently by Aral Balkan at last year’s Thinking Digital conference.

For him, the issue isn’t just about privacy. It’s about human rights. To hear him explain why, watch the video. It’s worth 20 minutes of your time.

Aral Balkan – Free is a Lie – Thinking Digital 2014 from Thinking Digital on Vimeo.

It was with this in mind that I delivered a lecture recently to foundation year engineering students on digital citizenship. I used the example of Uber to highlight the issues around the divergence of the needs of the business and the rights of the individual.

I might also have talked about the ethical minefield of Facebook and their “emotional contagion” experiment.

I’m not advocating that we retreat from using free tools; that would be ridiculous. On balance, having access to a powerful set of tools like Google Docs or Dropbox in exchange for access to our data may work strongly in our favour. But I do think that “following the money” should be an integral part of what we think about when choosing these tools and deciding how to use them. If it’s a bargain we’re willing to strike when we start using them then that’s fine. What we should avoid is blindly accepting the EULA as this Guardian article on controlling personal data discusses.

Why worry about it?

This is important for individuals. Technology is becoming more and more intimate. With the emergence of wearable technologies and the “internet of things”, the data about our daily existence is becoming much more nuanced and granular, data that belongs to organisations, not individuals. And information that is filtered through algorithms and presented back to us shapes our world view and behaviours. This was highlighted by people comparing the simultaneous trending topics on Facebook and Twitter during the Ferguson protests.

It’s also something we need to think about as institutions. In order to participate fully in education, do we require learners to subscribe to services run by organisations that operate in ways that are not necessarily in the best interests of the people we have a duty of care towards?

We should encourage learners to be as constructively critical of the nature of the technologies they use as the  academic literature they read.

We may be enabling students to use technology but are we empowering them? Current patterns of demand will shape the development of future technologies and if we fail to encourage learners to be critical then we do them a disservice and risk creating a technology landscape that we may one day come to regret.

Attack of the Drones! New perspectives on fieldwork learning

Originally published on Netskills Voices

Image of a Phantom UAV
It’s Bug Season by Adam Meek CC-BY 2.0

News stories and viral videos about drones seem to crop up on a fairly regular basis but what does the emergence of this new technology mean for education?

I’ll start by saying that perhaps the proper term should be “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” (UAV) rather than “Drone”. There’s debate about what the difference is but for some the main feature of a drone is that it is semi-autonomous. The devices I’m talking about here are remote controlled aircraft.

UAVs are pretty much “a thing” now but they are not uncontroversial. Aside from their military role people will be most familiar with the multi-copter style devices although fixed wing UAV’s have been in use for quite a while. They’ve been in the news recently over their potential use for Amazon deliveries as well as their contribution to international sporting events!

The rise of the civilian UAV is closely tied to the arrival of devices like tablets as control devices and small HD-capable cameras like the GoPro. A fairly robust set of equipment will cost you hundreds, rather than thousands.

That puts UAVs within the budgets of individuals and certainly education institutions.

UAVs in fieldwork

My interest in drones is about how they can enhance fieldwork and it’s not hard to see where the benefits might be. The ability to see landscapes from different perspectives can be very powerful, providing a useful mid-point between direct observation and full remote sensing.

UAVs with cameras could be a useful resource on a field trip for reaching hard-to-access landforms. This is useful for all students but will also be useful in supporting students with impaired mobility. This novel take on the selfie shows how a view of a landscape can be expanded using a UAV-mounted video camera.

Of course, photography and video only take you so far. Measurement is also important, which is where approaches like photogrammetry and 3d scanning come into play. Here the tools become much more advanced and therefore expensive but this video of a field trip to create a 3D rendering of the Matterhorn shows. You can see the results of the survey at about 2mins 50secs.

Considering another avenue, have a look at this video of “drone racing” Endor-style through a forest. It not only shows the maneuverability of these vehicles but also suggests what might be possible if you could combine the use of UAVs with 3d headsets like Oculus Rift for watching a live camera feed or captured recordings (see 1min 54secs).

Existing practice

There is already extensive practice in the use of UAVs for research and fieldwork. The list of speakers at the University of Exeter’s UAVs in Environmental Research event in July 2014 shows some of the people involved in this area, the breadth of applications and gives links to all the presentations.

The University of Worcester’s Institute of Science and the Environment also ran an event on Remote Sensing from Small Unmanned Aerial Systems in 2013. It was filled to capacity.

Addy Pope from the Go-Geo team at EDINA helpfully pointed me towards the work of Tim James at Swansea University who has been using UAVs to monitor the dramatic glacial calving process.



The starting point for UAV’s is in the hundreds of pounds. One of the most popular devices, particularly with amateur and semi-pro film makers is the Phantom UAV which seems to start at around £300 for some models but goes up nearer to £1000 for different packages. As the popularity of UAVs increases expect more choice to become available. I was intrigued by this open source UAV that was looking for funding on Kickstarter earlier this year. (Look at it’s funding target and what it eventually achieved! A measure of the popularity of UAVs?)

Technological limitations

Any UAV will be limited in terms of range and ability to function in difficult weather conditions. Battery life is also something you need to consider. For example, the senseFly eBee UAV has a flying time of only 50 minutes.

