Ed Tech Crew — Monday, 1st of March 2010

Audio Transcript for the Ed Tech Crew Episode 116 — Interview with James Spittal from Merspi.com.au

In this episode we have a great interview with James Spittal, the man behind Merspi.com.au, the community question and answer site for VCE students.

Darrel Branson: Welcome everybody. This is Episode 116 of the Ed Tech Crew. I’m Darrel Branson, the ITC guy. And with me, as always is my co-host Tony Richards from ITmadeSimple. Good day Tony how are you?

Tony Richards: Good day Darrel. I’m good, I’m good. There’s money falling from the heavens at the moment. How are you?

Darrel Branson: Yes with the ICT innovation fund, and we’ll talk about that in a moment. And we’ve also got a guest on tonight, which I’m really looking forward to having a chat with him. He’s doing some very interesting things on the Web. And I must apologize for last week, Tony because I forgot to ask you what you’d been up to. I think I just went off on a little spiel. So how about we start off with talking about what you’ve been up to.

Tony Richards: I’ve been doing some consolidating over the last week Darrel. Consolidating a few websites I’ve had there. I’ve just been putting pressure on myself to actually try and do stuff on all these different locations. Well I’m actually not doing anything. So a lot of it’s been consolidation.

Darrel Branson: So you just want a one-stop-shop for the ITmadeSimple blog?

Tony Richards: Kind of, yeah. Just kind of re-engaging where I’m at, and what I’m doing, and trying to bring all those things together. And at the moment there’s only three words I can say in the last week, It’s just been funny – Cyber safety, Cyber safety, and Cyber safety.

Darrel Branson: So you’ve been to sessions with schools?

Tony Richards: Yeah, it’s been, it’s just gone ballistic. And it’s funny. It’s great to see schools really interested. And I’ve had lots of parent groups, and some really interesting student groups talking about Cyber safety. But I guess there’s a lot of stuff in the media. And there’s been a couple of cracker websites Darrel, that have, I think they’re going to draw a bit of attention now. I’m not sure if you’ve seen these connected video conference sites, where you can connect up to a stranger?

Darrel Branson: No. I was listening to a podcast. And that was the Chat Roulette one.

Tony Richards: Oh Chat Roulette’s one, Amiga is another one. There’s a few of them around where you can jump online and…

Darrel Branson: So basically it’s, you just get anybody on the other end?

Tony Richards: Yeah. And we’re…

Darrel Branson: Just totally random. And that’s probably what scares the Jesus out of all the parents, and most of the educators?

Tony Richards: Well you know, that random nature’s an issue. But I think a lot of the issues have been really blown up because of the web cam. You can use web cams, and I think there’s been a couple of instances where mainly men have…

Darrel Branson: You’ve got a big surprise when you open up the screen?

Tony Richards: Well especially when they’re masturbating on the web cam. And believe it or not, I did a session with teachers the other day. And I jumped on to Amiga just to show them what these websites are like, to give them an idea. And got hit with a question by the first random person I got jumped in to. “Are you a girl with a web cam?”

Darrel Branson: Yes. So straightaway they wanted, yes…

Tony Richards: Well they wanted to see who I was. And you never know, but I guess we’re going to see lot of these in the media. So it’s been very interesting times. But it’s good to see lots of people having the conversation.

Darrel Branson: It is. And with more and more devices going in to our schools, it’s great that people are paying a lot of attention to Cyber safety. And I just hope that those conversation that you start in those schools Tony, continue on and work with the teachers as far as getting kids to do this sort of stuff in context. Because it’s the best way to do it – get out there, get online, and help them get through it, and work out what to do.

Tony Richards: Yeah, yeah exactly. And start those conversations. Now what have you been up to in the last week, Darrel?

Darrel Branson: I’ve had it with the last week, Tony. But my life got turned upside down about last Thursday. It must have been pretty hot in Mildura because my machine went south. I think it overheated, and I had a fair bit of data corruption. So for the rest of that night I was sort of recovering my computer. And although I got it recovered fine, I didn’t lose any of my personal data, but the system was just a bit unstable, and Quicktime wouldn’t run. And of course if Quicktime doesn’t run, the rest of it doesn’t run. And I had all these issues. I thought I’ll just reinstall my Time Machine backup on the weekend because I had to go away. And so while I was away on the weekend, I reinstalled my Time Machine backup Tony, from little over two weeks ago. You know I was prepared to lose that little bit data in the mean time. And I did the Time Machine backup, looked good, booted it off the CD, kernel panic, Tony.

