People come first

The heat is almost stifling here in Oxford; all the windows are open and sun is streaming in through my window. I hope you’re all having similar weather, although I also hope your offices have better ventilation than mine.

Cory Doctorow Visits a Radio Shack is very funny and pretty much sums up my feelings about overuse of the web 2.0 meme.

Now, I’ve got to admit, I’ve blown the Web 2.0 horn a number of times – and you’ll find the word plastered on the side of my Elgg space. I actively use Flickr, and often read my inbox, although I rarely actually bookmark anything there myself. I think tagging is great and that it’s hugely important for ordinary people to be able to post content onto the web as easily as possible.

But people, please, be serious. The meme has jumped the shark. When even TechCrunch – a prime candidate for “riding a hype wave” if ever there was one – vents about the hysteria you know there’s got to be something wrong. It comes down to this: the technology never, ever, ever comes first. People must come first, and that means everything must solve a problem; you need to know what your requirements are, and figure out what technology will solve it (or if it’s better solved in the real world), rather than saying, “isn’t this neat?”

Once again I need to point out how mortified I would be if Elgg was used to replace any real-world teaching, or real-world interaction. I’m not, to be honest, keen on the kinds of online community assignments where people ask, week upon week, students to discuss things online. Unless you’re into distance learning, why not do this in person? You’ll very likely have a much richer discussion. I can see it as a gateway method to get people used to online systems, but so much of the educational experience is about socialisation that I find continued use a bit scary.

One of the interesting things about all this is seeing people’s frustrations with using first-generation online participation software; basic forums and things like that. A number of times I’ve been asked by people ignorant about what I do if they can have an online space where people share resources with whoever they want, find each other by interest, and – best of all – keep their space for whatever they do. After spending some time diving into available software they’ve had time to think about what they actually want, and it’s always a pleasure to be able to say, “yes, that exists already”. The answers to the inevitable follow-up questions – “can we customise it?” “how much does it cost?” “will it work with our LDAP directory?” – tend to make people happy as well.

I’d be just as happy to recommend people other software if their requirements didn’t merit Elgg. You want to run a single blog on a page somewhere? WordPress is great, and can be adapted. You want live chat? There are a number of interesting solutions, which can be adapted. You might also find that your exact requirements aren’t met by anything, and something has to be built. But it’s much better to do this than warp what your users will find useful around some software that isn’t quite right.

This is what scares me about the web 2.0 hysteria: a lot of this software won’t be quite right. As Dave has been saying (and as I did a while back), a lot of it is also dangerously commercial, with explicit intent to mine user activity for monetary gain. I don’t think that’s appropriate for an educational institution, which is supposed to be about both research and providing learners with the best possible learning environment, surely?

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