70Decibels Homework Podcast

70Decibels is a network of podcasts for ‘geeks, tech-folk and the perennially curious’.

Their latest edition is a free podcast for people who work from home, whether freelancer or telecommuter. The hosts, Aaron Mahnke and Dave Caolo, will be delivering a weekly session with discussion and advice around a wide assortment of topics that home workers encounter.

You can subscribe to the series in iTunes. The first episode is now available and they are talking about ‘when did you start working from home and what was the prompt that made you jump?’. I’ve downloaded it to listen to on my next car journey!

Thanks to jpodcaster for the tip off!

The Secrets of Large Skype Meetings

Since late last year the UKOLN remote workers have been having a weekly (Tuesday morning 10am) Skype ‘catch up’. Ed Bremner, one of my UKOLN remote working colleagues, was the originator of the ‘catch up’ idea.

Ed and I worked together on the IMPACT project where Skype telcons were a daily activity. During this time he built up a collection of tips to ensure a happy telcon for all, and he’s sharing them with us.

Ed is a veteran home worker having worked for himself and in consultancy roles for academia and the museums, libraries, archives and galleries sector for many years. Ed works in the field of technical imaging, media production and online learning. Currently his work includes projects with the ISC at UKOLN, the University of Bath and an associate lectureship at the University of Plymouth. He works from home on the banks of the Tamar River in South East Cornwall and dreams of the promised advent of ‘superfast’ broadband to all of Cornwall. Contact him via his web site, Twitter and Instagram.

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For the remote worker, attending meetings can often mean a great deal of very time-consuming travelling, followed by a short meeting and then a second dose of frustrating travel again, leaving us exhausted and potentially unproductive. It is therefore not surprising that we are often the first to ask our colleagues whether some of these meetings would or could be better held online.

Online meetings, or tele-conferences are not always popular with many staff who associate them with bad experiences of being clustered around a small speaker on the table, trying to make sense of the garbled noise echoing around the room. But things have changed and now with improved VOIP technology and more available bandwidth, online meetings using Skype have become a regular part of our working lives. It is true that there is still some reluctance to this, with many people considering that although one-to-one calls work well with SKYPE, larger meetings are far from satisfactory.

The truth is that Skype can work well for larger telecons, but that you all have to know how to get the very best out of Skype to make them work.

I have broken down what we learned from these telecons into a few sections:

Technical:

  • Use the most up-to-date version of Skype. Updates are pretty regular and often deal with possibly security issues, so it is imperative to make sure you have the latest version.
  • Video and screen-sharing works well for one-to-one calls, but currently you have to upgrade to Skype premium to use this functionality in groups – avoid media and video in group calls.
  • Reliable Skype meetings depend on good sound quality, so always use a good microphone, preferably in a headset. You may find that good laptops give acceptable sound quality from their internal mics and speakers, but only if you are in a room by yourself without any background noise and especially nobody else on the same call as you. Headsets that connect via USB tend to be much more reliable and easier to set up. Keep the headset mic about an inch from your mouth. If you have it too close, it will pick up your breathing and make you sound like a ‘phone-stalker’.
  • Don’t group together and share a mic or use conference mics/speakers, they are hard to work very well and you lose the advantage of seeing who is speaking. One person per account works best.
  • Maximise your bandwidth and if possible connect to your network via cable rather than wi-fi .
  • Call quality is dependent on the bandwidth available to the computer than convenes the call and how powerful it is. This is normally someone sitting on an institutional internet backbone, but surprisingly these can sometimes suffer from very heavy traffic and a personal account using ADSL can actually give a better connection.
  • According to Skype the limit of numbers on a Skype call is for 25 audio connections and 300 instant messaging connections. In reality the maximum will depend on the available bandwidth to the convenor and the power of their computer.
  • Skype is very memory hungry. If you leave it on, you will need to restart your computer every now and again to stop Skype hogging too much memory. If you are convening a call, it can help to restart your computer before you call and make sure you don’t have too many other programs working at the same time.

The UKOLN remote worker group on Skype (as seen from Marieke Guy's machine)

Personal Etiquette:

  • Always mute your mic when not talking, especially if you are also typing or want to talk to someone in your own room.
  • When you first come on line, say hello and if it is a big call, give your name, so the convenor knows you are connected.
  • When the call finishes, always remember to check that the convenor has closed the call and if not disconnect yourself.
  • If you have other topics to discuss with someone in the meeting, don’t stay on the call, but close the call and start again.
  • Do have and use a good Skype avatar image. On large calls, not everyone may know what you look like and the Avatar is a big help in improving communication.
  • Watch who is speaking by seeing their avatar ‘flash’, and if you want to talk to one person in particular, start by saying their name. If it is off-topic, could it be done better by IM?
  • Start Skype at least 5mins before the call and mark yourself as ‘online’.