Tony Richards: Really?

Darrel Branson: So, the big grey screen comes down, nothing. So it wouldn’t boot. Total, yeah total failure. Then I thought it might have been just this machine. So I put it on my other spare laptop, killed it too. So I managed to kill two laptops with the same Time Machine backup. And then so I thought, “Oh bugger it, I’ll just pull out the 10.5 CD, because I haven’t got my Snow Leopard, and Ultranet coach is doing a Hackintosh.” So I haven’t got my Snow leopard disc. So I pulled out the old Leopard disk, put that in, it gets halfway through the install, and then it chokes because there’s something wrong with the disk. So I was sort of snookered on about three or four fronts. And finally today I got hold of another Leopard disc, and did an install. And my machine should be smokin’ tonight Tony, because the only thing that I’ve put on it is Skype and Call Recorder just for the podcast. Apart from that it’s almost a brand new machine.

Tony Richards: Seems like you’ve been having a little bit of fun Darrel. I’m sort of jealous of you.

Darrel Branson: It’s not fun I tell you. And I was telling you about that podcast the other day that was talking about Time Machine backup you know. And I think, I had a quick chat with James, our guest tonight. And he was saying that it’s really important to test your backups. And although I can see all the data in the backup, it’s just not a full system restore. So anyway, it could have been worse. I could have lost a lot.

Tony Richards: Oh yeah. Well, you’ve almost done the next best thing.

Darrel Branson: No, I’ve still got all my data, so it’s still okay.

Tony Richards: True.

Darrel Branson: It’s just that painful thing about all of your software registrations, all of your user names, passwords – although they’re in a keychain, and stuff like that. But yeah, it’s just a pain, yeah.

Tony Richards: Now on a bit of positive note Darrel, I had to speak to a new listener during the last week. And they have some really good comments to say about this show. And we appropriate all those comments that people pass on. So great to hear that people are listening in, feeding those comments through. Thank you very much.

Darrel Branson: Absolutely. And if anybody got any ideas, certainly get them to us and we’ll see what we can do.

Tony Richards: Yeah, excellent. Now Darrel, the big, couple of big bits of news before we get on to our guest tonight.

Darrel Branson: Yes, I haven’t had… funny enough Tony I haven’t been looking at a lot of websites lately because (a) I haven’t had a computer, and (b) I’ve been trying to recover data. Do you want to talk about the ICT Innovation Fund?

Tony Richards: Yes, well after the mass rollout of technology to secondary schools to get the computer ratio up, and all the other mandates going out, and the ‘digital education’ revolution here in Australia, you can tell it’s an election year. 40 million has been dropped in the lap of schools, and teachers, and educational authorities, to start providing professional development, under the guise of what’s called the ICT Innovation Fund. Now that funding will go from 2010 to 2012, Darrel, but it’s to develop programs and applications that aren’t investing in infrastructure, aren’t for commercial gains, and are to develop ideas around leadership, beginning teachers and ICT skills with teachers, all around the whole subject of ICT.

Darrel Branson: It looks quite interesting, Tony. And I will see a consultant will be engaged to design school-based professional development program, and a national assessment tool.

Tony Richards: Well, yeah. Well that’s part, I think that’s part of the process, is to engage consultants to help with the process. But a lot of it’s about putting in applications to develop programs. So it’ll be a big grab for cash from a whole range of different walks of life.

Darrel Branson: So, we’re looking at what? Universities perhaps, business, education sectors like TAFE, that sort of thing?

Tony Richards: Yeah, be interesting to see how businesses get along because it’s not from the basic reading that a lot of had a go at, it’s not for commercial purpose at the end. And it’s got to show some level of sustainability, which happens a lot with the federal government funding. The actual money, or the program, isn’t available yet. This is like a lead up to get people warmed up and excited. I believe it’s going to open in April – mid to late April, and submissions will close around June, with assessment of submissions going from there, and then successful programs, applications, being notified after that. But it goes to 2012.

Darrel Branson: Okay. So at the moment everything’s up for grabs. But they’re not saying, “There’s one way to do it.” They’re saying, throwing it out there to the market and saying, “What can you provide for us?”

