Manifesto for Teaching Online – Aphorism No. 16 & 17 “Online spaces can be permeable and flexible, letting networks and flows replace boundaries.”& “Closed online spaces limit the education power of the network”

My house says to me, “Do not leave me, for here dwells your past.”
And the road says to me, “Come and follow me, for I am your future.”
And I say to both my house and the road, “I have no past, nor have I a future. If I stay here, there is a going in my staying; and if I go there is a staying in my going. Only love and death will change all things.” – Kahlil Gibran – Sand and Foam, A Book of Aphorisms (1926)

“Since Bill Gates is not physically larger than all his Microsoft employees, Microsoft itself, as a corporate body cannot be a large building were individuals reside. Instead there is a certain type of movement going through all of them, a few of which begin and end in Mr Gates’ office. It’s because an organisation is even less a society than the body politic that it’s made only of movements, which are woven by the constant circulation of documents, stories, accounts, goods and passions. For an office to be traversed by longer, faster, and more intense connections is not the same thing as being wider.” – Bruno Latour, 2005: p.179

“I’m not really part of any society, like their society. You see, nobody in power has to worry about anybody from the outside, any cat that’s very evidently on the outside, criticizing their society, because he is on the outside, he’s not in it anyway, and he’s not gonna make a dent. You can’t go around criticizing something you’re not a part of and hope to make i t better. It ain’t gonna work. I’m just not gonna be a part in it. I’m not gonna make a dent or anything, so why be a part of it by even trying to criticize it? – Bob Dylan speaking at the July 1964 Newport Folk Festival in Positively 4th Street (2011)

Even though these quote spark off different lines of thought, I will treat these two aphorisms from the series as more or less linked in today’s musings.

Now what is important in addressing things here is considering the current debate regarding if we are, as Sherry Turkle (2011)says, “alone together“, or together alone (which is more like a one-on-one phonecall). Do we take a terminal in a house as the end nodes of the network, or does it permeate that little bit further into cognitive, perceptual and communicative powers of the individual person? And then into their offline world? It cuts through a resounding theme in my musings regarding more than a few of the aphorisms we have covered. Now, this something which is difficult to recreate on a white or black board, but this is how I have internalised it.

I found an interesting graphic which illustrates a quite different tact on my contextual usability idea, on a site and a paper with some references but not a lot of explanation.


3U framework: Usability, Usefulness, Usage by Alexander Verbraeck – please click for a related paper

What is of interest for me is that this diagram shows the sets of relationships with which the user has with first, the machine, the task, and the goals resulting from successful completion of the task. The first concerns usability of the machine and its interfaces and applications (e.g. is Photoshop easy to use?), the second concerns usefulness which in this case relates to the relative usefulness of the given application to the task undertaken (does Photoshop allows for worthy manipulation of images?), and finally, how this aligns to the organisational goals (is it being used for instance in a professional photography studio on a daily basis, or only occasional by an amateur photographer?).

This links very closely with my contextual usability model which considers given instances of situated use, and how this relates to issues of usability, usage, and usefulness. One difference I make to Verbraeck’s model above is that I place them in a kind of circular process in which they are in that particular order. Any time we use a device or application, or even material, institution and bureaucracy, there are usability constraints that affect that experience. There are no instances of use which are not affected or even influenced by the burr arising from the pre-ordained and defined mechanical and physiological and cognitive barriers and structures which define what is used. Clearly iron ore and other raw materials like clay do not emerge from the ground fully formed as steel knives or pots. The raw materials are subject to a set of processes which render ever more useful for the intended end state. Similarly knives or a pot does not only arise from prepared raw materials but also through engineering and craft. The pot is shaped by a novice or expert the evidence of this mastery is in the end result. Similarly, one who is unaccustomed to mobile phone texting may send a frustrating amount of times fumbling with the buttons, deleting the message, unable to find how to insert numbers and so forth in order to send their SMS.

