Data Visualisation

This week in IDEL we communication on the course ventured out of the forums and onto Twitter. As we were investigating the concepts of big data, and its role within education, we were challenged to answer some questions around this on the social media platform using the hashtag #mscidel as the identifier.

We then used a visualisation tool to summarise the week’s activity, and this is the result:

To add to this data, there were 54 nodes, and 151 edges as a result of the week’s conversations.

It seems to me there was a handful of vocal participants, indicated by the increased size of the handle. I don’t think this is a huge surprise, the names that crop up seem to be those that have been more active on Twitter over the last few months. Naturally this does raise a question around the choice of tool, naturally those more comfortable with a tool – or those where the tool is more ingrained in their daily activities – perhaps are more likely to involve themselves in the conversation. This could be as much effect as the cause though, it could be argued those more active on Twitter are more active for a reason.

Although there are 54 nodes, I’m actually a little surprised it’s not gone further than this. The visualisation, to me, shows that the conversation was held within a rather tight group. I think this is interesting for a conversation to occur on an open and public platform not to have more interjections, particularly given the alumni of the MSc programme that is likely to have connections with those leading the conversations.

In terms of an experience, it’s certainly been one of the more intriguing activities.

It felt throughout that there was minimal tutor intervention, and this was something that was actively discussed. There was speculation that this could be by design, simply as a way to avoid colouring the tag output and keeping this ‘organic’. More simply, it was also argued that the conversation was free-flowing anyway, and the tutors’ role was to tee up the conversation and leave it to the students, it’s not as if the programme leaders aren’t busy!

All the activities so far on the course have been private. The blogs have been locked down, and directed conversations have been held within closed environments, for example, Minecraft, skype chats, and the forums. Given we’re now at week 10, this is indicative of our increased confidence in the subject area and lack of nerves about being ‘on show’.

Given Twitter became the central place for conversation, I’ve inevitably found myself making comparisons with the forums, and the relative merits with each. Twitter has some particular strengths of note as a conversational tool.

  • It was easier to keep abreast of the conversations happening, given it’s accessible on our mobile devices more readily, and doesn’t require us to log in. I think with the forums I always set down to ‘do some work’, whereas found myself checking and contributing to the conversations more frequently on Twitter. An interesting point to this is that there is an increased incentive to contribute, as you ultimately know this is going to feed into the visualisation. It could be argued that this links into the notion of badges looked at in week 9. Although this is largely used as a reward for activity or completion, it’s another influence on learning behaviour and motivation.
  • Twitter caps posts to 280 characters (it would have been interesting to do this exercise with the until-recent 140 character limit). I think this encourages brevity and more salient points. Of course, the trade-off here is the depth of response and consideration put into it. There’s probably a place for both.
  • It seemed to me that the conversations on brought in more informal articles and blog postings, whereas the forums seem to be more aligned with journals and papers. Perhaps there’s an aspect of formality here, and how the community is expected to behave in each of the mediums. In the forums, it could be seen as more within the ‘virtual walls’ of the university (week 6 and 7 flags here!) so there’s a perception of what’s expected. Outside of these walls, there are less concerns. Perhaps we feel less observed and on display to the ‘guardians’, even if this is completely false.

On the flip side, there are some considerable strengths to the forums.

  • I felt at times on Twitter that it was difficult to ensure I’d seen all the key conversations. Although we were using an understood hashtag, it’s easy to miss this from your posts, and I find Twitter’s inbuilt search facility problematic at times. With the forums, it’s easy to see all the threads and make sure you’ve not missed an important one.
  • Despite our increased confidence as the course has progressed, everyone may not be in the same position within the group. Ultimately Twitter is open, and this could be a discouragement to some. Given the granular options to be involved in Twitter (e.g. ‘liking’ posts), this may provide lurkers with the opportunity to stay involved without contributing. This doesn’t concern me personally, but sometimes that push can help vocalise your thoughts.

I felt the activity also deepened some of my relationships with the peers, and the increased contact was probably well overdue since the Minecraft interactions. For me, Twitter blurs the line between synchronous and asynchronous activity. There were times when some of the conversations were happening in real time. It was also interesting that in this format the timezone factor did seem to come in. Some of the students are based in North America, so you’d often wake to a flurry of tweets on your timeline – I guess I should count myself lucky that I’m in the ‘right’ timezone for the course. It’d be interesting to hear those views from those who had a different experience as a result of this.

Sandra Flynn’s early blog post about the visualisation raised some interesting thoughts about the nature of data, and almost an inherent implication to start comparing or competing. I’ve struggled to find any research into this area, but it’s an interesting notion – once you can start to measure something, does it change the nature of what is being measured?

The visualisation also became a useful social object once these were produced. However, this didn’t spark off the conversations I was expecting it to. This could be a simple case of it being towards the end of the week, but given one of the activities was to blog about this, I suspect many of us (myself included) are using our observations to add to our blog.

It turned out useful to have done the bulk of the core reading early in Week 10 to give the Twitter conversations more meaning. For me, the more pertinent discussion areas during the week revolved around:

Looking forward to exploring this in more detail next week – learning analytics!