Running Skype Meetings:

  • Create a Skype group with all participants in it, this is useful for instant messaging, to re-connect and run further meetings.
  • Larger Skype meetings work best if they are kept pretty formal and stick to a known format, with agenda. You certainly need to have a ‘Chair’, ‘Secretary’, and ‘Convenor’, who invites everyone and deals with any connectivity or technical issues.
  • 5 minutes before the call send an instant message to the group with a reminder that the meeting starts in 5 minutes. This IM should include links to any necessary papers or presentations. It is also possible to send these files via SKYPE if this is easier.
  • Larger meetings may benefit from a quick round of introductions.
  • If you wish to send any messages outside the normal flow of the meeting, use the instant messaging, either to the whole group, a sub-set or an individual.
  • If you are using any plugins, such as Mikogo, then the convenor should make everyone has the required software and it works.
  • Chair:
    • Don’t be suckered into worrying about fixing other peoples technical problems – this is not your responsibility.
    • Start on time, be firm and keep everything on time. People timetable telecons much closer than real-world meetings and if you go late, they will drop out of call.
    • Before you move on, be sure that all interested parties are happy with a decision and understand it fully. Without body language, it is much harder to notice when someone dis-engages from the conversation.
    • Minutes Sec:
    • Do turn off your mic, when not talking! Headsets are better at not picking up the noise of typing.
    • If you want to record the meeting, for which there are many tools, do tell everyone first.
  • Convenor:
    • Make sure you have already got the contact details of everyone before the meeting
    • Contact everyone by IM 5 minutes before the meeting to remind them of meeting and make sure they have all the necessary papers.
    • Take responsibility for decisions regarding call quality. If you want to re-establish the call, it is up to you.
    • Keep your cool! If you are having technical problems, try and fix them without disturbing the meeting too much. Use IM to contact everyone when needed.

Taking it further:

  • On the whole, if you want to do anything more ‘advanced’ in your meeting, you may well be best off using other software more designed for webinars rather than meetings. For instance both Blacboard Collaborate or Adobe Connect will allow you to share a presentation, or video; however if these are not available, there are a few things that you can do to extend your use of Skype.

When it goes wrong:

For group Skype calls to work well the convenor needs good bandwidth and a powerful computer. If you are having problems with a call, it often helps to just restart the call and try again. If that doesn’t work, stop the call, restart your computer and try again. Failing that, see if there is anyone else who has better bandwidth than you or has a less congested network and a more powerful computer.

Adventures in Space, Place and Time

A few weeks back I attended a seminar on Researching online and mobile interaction & environments: Understanding space, place and time‘ at the University of Bristol. The seminar was facilitated by Professor Carey Jewitt, Dr Niall Winters, Berit Henriksen from the London Knowledge Lab. The seminar was organised by the National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM) – a network of research groups, each conducting research and training in social science research methods and is part of the MODE: Multimodal methodologies for digital environments series.

Although the day was geared towards researchers and more theoretical than I am used to there were some really interesting themes from the day that align nicely with the whole remote working/event amplification area. Here are my notes…

Space, Place and Time

Space – It is not just physical and fixed, it can be modified, is an abstraction, but there are physical aspects to it. Types of space include local, global, utobian, heterotopia, aural and visual. One idea is that space doesn’t exist until something happens in it.

Place – Space is made into place by a set of activities that happen in it. Places are processes: not fixed or frozen in time. There are lots of new practices relating to online interaction, for example: cocooning – individuals socializing less and retreating into their home, camping – finding a space to sit (e.g. in a library) and setting up your online workd, foot-printing – the route you take online. Some argue that in the technology world it is no longer possible to be ‘late’ because as soon as you start texting you can still participate. Specification of spaces have changed

Time
– Time and space always shape each other and are constitutive of social interaction. Time takes many forms. For example – clock time – people made; natural divisions of time e.g. seasons, light and dark; lazarus time – use of previously dead time.

These concepts are relevant when talking about online and mobile interaction because the classic notions of time, space and place need to be adapted for the online and mobile world. One example of this is this advert on Oxford Street which is shown only to women.

I think this ties in nicely with Brian Kelly’s discussions around Escaping the Constraints of Space and Time with regard to amplified events.

Spaceflows and Multimodality

There was also some discussion around the idea of spaceflows: what mediums are information and identity flowing through, and what is transmitted, text, video, image? One could argue that Twitter is a communter technology, users often use it on the move, while Flickr is a tourist technology because it involves standing still and documenting.