My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we used 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :- kids FTF. ILNY, it’s a gr8 plc.” Please click for a translation

Others may text almost as fast as they can speak or think. Usability always resists use (note that I do not refer to this in moral or ethical terms i.e. ‘good’ or ‘bad’) but does so less in cases where familiarity and mastery have been developed. But novice texters can and do persevere through continued practice and use. This is usage. I have no doubt a chart can be drawn which shows development in the speed of texting correlates with the amount of attempts and the duration spent on such practice. One must also have a reason to develop this mastery and this I relate to usefulness.

This is where I depart from Verbraeck’s model, he sees usage as the most important dimension which relates to the organisational goals. I see usefulness as both the driver of use (which in my model begins the cycle) and the end result of a process which sees the reduction in usability as causing inertia to the development of usage – e.g. patterns and periodicities of use, and usefulness which links to satisfactory outcomes whether this in the organisational context (i.e. productivity or knowledge sharing) or personal and intrinsic (such as organisation one’s leisure time, playing a game, or even learning new knowledge). Commercial and professional use of creative technologies have just as sure a way to rooting out redundant and useless devices and applications as do amateurs (except for enthusiasts of historical artefacts].

It is important to view usability not only as some objective quality of a device as something that can be found for instance through usability tests whose results can feed design decisions, but also as the creation and product of subjective phenomenological experiences. This is where I make a departure from another piece I found on the web where Charles Kreitzberg tells us that “Obviously, the more usable a tool is, the better it works and the more useful it is.”

We can view this as either a misnomer, or we can ask ourselves, what of the hammer? There are many different types but using a sledge hammer to hit a tack is not easy. This does not mean that it is less useful, it not less usable, it is simply not right for the task. I a have only a few stones to break and lot of tiny tacks to knock in I have chosen the wrong tool. And I wonder, hopefully not sounding pedantic, if something has good usability does that really entail that ‘it works better’? Does this mean good working order, or that something which is easy to access or pick up works better than something which is more difficult?

Often times easy to use interfaces come at a cost usually in terms of functions and features, or at least user control of them. A gross example is a light switch compared to the cockpit of an jetliner. Both are useful but their understandability and usability to do their respective tasks vary considerably, but in proportion to the level of skill required to use them effectively. Regarding his last assumption, that one is more useful than the other again depends upon circumstances and situations. It is clearly possible to have an easy to use device, application or system which is not seen as useful or vice versa something which is difficult to use but seen as incredibly useful. An often cited example of the latter case was the first spreadsheet packages for PCs. They were notoriously difficult to operate, but their value for businesses outweighed these shortcomings and people spent the time necessary to circumnavigate the usability problems. The same way a prospective airline pilot spends many hours learning what all those buttons do, the ones he uses most regularly, the ones which are more critical then others, and the ones that are useful and necessary or merely convenient given the circumstances.

Bonman (200) sees that usability studies often use the terms useful and usable interchangeably, but Davis in the late 1980s found the usefulness items were able to predict around 36% of actual reported usage. The usability items had a more indirect effect on use by impacting attitudes towards usage. Davis found that answers to the usefulness scores were about 1.5 times more important than usability scores in predicting actual use. In short, you can explain a lot of whether people will accept or reject a technology based on how useful and usable it is.

One of the shortcomings not only of Davis’ work but also that of many other studies is it was relegated to the workplace on tasks defined clearly by the organisation and business that one was working for.

“Perceived usefulness is defined here as ‘the degree to which a person believes that using particular system would enhance his ir her job performance … A system high in perceived usefulness, in turn is one for which a user believes in the existence of a positive user-performance relationship. Perceived ease of use, in contrast, refers to “the degree to which a person believes that using a particular system would be free of effort.” This follows from the definition of ease”: freedom from difficulty or great effort.”… All else being equal, we claim, an application perceived to easier to use than another is more likely to be accepted by users.” (1989; p.321)

Why this matters is that ‘task; in the workplace is qualitatively different from ‘task’ in one’s personal life or social interests.

