March 13, 2006

Chatting About Web Pages: Just Another Form of Annotation?

I've been wondering over he last few days the extent to which chat might be a useful mechanism for annotating web pages compared to more 'traditional techniques (such as these).

So when I read this post from Russell Beattie this morning, which mentions his various experiments with IM-enhanced blog pages over the years, I thought I should pop a few thoughts down on the matter, idling around how we could make use of chat in our online courses.

This is all very of timely of course - over the last few days I've had my invite to 3bubbles which "unites chat and blogs to create real-time conversations in the blogosphere" (though as yet I haven't added one of their chats to any of my pages), had a quick play with Gabbly (which you can use to chat about the OUseful blog if you like) and taken note of "[t]his Wordpress plugin [which] adds live chat functionality to your Wordpress blog".

I also read somewhere (I forget where) about IM being the 'Hello World' of AJAX and then turned up this AJAX Chat Tutorial which gives a pretty good overview of what's involved in getiing a minimal chat system up and running using AJAX.

The idea of using chat as a way of annotating web pages also ties in with a previous idle about using the pages containing external links as search hubs.

Particular pages can potentially be used in elearning as a focus for discussion, and this is one area where being able to annotate, or chat around, a page almost in situ could potentially be very interesting indeed. (This whole area is now very firmly on my must think properly about this list!)

There is an issue, of course, in fact - several issues - about using public services such as Gabbly as the basis for a learning activity within a particular (fee paying!) cohort. For example - the third party site QoS or even lifetime cannot be guaranteed; the service is likely to be public - and hence open to spam, or pointless posting, or require site specific authentication; and so on (I reviewed several of the issues insofar as they relate to social bookmarking here).

More generally, it's currently a live issue in the OU about how we integrate discussion about particular web pages (either e-learning content pages we deliver as part of a course, or arbitrary third party pages we are using as the focus of discussion) into contentful pages (if indeed that's possible). Online discussion is widely used to support many OU courses, though typically the discussion environment has only been very loosely coupled to the learning content environment. I suspect that there is a feeling that a tighter degree of integraion would be useful though (no references I'm afraid) - or at least worth exploring - so for my money a consideration of chat like commenting on pages should be one of the things we consider.

(It's perhaps worth saying at this point that I've only chatted a few times - IM is not my favourite thing - but I do recognise that at least for our incoming 'younger students' (aged 18-25, an increasing market for the OU whose numbers have traditionally come more from mature students) chat-like interfaces are increasingly something they'd expect to find in an online community. And if we step back for just a second and ask why we use online conferencing in our courses, I think we'd have to admit that first and foremost it was to devleop a supportive virtual community.

(This is something else I think I need to think about - the OU has arguably pioneered the use of online conferencing, at scale, in HE, but htings are very different now compared to even 203 years ago, as the rapid growth in online communities shows (witness the growth in popoularity of MySpace, which I'm sure last year was seen as being overpriced, but whose traffic is now growing at a stupendous rate).)

Anyway, back on topic: several of our online courses have experimented with allowing students to post thoughts/comments about a topic either individually or communally from within a page at a particular point, and then see the posts submitted by others, or perhaps allow the student to revisit their private individual comments at a later date.

In our NAGTY online academic study groups, we have explored linking out from content pages to First Class discussion threads (as described in this presentation) but so far I'm not sure how successful this has been in terms of student experience.

So one thing I think I'd like to explore is just how we might use chat as another channel for discussion. There are times when this won;t be appropriate of course - for example, online conferences do allow for the development of quite lengthy and considered commentaries which just would not work in a chat setting. But at other times, some conference threads can be quite chatty (and really painful to read too when there are lots of 'me too' type messages in a thread).

For group work, too, the informality of chat may be useful in particular stages of group formation.

One thing worth noting at this point is that page based chat need not necessarily be synchronous - Gabbly for example logs you in to the state of a discussion about a page that has happened to date, as well as providing an RSS feed of the transcript which looks like it could be quite useful (for example, allowing integration with a more signinificant dicussion/conferencing environment).

Something I should perhaps mention is the great work done by our Faculty FirstClass administrator Ches Lincoln today. I'd posted a note to the departmental discussion conference about how it may be interesting to try out chat as a page discussion channel, got the usual lack of replies except the expected pedantic one, then got an email to say how Ches had set up a demo/prototype page annotation scheme using the FirstClass chat facility, which was absoultely unexpected and utterly brilliant, exactly the sort of thing we should be doing in an ICT department I'd have thought?!;-)

Anyway, the app had a lot of what we need for a managed environment - the ability to remember the discussion, save (export?) the thread, even moderate the users - although admittedly the usability of the default templates is - how shall I say it - rather painful (the no AJAX, frame based interface makes for regular annoying flashes every few seconds as frames refresh).

We'll be working out the usablility and user model of the FC driven page based chat over the next day or two, and will perhaps try working it into the NAGTY environment (soemthing we had discussed before in general terms, but not in the sense of a page based discussion). If there's anything to report off the back of it, I'll do it here...

Posted by ajh59 at March 13, 2006 09:53 PM