seeK: the first three weeks

As you may know, we launched an all new version of our student intranet last week. At the same time, we also unveiled a brand new student area called c_live. The launch went as smoothly as could be expected, there were some small issues (broken links etc) but no major problems in application logic. There is a lot to be said for how to best manage a transition between systems, our school of thought is to flip the switch and see how it all works out, trusting in our robust design. This, to a large degree was the correct decision as few students struggled with the new system although there was much discussion on the system in our forums.

When we did ‘flick the switch’, it was with a sense of personal trepidation as included in the upgrade was a web application called seeK. seeK is a twitter/facebook style status sharing application designed to provide students with the social networking & collaborating functionality they crave whilst ensuring it takes place in a secure and managed environment. I was nervous, as it can easily been seen as a chat application with no benefit to teaching and learning. This is a similar argument that was levelled at the internet when it was first offered as a resource, however it is my thinking that unsupervised or unmanaged any resource can be a distraction (doodling in a text book is a good example).

 So what happened? From uploading the application to the live server, it took under a minute for the first seeK status to be posted, that in itself is a record. The thing is seeK isn’t on the main page of seeNet, it’s a completely different section called c_Live, which means: The students recognised a new version of seeNet Realised there was a new section called c_live and clicked the link The Student was presented with a range of new applications they hadn’t seen before Posted a status update All within a minute and with no guidance from us. Say what you want about the term digital natives, the students took to the concept of seeK like ducks to water. So all went well? When I first unveiled the system to the team for testing, we messed around and posted silly status updates, if we did that, I wouldn’t expect anything less from our students.

Students will test the boundaries of the system they are given and boy howdy did they do exactly that. The one that stands out from the rest was a student using an harmless css injection attack to change the background image of c_live to a picture of himself!

The Scunthorpe issue

To protect our students from inappropriate status updates I’ve created a simple regex function that parses the status checks for certain words. My opinion is that swear filters are an exercise in futility, in that it a machine cannot detect (at the time of writing) the intent of the sentence. That means that the system can only check for a range of string values and execute the correct response based on the validation of the string. We can easily create a sentence that will pass through the swear filter, but can still be offensive. Better yet we can legitimately use swear words in a sentence e.g. Literary students can discuss the character of Phillip the Bastard from Shakespeare’s King John. The system won’t know of the play, let alone the character, all it will see is a word that is in the list of banned words and block the update.

It begs the question, if users can circumvent the system and the system itself can block legitimate discussion is there any point to a profanity filter?

Leaving the censorship debate aside, seeK has given us unparalleled access to the learner voice and their opinion of the changes on seeNet. I think that seeK gives us access to a previously unheard majority within the College as not everyone uses the Forums or emails us with feedback. In fact I’ve spent the last week modifying seeNet based on the feedback received via seek including swapping the two column layout for a three columns and making it fixed width. Alongside feedback, I’ve set up a default MyseeNet account that is auto associated with all student feeds, it allows us to ask questions, give answers and in some cases help students find lost memory sticks!

The bottom line is that we need to find new ways to communicate with students, whatever your thoughts are on e-learning, web 2.0, digital natives etc. Social networks and the internet aren’t going to disappear just because some in education are afraid of change, students are expecting their learning experience to match their social one.

Students want it, if we’re not listening to our learners we’re not being good educators.

At the time of writing 793 seek profiles have been created, 3048 status updates have been posted and 1085 friends have been added since the launch of seeNet 2.0 on the 25/11/2009.

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