A gross example here is that a word processing program would improve a typists ability to draft letters by offering templates or macros which drew from a customer database of names and addresses. This automates some of the tasks and routines and improves productivity, as did antecedent business machines which had since the time of Babbage replaced human calculators with mechanical and electronic ones. The dominant ethos was still automation and improving productivity as in the mass production and ‘scientific management’ ethos. If we consider the nature of ‘task’ or ‘job’ in the workplace it is quite different to labour in the home in terms of its demands and needs by employers and by workers. Typically, people at work look for two kinds of support. One is instrumental support that is task-directed and provides resources and assistance – or authority – appropriate to the responsibility attached to the role. But it is only relevant to the domain of that task. However, they also look for emotional support and for feedback. While the provision of the former is important, the provision of the latter is equally so.

For other tasks there may be less benefits. Now if consider watching television or playing a game are these to be considered as ‘tasks’ or ‘activities’? What of finding the latest football scores?

Davis’ work was concerned with the workplace at a time when there was greater adoption by firms of all sizes of PCs and the concern and interest was in the cost-benefits of ICT uptake. In general Davis’ model focuses on the individual ‘user’ of a computer, with the concept of how they, perceive usefulness, over and above the interests of those who manage and invest in such use, such as business owners. Quite early myself and others including Bevan and McLeod (1994) were searching out more flesh on the bones of what usability was and what it contributed, while at the same time also broadening the idea of use contexts to understand more flexibly how such an idea situates in wider ideas governing the use of digital networks in the public domain.

Usability is a property of the overall system: it is the quality of use in a context. As explained above, existing methods for predicting usability are limited in their accuracy as they only model limited aspects of the users, the tasks and environments. Quality of use can instead be measured as the outcome of interaction in a context: the extent to which the intended goals of use of the overall system are achieved (effectiveness); the resources such as time, money or mental effort that have to be expended to achieve the intended goals (efficiency); and the extent to which the user finds the overall system acceptable (satisfaction). The overall system consists of the users, tasks, equipment (hardware, software and materials) and physical and organisational environments which influence the interaction. (p.8)

And it precisely the capture of this which has seen the ascendancy of ethnography and story telling in the development of new media context of the personal and domestic use of networked multimedia. The usability of a device is also privy to much more influences than the decisions of s single designer or team, or a single user or segment. Every technology case study I have worked on has multiple influences upon what finally emerges in production or roll out. This means many material technical elements and many needs and requirements and constraints in the social continuum of the design and development process.

In a sense I have come to view my model extending from encounters with devices to encounters with knowledge within the educational setting. For instance, what is the usability of one text book over another? What is the usability of a given idea or theory or methodology? How often would you use it, in which circumstances and under what conditions? How useful is it is a leading question today when the application of science and social science to the economy is such a domineering topic.

Those that plan and design, ‘experts’ – those in social or technical power – demark space and structures for others, limited and restricted like themselves, to use, for these others to act upon and act within. But planning and what happens during development and implementation can be two very different worlds. In my Ph.D. research a company not only continually reinvented itself over the few years I was visiting them and their partners and users, their product was also a very obvious instance of ‘social shaping’. Its very idea, market vision and functional reality metamorphosed from a dedicated networked multimedia device and service aimed at providing a range of ‘safe’ services for the family and the home, to a device for accessing the internet through the television, before finally ending as a network computer foreseeing the development of the cloud.

While the company, which ‘organically’ grew from a small pioneering, innovative and opportunistic group, were pushing and trying to act as a catalysts for a new interactive communication system. They pulled together a set of technology partners to make it work functionally, and later an additional group of service partners who would experiment with the technical system and its capabilities to serve as a conduit for them to do business. The latter group were organised in to a ‘service nursery’ idea (detailed in this visit by a House of Lords sub-commitee), whereupon they would learn how to create or use the system for content and media delivery, for advertising, and for the sale of goods.

Moreover, in this period before the widespread provision and use of e-commerce, they would learn how to revision synergies and relationships both in a technical and in a social/business sense between themselves [e.g. how the banking partner may be able to facilitate payment mechanisms for the ordering of goods online, which in turn have been sold partly due to interactive advertisements all tracked by the market research partner].

