11 December 2008

University 2.0

Having just completed and submitted my Masters Thesis, I thought I would share some of the tools and techniques I used in this task.

I know that some of this is not really Web 2.0 and definitely not Enterprise 2.0 mainly because they are not "User-generated-content", but none-the-less, many of these technologies didn't exist five years ago, so I thought it would be worth sharing.

I discovered these through the course of my study, but you can steal my ideas. If you are studying now, about to start a course, or are just interested in how things have changed, something here might give you the hint you needed to move forward.

Yes, my thesis subject was Wiki use in SMEs, but what better way to manage the thesis project than a wiki?

I used a personal copy of Confluence hosted on a friend's server. This is free and comes with two user licenses. The guys at Atlassian were fantastic (possibly because I implemented a corporate Confluence wiki at work) and I set us one user for myself and another for my research supervisor so she could log in and keep tabs on the progress.

I set out top level pages for each of the project stages and used todo-list macros liberally to capture what I had to achieve for each section.

Until that point I have been tracking the project charter and scope development as a diary in Microsoft Word, so I transferred these entries in to the news section of the wiki which became my study blog - more on that later.

Further through the project, I brought in help in the form of a wiki expert in Sydney to help with the interview of a Sydney company. Once again, the wiki came in handy collaborating with him as we organised the details and recorded the results.

Best of all, the automatic versioning of wiki pages has helped preserve a record of how the pages, thoughts and ideas developed. This was critical for me as qualitative research tends to be quite organic different aspects move forward in spurts as new knowledge is gathered and assimilated.

Apple iTunes U Podcasts
During the study it became apparent that I needed more background information, especially on the psychological issues behind cognition as a basis for the model of culture-as-schema that I used.

With a tonne of reading already on my plate, the only extra time I had was driving to and from work. This is where iTunes U comes in.

iTunesU is a place in the iTunes Store where universities all around the world post entire lecture series and make them available for download, often for free. The concept was started by MIT making their entire university open for public download claiming that it is the style of delivery, not the content that makes MIT special.

I chose an MIT course "Introduction to Psychology" and listened to the whole thing over a 3 month period. A year of knowledge downloaded in "dead" driving time. Amazing. Next I chose courses in Neuroscience & Behaviour (MIT), Technology & Society (ENTC), Human Computer Interaction (Stanford) and Socio-cultural Anthropology (Arizona State) and chose the individual lectures that I thought were relevant to my study.

I can't tell you how much these podcasts help shape my world view and grounded many of my assumptions about the underlying theories. Looking back I have no idea how people in the past were able to go near the boundaries of their fields without this type of trans-disciplinary knowledge. Thank you iTunes U!

There is still a lot of suspicion about using Wikipedia in an academic context. This often arises from two sources:
1) A misunderstanding of the power of community. Often criticisms of Wikipedia begin with the following "Because anyone can add or change content, there is an inherent lack of reliability..." Looked at in a single case, this is true, any article can be vandalised, either intentionally or through lack of knowledge in the topic on the part of the author. However it can also be said that 50,000 of our cells mutate on a daily basis due to solar radiation. The reason the human race is not extinct from cancer is the self-monitoring and healing mechanisms within each human cell, not because we have really good medicine. Likewise, the communities that build up around Wikipedia topics perform a similar self-healing function without the need - in most cases - for moderation.
2) Saying that, Wikipedia is not guaranteed to be perfect or thorough at any given point in time (in fact it doesn't claim to be), so use of it without guidelines is not suggested. There is a great page about this here at the Gould Library.

The key for me was to use Wikipedia in two ways:
1) to get a quick overview of a topic related to the one I am studying. If I was studying Distributed Cognition and a text mentions the philosophy of determinism, then I quickly look this up on Wikipedia before continuing reading on the main topic.
2) to quickly determine the scope of a topic and what other sources are important. Often academic texts only talk about a simple aspect of a topic. Wikipedia entries are usually developed by a community of people with different interests, so a broader treatment and a list of external links often helped me gain a broader perspective on a topic and be able to better question the logic of the paper I was reading.

I did not cite Wikipedia directly. If I couldn't find a published source, than I discarded the Wikipedia information.

As I mentioned above, I converted my study diary from Word to individual news items in my wiki. This basically functions as a blog and I treated it as such. Some of these blog entries were about problems I was having, new information or people I had found, a review of a paper or a philosophical discussion about the merits of one methodology over another.

Later in the study, these entries also included records of communication with participants and even some analytic memos.

Around 12 months ago I was being asked a lot of KM questions by people and realised that much of what i was emailing people was already written down in my study blog. It was then that I launched the Delta Knowledge blog. I wanted to walk-the-talk and share my knowledge as a Knowledge Manager and Masters student.

I started by copying across all entries from my study blog that did not contain personal or confidential information. It turned out there were quite a few. Since then, I have posted more than half of my blog posts on this blog and have received several emails and phone calls that people have benefited from my writing. It cost me nothing (well, $10 for the domain name) and helps people a lot more than all these thoughts just sitting on my hard drive.

actKM Listserve
actKM runs a list server for knowledge management professionals around the world. While this is old technology, it suits the bill and the quality of people who regularly contribute is outstanding. I have been able to participate in conversations that I would never be exposed to in my occupation, and ask questions of experts with many more years experience than myself.

The community of actKM is a tough one. I learned quickly not to make throw away comments as there is little suffering of fools, however this comes from a passionate belief that rigorous debate and critical questioning can lead to better understanding and it pushed me to do a lot more reading of philosophy so I can make my point without being immediately shot down. I grew to trust these people and be able to understand the viewpoints they were coming from and take away the best from each. While critical in their writing, they are warm and supportive of your efforts when you are sincere in your efforts to learn and grow in understanding and knowledge. Socrates in an email :-)

If you are interested in knowledge management, then you need to be on this list. I suggest "lurking" (reading the posts without participating) for around 6-9 months like I did so you can gain a feel for the rules and norms of the list.

My final addition around 6 months before I finished my thesis was to take a dip in the synchronous world of Twitter. Twitter is an online messaging site that allow you to post small messages (140 characters or less) answering the question "what am I doing right now". Sounds simple, in fact sounds stupid right? Why not a Facebook wall, or the presence status on your IM tool?

But Twitter is more than this. On Twitter you subscribe to the people who's posts you want to follow, and others choose to follow yours. It is not automatically two way. This gives you the ability to get to know the people you choose or to subscribe to official twitterers like the NASA news or CNN. It also allows you to send a message to people by adding an @ to their twitter name. This builds up a tight little community around you of like minded people, all sharing little bits of information, interesting web-sites, who they talked to in their job that day, and even what they had for dinner. You gain an insight into your colleagues lives that you cannot get any other way, but the impact on my study came from the almost instantaneous feedback to ideas from those following me. I could share ideas with specific people or just float them publicly for comment.

I also followed @WestPeter from Canada who tweets about the latest papers published in the areas of communities, information design, innovation, knowledge management and trust. This led me to several papers that had an impact on my research that I had not previously come across in the lit review.

My twitter login is @Kurokaze204 if you want to join in the fun!

All in all, these tools and services made my study time so much broader than I would have experienced just reading a few papers and books.

The interactive process underlying many of these allowed others to sharpen my thoughts and show me were I needed more knowledge.

I hope these services and others like them are embraced by the universities of the future to allow faster feedback, broader, more trans-disciplinary learning and allowing the student to join and build communities of experts in their field before they even step in to their first job.