[Repost] Where are you?

This post originally appeared in the ocTEL Course Blog on 15th May 2014 – Where are you?

There seems to be a natural human instinct to try and understand our location. It perhaps stems from our origins as hunter gatherers where at the end of the day  we need to get back to somewhere safe. Understanding our surroundings is something that translates to the virtual world and it’s perhaps not surprising that given free rein a number of ocTEL participants have created geographic based groups. Within open courses this type of clustering can be useful and can give a reassuring sense of place. To help with this we have the Twitter ocTEL Community Map which automatically plots any twitter account using the #octel tag which has useable location data. Obviously not everyone in ocTEL uses Twitter so it was great to see this community built map emerge where anyone could add their own pin. 

Place isn’t just limited to geography and our place within a community can also give a sense of wellbeing or used to navigate virtual spaces. A side effect of existing in a digital space is that our footprints often last longer than those left in the sand. The challenge is seeing, exploring and making sense of those digital footprints. In Panos Vlachopoulos’ webinar this week he touched upon the use of Social Network Analysis as a tool for understanding places like discussion forums. Social network analysis uses network theory as a way to understand the relationship in a variety of systems. Often there is a graphical element to this and just like the geographical maps above there is an opportunity to see how things relate. My personal interest in this area stems from being interested in knowing my place in virtual communities. For me this resulted in developing a tool to visualise Twitter conversations which I talk about here and is used in ocTEL. This tool isn’t perfect and perhaps doesn’t do as good a job as it should turning something complex into something uncomplicated but hopefully it will give you  a sense of the shape of the ocTEL conversation on twitter and who it might be useful to connect with.
If you are interested in experimenting with social network analysis there are some very useful tools to get started. First there is the Social Networks Adapting Pedagogical Practice (SNAPP) tool which works in your web browser and:

performs real-time social network analysis and visualization of discussion forum activity within popular commercial and open source Learning Management Systems (LMS). SNAPP essentially serves as a diagnostic instrument, allowing teaching staff to evaluate student behavioural patterns against learning activity design objectives and intervene as required a timely manner.

This tool is very useful but limited to analysing forum discussions from a select list of VLEs. If you’d like to broaden your focus then the free add-on for Excel called NodeXL gives you more scope. The issue I often find with these tools is access to data to process. NodeXL helps with this to a degree with data importers including for Twitter. You can watch Marc Smith, one of the founders of NodeXL, talk about this tools origins and use here.
I will leave you with a tantalising glimpse of ocTEL generated using NodeXL. Below is a snapshot of interactions in the ocTEL forum showing how users a connected by their affiliated replies to forums and topics. You can get a general feeling of how this was produced in a post I’ve written for Canvas Discussions. This leaves the question ‘where are you?’