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My place . . . or yours? November 1, 2009

Posted by IaninSheffield in research, TELIC.
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Have recently been discussing a paper for my Master’s course called ‘Rethinking the Virtual’ by Nicholas Burbules.  In it he contends that virtual spaces can be transformed into virtual places which have greater significance and familiarity, and that this is achieved through immersion in the environment.   This is clearly related to the way we think about learning environments and more particularly those mediated by the Internet.

Twitter logo

from Matt Hamm on Flickr

Being a bear of little brain, I invariably find theoretical papers hard work.  As I try to get to grips with the concepts, I often search for touchstones in the real world, templates I can drop over my thinking to see if they fit the theory.  And that’s when I thought about Twitter.  Twitter has become the hub of my professional learning network and as an online environment might constitute what Burbules refers to as ‘the virtual.’

The first element in contributing to ‘the virtual’ are four factors which together provide a sense of immersion in the environment – interest, involvement, imagination and interaction.  Taking each in turn, Twitter clearly holds my interest – it is sufficiently complex and captivating for me to return to it on a regular and frequent basis (this is confirmed by Java et al, 2007).  I’m certainly involved in the experience – it matters to me; I get a great deal from it in terms of resources, insights, links to further information, and I care about the contributions I make and how they are viewed.  (I was mortified when I got suckered by the recent Mafia game scam and how I was perceived as a result).  My imagination is constantly stimulated in different ways, from thinking about the people in my network from the little snippets of life stories which are scattered around, to the ‘what if’ questions which arise when I’m stimulated by a particular post.  Twitter provides so many ways to interact with the environment, starting with the simple act of making your first Tweet then replying to the Tweets of others and providing the option of filtering or searching for information through the use of the hashtag.  Although Twitter for me is a professional and not social networking tool and the Tweets that really matter are those that help me develop professionally, when the people I have chosen to follow answer that fundamental Twitter question “What am I doing,” it only enhances the sense of immersion, paints a richer picture and gives me a reason to care.

Burbules goes on discuss the notion of virtual space and time and that an online environment becomes a ‘space,’ a place people choose to occupy, interact with others and do things together – Twitter clearly facilitates this.  The time aspect is interesting in that whilst Twitter can be a synchronous space enabling communication and activity in real time, the time for those involved can be very different – one may have just got up whilst the other is about to go to bed.  Asynchronous communication is also possible . . . in fact a group of people collaborating on an activity might include some using the space synchronously and others using it asynchronously.

From the outset, Twitter has developed from a space into a ‘place,’ as Burbules would have it.  i.e.  a space which the users have appropriated for themselves (Mischaud, 2007).  The whole environment, given the number of users (25 million by the end of 2009?), is vast and given the nature of the way it works, somewhat transient – it is perhaps these reasons why a common reaction for the first experience is ‘I don’t get it.’  But then people make the space a place by following people they find interesting; they in effect create maps which allow them to navigate the environment.  They also change the architecture to suit their favoured mode of interaction, perhaps using a mobile to device to send and receive Tweets or by using an interface like Tweetdeck or linking with other services like TwitPic or Facebook.   So whilst Twitter provides the space for all these people to occupy, each creates his or her own place within it.

Mi Casa es Su Casa

by rosefirerising on Flickr

On that basis then, I think Burbules probably would classify Twitter as ‘the virtual.’  For me it’s just a constant source of inspiration, advice and encouragement – it’s my place . . . but mi casa, su casa!

Further reading:

Courtenay Honeycutt, S.C.H., 1899. Beyond Microblogging: Conversation and Collaboration via Twitter. Available at: http://www.computer.org/portal/web/csdl/doi/10.1109/HICSS.2009.602 [Accessed November 1, 2009].

Java, A. et al., 2007. Why we twitter: understanding microblogging usage and communities. In Proceedings of the 9th WebKDD and 1st SNA-KDD 2007 workshop on Web mining and social network analysis.  San Jose, California: ACM, pp. 56-65. Available at: http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1348556 [Accessed November 1, 2009].