The original firm, who were technology developers – they made the set top box technology that interfaced the television to the digital network – tried to step back from its system integrator role, adopting a mood more of facilitation. This was in both technical and managerial senses, with a view that the system development would be more self-governing and autopoetic. Within the company, they had significant strategic input from managers who were aware of cybernetic type learning potentials that were inherent in interactive multimedia systems and wished to see them come to fruition as they felt at the time that this was part of the coming digital revolution. In many sense this gut feel was correct leading to the open-source internet-based culture of today, but these ideas were perhaps too sophisticated for the other partners at the time, mired in traditional mass media methods and ontologies.

In wider society the early 1990s were a time when we were still living in a closed system, a world of walls, which were just starting to come down. It was a world before Nafta and the full merger of globalization and the information technology revolution, a world in which unions and blue-collar manufacturing were still relatively strong in Europe and America rather than China, and where it was now realised that socialisation was ineffective and defunct as a system of governance.

One other mistake of the original initiating company was that while trying to make the project self-governing, they also enacted at the same protectionist measures over their contribution, the set top box and operating system, trying to maintain some control over the experiment by restricting the use of proprietary technology for authoring content. This was something of a Microsoft style tactic, which could pay off or go catastrophically wrong. This was tantamount to saying that one would have to purchase a special device in order to write a blog, while you had a computer already. This caused many problems in both the governance and ability of the system to serve its purpose as a testbed for firms, and their own third party multimedia developers, to learn of the capacity of the system relevant to their own business goals.

Also, the only way it would have worked was if there was reason for trialists, those consumer-users surrogates, to switch it on in the first place. This failed largely due to the failure of the system to provide any form of incentive for people to use it at all. Protectionism, copyright, and lack of digitised content material meant that there was little to see or interact with. They had failed to get rights to show films, and therefore, their keystone ‘video-on-demand’ feature. There was some news features and some feature television programmes but these were little changed. The interface would get a make-over once in a while, there was some effort to get the local school connected. But all these attempts were piecemeal. Perhaps most telling was that at the beginning of the project, it was insisted that internet access would not happen as it was ‘too wild west’ with its content.

Rather the ‘walled garden model’ would provide a set of family orientated services and programming, where children would be protected ‘from the nasty stuff’. While such claims were worthy, trialists would appreciate any decent content, rather than barely nothing at all. Also worth noting is that during the four years that this project went on from inception to demise, that open source sandbox called the internet as growing servers and users at n exponential rate. From adopting the erroneous view that the internet would grow but remain largely an enthusiasts domain populated by dangerous and shocking material – the type that second year computer science students mostly appreciated and not suitable for children – by the end of the project it was all the system offered. It became an interface for the television to connect to the internet, and a candidate for Larry Ellison of Oracles vision to compete with Wintel, the ‘thin client’ or ‘networked computer’ (which also failed detailed in this paper).

There was failure as far as you needed to use a proprietary system to create content material for the system, an attempt by the original system integrator to sell their expertise and technology, most companies were using de facto standards for authoring multimedia at the time and there interactive advertisements did not transfer easily or at all to the system. And lastly there was underestimation by the system integrator company regarding the complexities involved with migrating business and other interests online, both from the perspective of conflicting worldviews regarding who the consumer-user is, but also how to approach them and make sense of what their idea of the system is and what it could offer them individually.

The question which resounds from complex systemic endeavors is whether we have understood properly what ingredients are needed to make a whole, that is a system which from an end-users perspective is worthwhile, worth subscribing to, and worth what or how much exactly? End consumer-users are only interested in working products, many do not want to, or simply cannot imagine what it would be worth in the hypothetical instance it was working properly. This will always limit the veracity of feedback and data from prototypes and concept tests. It is possible and often necessary to create illusions of the working model in order to win the support of senior management (which happened in the study I made), for funding, enrolling collaboration and partners, and so forth, but in terms of usability and consumer research prototypes are limited with respect to consumer-users.

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