Safety (personal and equipment)

Safety is an important part of any fieldwork and using UAVs may help to avoid some more risky situations. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to place students anywhere near spinning rotor blades without properly trained staff and a full risk assessment! Operating in public spaces also brings risk to non-participants. There’s also a risk to the equipment, especially if the weather turns against you.

Legal aspects and privacy

As most consumer level UAVs are small and light they are exempt from most Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) rules on airworthiness but in commercial use cases permission may be needed. According to the CAA website, permission is not needed if “the aircraft will not be flown close to people or properties, and you will not get ‘valuable consideration’ (i.e. payment) from the flight.” This is obviously applicable only in the UK. Fieldwork undertaken abroad means checking things out with the local authorities. This article from The Next Web on the personal use of drones is a handy summary for the UK and US but if in doubt always check.

If geosciences aren’t your thing…

…maybe this more aesthetically creative use of UAVs will appeal. It’s quite lovely.

Almost as interesting is the Making off… video that goes with it.


Twitter Analytics arrives, but just because you can measure something…

Originally published on Netskills Voices

Twitter has recently rolled out a new Analytics tool to the majority of its users so you can now see a little bit more about what happens in the life of one of your tweets. Is this going to be useful information for you?

Twitter Analytics screengrab

Gauging the impact of your use of Twitter has, for most people, been a bit of a hit and miss affair. What do you measure? Total number of tweets, replies, RTs or favourites? These have always been quite crude measures.

Until now, the more sophisticated tools have required either detailed technical knowledge or have come with a significant cost attached. Twitter’s Analytics service seems to fill a gap between what’s easily available for free on their main site and the more commercial tools.

Getting started

This couldn’t be simpler, really. Go to http://analytics.twitter.com and sign into your Twitter account if you haven’t already done so.

If it all looks a bit empty when you get there, it’s because it only activates when you first visit the site. No retrospective data is available. Tweet away and you’ll find the data starts to appear.

What does it tell you?

For each tweet (only manual RT’s show up) you can see how many impressions you made and what level of engagement each tweet had. An impression means simply that a tweet has been delivered to someone’s Twitter timeline. It doesn’t mean they have actually seen it.

The engagement measure is a bit more interesting. This means that a Twitter user has done something with your tweet. Drilling down by clicking on this figure shows you that this can include things like:

  • Replies
  • Retweets
  • Favourites
  • Link clicks (if there is one in the tweet)
  • Hashtag clicks
  • Embedded media clicks…
  • …and a few others

Twitter Analytics screengrab

The most potentially useful piece of data you can get from the tool is the engagement rate, a simple measure of the number of engagements divided by the number of impressions. This means you can say things like “well only 50 people saw that tweet but I know that 63% of them clicked the link to our website” which is much more data than you’ve been able to get this easily before.

There’s a handy bar chart showing variable activity over the last 24 hours. The whole thing is fairly intuitive and well presented.

If you want to do more interesting data analysis you can export the data as a CSV file.

You can also get a profile of your followers showing gender, location and “interests”. There is little indication how these interests are worked out. Education is high on the list for my followers as you’d expect. Apparently 29% of my followers like “comedy”.

It’s also restricted to your own tweets, replies and promoted tweets. If you want to track a conference hashtag then there’s not much for you here.

Quantity or quality?

[SPOILER: Quantity]

If you’ve used something like Google Analytics you’ll notice that there’s a wealth of data that just isn’t available here. For example, there’s no indication of how or where people are engaging with your individual tweets. It might be interesting to see the geographical reach of a single tweet or perhaps what devices people are viewing it on.

One of the things we emphasise on our blogging workshop is that this quantitative data isn’t the be all and end all of social media.

It tells you nothing about the quality of your interactions with people or organisations. You could be the most outrageous troll sporting a fantastic engagement rate but leaving discussions, reputations or emotions in tatters in your wake.

Additionally, number of impressions or engagement rates may not even be important information for you. As an individual, I don’t use Twitter to have loads of followers, RT’s etc. I use it to have and follow conversations, the value of which isn’t determined by my engagement rate.

Is the data valuable?

Why is Twitter making this available now? That’s unclear but it could be argued that if people can see what happens with a tweet it’s more likely to encourage increased use with all the benefits in data and monetisation that you’d expect Twitter to want.

But does the user get enough benefit to balance that out? Although there are now more numbers to look at, the data is still pretty crude and requires proper interpretation (or leaps of imagination!) to derive much meaning from it.

The tool certainly gives you more information than has been available through Twitter in the past. The additional data might be useful if you are trying to set targets for an organisation’s Twitter account or need ammunition to convince others that use of Twitter is worthwhile.

So, have a look if you’re responsible for managing your team’s Twitter account, are in charge of the marketing for an event or are an individual curious to get a better picture of what happens after your click the Tweet button. There might be some useful insights in there.

But don’t be seduced by the lure of lots of numbers if they’re not actually that important to you! Just because you can measure something doesn’t mean that it’s actually worth measuring.

Many thanks to @catherinelliott, @hopkinsdavid, @bhanwar, @ntaylorHEA, @philswinhoe and @carlvincent for being sports and boosting my engagement rate so I had some numbers to look at. 🙂