Levy, S., 2009. Mob Rule! How Users Took Over Twitter. Wired, (November 2009). Available at: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2009/10/ff_twitter [Accessed November 1, 2009].

Mischaud, E., 2007. Twitter: Expressions of the Whole Self – An investigation into user appropriation of a web-based communications platform. LSE – MEDIA@LSE. Available at: http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/media@lse/mediaWorkingPapers/MScDissertationSeries/Mishaud_Final.pdf [Accessed November 1, 2009].

9 out of 10 cats . . . October 28, 2009

Posted by IaninSheffield in TELIC, Tools.
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1 comment so far

As I mentioned in earlier post, we’re starting our second year of TELIC with an examination of learning spaces and what that means for the learner.  By way of introduction we’re analysing a paper – ‘Rethinking the Virtual’ by Nicholas C. Burbules, following an introduction from @GuyMerchant.  People approach this type of exercise in different ways, but we wondered whether some of the visualisation tools might offer a different perspective.  Each of the following accepts free text, then performs some black magic in which some element of visual importance is generated as a result of the frequency of occurrence of a word or phrase.

The popularity of Wordle continues to grow, so that seemed like a reasonable place to start

Wordle: Rethinking the Virtual

No surprises, given the title of the paper, that ‘virtual’ features prominently, but we can also see other patterns beginning to emerge. ‘Space’ is clearly of major significance here, with ‘experience(s),’ ‘sense,’ ‘people,’ ‘time’ and ‘learning’ all clearly important too.  Given that we’re studying learning spaces, this paper clearly has something to offer then and perhaps the other terms imply that the human dimension cannot be ignored.

Many Eyes is an online tool which enables visualisation of both numerical and textual data.  In addition to Wordle, Many Eyes provides three additional visualisation techniques:


The Tag Cloud is similar to Wordle in that frequent words from the text feature more prominently in the cloud.  So the words mentioned above are the same ones which stand out again, however because the words are arranged in alphabetical order, plurals for example (experience/experiences) are more readily seen.  So the word ‘experience,’ occurring more frequently through its plural may now be considered more significant.  Additional features that this visualisation offers are through its interactivity – hovering over a word produces a pop-up which provides some examples of phrases within which that word can be found i.e. some measure of context.Tag cloud

We can also dig down for more detail by making use of the Search facility – from an examination of the main cloud, we can see more words starting with ‘i’ than might usually be anticipated, so we can focus on that area for further analysis.

Tag cloudWe can then go one step further and make use of the ‘2 word’ function which produces a cloud based on occurrences of pairs of words:

And at once see the emerging significance of ‘interest, involvement and imagination’


The Phrase Net produces visualisations based on words linked by a conjunction; some presets are offered, but there is also the facility to provide your own custom phrase.

Having a space as the conjunction between two words produces quite a rich net which shows the words with which ‘virtual’ is closely linked – space(s), environment(s) and learning and how they in turn are linked with other words.  Interesting that the significant words (the ‘i’s) which emerged from the Tag cloud don’t carry the same weight here.

The Word Tree allows us to explore the beyond simple word and phrases, whilst still drawing significance from frequent words.
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Clicking on branches within the tree narrows down the focus and allows to analyse the context within which important phrases can be found.  tree2From the main tree, ‘virtual space and time’ clearly plays an important role, so we can investigate why this might be by exploring the sentences which both commence with and terminate in that phrase.

So what has all this told me about ‘Rethinking the Virtual?’  Well it’s provided some targets I’d want to explore further: the relativistic link with space-time sounds intriguing and the ‘i’ words are clearly important.  The question is though, have I got more from this than simply reading the paper?  Well no, certainly not, but this is a 9000+ word paper which takes some reading. What these tools might be able to do then is to allow significant aspects to emerge more quickly.  A more experienced user would doubtless be able to pull greater detail and richer information than from my tentative exploration.  But textual analysis in this way is, for me an infant discipline.  As such I guess it’s no worse than the often rudimentary way numerical data is presented – 9 out of 10 cats . . . !