Another concepts introduced during the day was that of multimodality, where users are provided with multiple modes of interfacing with a system.

The course was really interesting and made me realise that not only is technology changing at a rapid pace but are so many other concepts we take for granted, like space, place, time and use. This often leaves us confused about how we are supposed to act in new situations. One example from the day that sums this up beautifully is the Museum of Unintended Use. No one quite knows where the technology ride will take us…

Home Working and the University of Bath

Yesterday I presented a session on Home Working and the University of Bath for the Green Impact series. My talk was one of the programme of ‘Talks with an Environmental Focus’. The aim of this programme is to bring relevant research in a practical, down-to-earth manner to a group of people who are actively engaged in sustainability and improving environmental practices in the workplace.

Further details on future talks can be found on the Green Impact area of the University of Bath Web site.

The slides are available on Slideshare and embedded below.

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The talk went well and there were quite a few people there. I had been a little concerned because while UKOLN is a keen advocate of remote working and has recruited a number of home workers the University has yet to officially employ people with a ‘remote worker’ contract. I didn’t want to be talking about a working environment that was completely out of reach of the attendees. Luckily a member of the University HR team came along to field questions and talk about the flexible working policies they are developing. They hope to have policies in place by Autumn this year. I hope they are able to offer staff opportunities to work in a more flexible way, there does seem to be a real appetite for it.

The session was also recorded with the intention of using on the summer pre-sessional courses with students who are preparing to join the university but whose English is just below the level they need. ‘Working from home’ is used as a topic that they can all relate to, and they currently have a lecture recording on this subject for listening practice and to stimulate discussion, but feel that it is a bit out-of-date now.

I vaguely remembered from the talk I’d heard on Panopto that recording a session just required flipping a switch as cameras were already set up in most of the University rooms. Despite knowing this the event organiser and I were still expecting someone to turn up and film. When they didn’t we assumed the session wasn’t being filmed. Hopefully this isn’t reflected too much in the recording, which I will share if it is made public!

Openness in Education

It did seem very timely to be thinking about Open Educational Resources in Open Education Week #openeducationwk. Unfortunately while the thinking went on in Open Education Week, the writing has gone on in this week, and still isn’t really finished! Nevertheless there were some great blog posts and promoted resources on related topics here in the UK last week and I’d like to start off by listing a few of my favourites:

The ioe12 module on open educational resources starts of with a TED talk by David Wiley (he pops up a lot, I guess it is his course!) where he defines the idea of openness: “it’s moving away from the toddler in you where you scream “mine, mine’!!” Wiley explains that it’s all about sharing, because without sharing there is no education. A successful educator is one who shares the most with their students. Knowledge is non-rivalrous, i.e. you can share part of yourself without loosing part of yourself.

As Thomas Jefferson said “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

While knowledge is non-rivalrous, resources and content can be. David takes a look at the invention of the printing press and compares it with the current advancement of new technology. He sees education as being on the brink of reformation and openness is the missing element. Access to education needs to improve. There has been a collision between powerful new media (i.e. the internet), ravenous demand for education and outdated thinking by educators about the content of material. We need to learn the lessons of the reformation and be more open. “The only proper role for technology in education is to increase our capacity to be generous

There were quite a lot of other resources in this module and the majority of them have been squirreled away by me for a long train journey I have coming up. Once I’ve digested the lot I hope to write a more comprehensive post. The resources include a paper by Yochai Benkler entitled Common Wisdom: Peer Production of Educational Materials. Benkler talks about the vast pool of human talent the Internet has given us access to. There has been a deep transformation in the digitally networked environment, and in the information economy and society. Benker states that “the critical change is that social production based on commons, rather than property, has become a significant force in the economy.” In his paper Benkler looks at textbooks and other educational resources and decides whether they are amenable to peer production, what are the barriers and what strategies could facilitate wider development of educational resources in a commons-based and peer production model.

I’ve yet to get my head round the true opportunities and challenges relating to OER. The Jan Hylén lists the 5 main arguments for institutional involvement in OER:

  1. Altruism – sharing knowledge is a good thing to do and also in line with academic traditions
  2. Public Money – Educational institutions should leverage on taxpayers’ money by allowing free sharing and reuse of resources developed by publicly funded institutions
  3. Enrichment – What you give, you receive back improved
  4. Reputation – it is good for public relations and can function as a show-window attracting new students
  5. Diversifying – Need to look for new business models, new ways of making revenue.

