Great dotty idea

October 22, 2004

The OU’s BuddySpace system approaches distance-learning nirvana - getting the right knowledge to the right people at the right time. Anthea Lipsett reports

Instant messaging is one of the fastest-growing internet applications, allowing users to “chat” in real time, more like a telephone conversation than a volley of emails. Most students are as familiar with the technology as they are with sending a text message on their mobile phones. Now the Open University has taken it a step further with software called BuddySpace, which charts users’ location with active dots on detailed online maps.

It allows students on the same course to work together online simultaneously and also to see where their fellow students are and what they are doing. All the dots are live, so when a user changes status their dot changes colour or icon to reflect the new activity.

Marc Eisenstadt, chief scientist at the OU’s Knowledge Media Institute and the project leader, says mapping users is important to people as a matter of identity, cohesion and group membership. “This creates a ‘feel-good factor’ important to online interactivity and general group belongingness - something we’re seeing increasingly in the growing world of social software,” he says.

The OU experimented with BuddySpace in its language departments. “We had groups of German-language students working in teams to create an online newsletter and the synchronous nature of BuddySpace is very well suited to this,” Eisenstadt says. Several courses are now considering whether to introduce instant messaging as a mainstream teaching-related activity.

BuddySpace is an application that has attracted interest from other universities as well. While some see it as frivolous, a recent survey by the Joint Information Systems Committee found that many were considering implementing the system.

Unlike text messaging, which requires contrived examples to show educational benefit, tools such as BuddySpace can be used to harness the power of the simultaneous availability of many students, Eisenstadt says. Possibilities include arranging informal gatherings or more synchronous activities such as group problem-solving or virtual classroom exercises. It can also be used to call in expertise when it is needed, rather than waiting for an email or discussion thread that may not get a response.

Eisenstadt believes that modern instant-messaging tools hold great promise for e-learning because they fit well with interactive approaches.

The academic and his team argue that the learner’s state of mind, including goals, plans and intentions, must be understood, as well as the way this links with ongoing activities and devices accessible to the learner.

Put simply, this gives the OU an important insight into what students want and need to know and then a way to deliver precisely the right knowledge to the right people in the right place at the right time. “So far, this notion of ‘right knowledge’ has been nothing more than a knowledge-management slogan, but our belief is that by extending instant messaging with what we call ‘enhanced presence’ we can make this dream a reality,” Eisenstadt says.

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