There are a couple of big questions starting to surface here, firstly ‘who pays? What is the business model? What are the economics of information?’ and secondly ‘what about quality? Is quality better in an open educational environment or a closed one?’

I intend to write more on this topic as soon as I get the time.

The 10 Commandments of Video Calls

Video calls – If you work from home then you won’t be able to avoid them, if you work (anywhere) you probably won’t be able to avoid them for much longer. We all have to get our head round how to make effective video calls.

Chris Lee has written his top 10 tips when it comes to making video calls. Chris is studying for a BA in Music, and spends what little spare time he has musing about everything from philosophy, to economics, to developments in technology. This post was inspired by a recent, awkward Google+ Hangouts conversation, and the subsequent thoughts about how to get the most out of video conversations. He maintains a blog (somewhat sporadically) at —(p)latitudes.

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With the recent advent of Skype, Google+ Hangouts, and business video conferencing¸ the way we communicate with friends, family, and even business partners around the world is changing. Though highly beneficial mediums (no travel expenses, access to local resources, ability to include others in the conversation, and so on), they can take a bit of getting used to for the inexperienced user.

I’ve drafted up “10 Commandments of video calls”, which will hopefully lead to a smooth video call, regardless of the context. Disclaimer: Given the modern subject matter, I’ve dispensed with the ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’: apologies if this makes the commandments seem less authentic!

1. Give your equipment a test-run before the conference

There’s nothing worse than getting caught off-guard by technology and software you’re not familiar with, or by a connectivity problem. To make sure this doesn’t happen, have a practice run in which you can get used to setting up and using your microphone, monitor, and headsets, and ensure you check all devices are connected and that the internet connection is working correctly before starting the call.


It can sometimes seem more complicated than it is!

2. Dress appropriately for the occasion

If you’re preparing for a business based video conference, the expectation of what you should wear will probably be similar to a face-to-face business meeting. This means smart, clean business attire. Creases still show up over webcam! If you’re preparing for a more casual call with friends or family, your options are less restrictive, although remembers it’s unlikely anyone wants to see you in just your underwear!

3. Try to sit still

A webcam will amplify movement and sound made by participants on both ends and lag in the video stream may cause the screen to freeze. The best way to avoid becoming a messy blur is to remain as still as possible during the call, and ensure the lighting is optimal.

4. Optimise the lighting and environment

Talking to an ill-defined shape is less appealing than talking with the well-defined visage of a friend / family member / business contact. Ensuring the lighting is correct will prevent the former, and will improve the quality of the whole conversation. Some good tips to achieve optimal lighting include not having a window or bright light in shot, and not having your face lit from below (unless you want to look like a character from a horror film).

5. Speak clearly!

Bandwidth discrepancies between participants may create a delay in video and audio on one or both sides of the conversation; allow for this when waiting for a response. If you don’t receive a response straight away it’s more likely that a short delay is occurring somewhere in the connection than your remark has been ignored.

6. Keep it short and sweet

As with a face-to-face conversation, long sessions without a break can grow boring and it’s likely that participants on both sides will become distracted. Regular breaks and a conversation that’s as short and focused as possible are a great way to avoid this pitfall. A good way to gauge this is how frequently awkward silences occur (and how awkward they are).

Keep an eye on the time!

7. Position yourself well

Sitting around three feet from the webcam portrays a feeling of interest on your part, while also maintaining the sense of personal space (still a factor to consider despite the fact participants may be hundreds or even thousands of miles from each other!) While your friends and family may be more interested in your appearance than business partners, a close up view of your face filling up their screen may be off-putting.

8. Maintain eye contact

As has been mentioned previously, rules of face-to-face conversation still apply; keep eye contact during the conversation. This means looking at the webcam rather than the monitor image, and while this may feel unusual at first, you will become accustomed to it quickly.

9. Increase font size for on-screen conversation

Any on-screen text used to compliment the video conversation should be of an appropriate font size to avoid tiring the eyes of the reader.

10. Check comprehension during the conversation

Make sure everyone is following the conversation while it is in progress. Video calling technology is not yet a perfect system and sometimes bugs in the call can cause participants to miss part of what has been said. Answer questions and address any concerns that may arise in order to avoid this causing problems.

My Remote Worker Experience

I’ve just had a guest blog post published on Doug Campbell’s Remote Worker Daily blog. Doug wrote a post for me entitled Staying Connected in a Big Remote Worker World a few weeks back and I agreed to return the favour (aren’t we remote workers nice helping each other out on our blogs!). The post is just a ramble about my remote worker experience but I’ve added in some pictures of my ‘new’ desk space and the view from my window.