Tony Richards: Yeah, yeah. You know, it’s to be innovative, Darrel. So it’s looking at I guess new programs and developments. I think we’ll see some interesting stuff come out of it. There’s lots of opportunities here. And it’s worth your schools or if you’re in you know, in school groups, or you’ve got clusters of schools, there’s a time to have a look. There may be some good money here to develop some good resources. Yeah, there’s lots of different ways to skin the cat with this one. Now we’ve got a link to the website on our show notes at EdTechCrew.net. And there’s also a link to the PDF guidelines. So the program hasn’t opened yet – that won’t happen till April. But you’ve got a bit of time to put your thinking caps on, and do a bit of brainstorming, and get some ideas together.

Darrel Branson: Absolutely. It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of it, and who gets involved, and how they do it, and how they offer it. I mean, like if you’re talking about a national professional development strategy, you wouldn’t think it would be the old model of ‘stand and deliver’. You’d have to think it would be some sort of blended sort of situation for the professional learning?

Tony Richards: Yeah, you’d think so. And I guess that’s where it’ll go. It’ll be just the reach, and the kind of application that you make of it. And I was talking to a couple of people during the week about just some ideas. And you know the iPad featured. And there’s a few other things that have started to pop up. So, lots of people are thinking about it. It’ll be interesting to see what actually materializes out of it all.

Darrel Branson: All right, we’ll keep an eye on that one as we go forward. And talking about going forward, national curriculum was released today, Tony. The draft K-to-10 Australian curriculum for English, mathematics, science and history. And I noticed history was getting a good run in all the media.

Tony Richards: Yeah. Can I jump on my soap box before we even get into the curriculum?

Darrel Branson: Quickly, because we need to speak to James, yup.

Tony Richards: Oh mate! The actual registration process, you’ve got – and we’ve got the website on our show notes – you go to the website, to… and forever and out there, you’ve got three months to comment. So you can be a teacher, parent, community member. I mean you comment on the national curriculum. But you can go on to the website just… Yeah, and you have to register, Darrel, just to get access to all the materials. Now when you go through the registration process – ‘cause I did it today. It’s got, you know how when you register things, you’ve got mandatory fields where you go through, and you filling all the mandatory fields. And then it says, “Oh, you’ve also got to tell us which state you come from.” But it’s not marked as being a mandatory field. So that really annoyed me. And then in the second part underneath, there’s a check box that says, ‘I would like to receive more information from ACARA’, which is the organization that’s, you know, the Australian….

Darrel Branson: Could you uncheck it?

Tony Richards: You could. But then when you go submit, it says, ‘Sorry’. And it wasn’t ticked as a required field. I don’t want to receive any more information from ACARA. I don’t get…

Darrel Branson:So…

Tony Richards:But you can’t register without like, …man!

Darrel Branson: Yeah. So you’ve got to have their newsletter shoved you’re your throat whether you like it or not.

Tony Richards: Ohhh! You know… And this is just registration. And I’ve seen some tweets where people can’t put comments. So this one’s going to be an interesting one to watch over the next couple of weeks. I haven’t had a good chance have a look at the curriculum documents. I’m not an expert really in those areas, but I’ll be interested to see the feedback, and certainly Twitter’s starting to line up with a bit of feedback. So this one’s to watch, Darrel. And the link’s on our website. I’m not sure if you’ve had a chance to have a look?

Darrel Branson: I’ve just had a quick look. And when I went there, every time I tried to go somewhere, I had to do that registration. So I will do that, and have a better look at it. Now, just two quick websites we’re going to. Let’s do them at the end of the program, what do you think, Tony?

Tony Richards: Sounds good.

Darrel Branson: Okay, great. Well, I’m going to interview a guest tonight. Our guest tonight is James Spittal. And James runs a website. And I hope I pronounce this right. It’s Merspi.com.au. And basically Merspi is a place to ask you VCE questions. But I’m not going to try and do an intro about the whole Merspi website, ‘cause I want James to do that. So James, welcome to the Ed Tech Crew.

James Spittal: Thanks guys for calling me on the show.

Darrel Branson: Fantastic. We’ve been looking forward to it. I’ve been noticing a few of your tweets as yourself, and a few of your tweets as far as being, you’re using the social media for Merspi. I just wondered, just before we get started James, you’re quite a young entrepreneur. And I just thought if you wanted to provide our listeners just with a little bit of background about yourself, and how all these sort of online stuff evolved with you?

James Spittal: Absolutely. Thanks Darrel. So I was a VCE student in 2006. And really what happened was I sort of discovered firsthand the lack of resources around VCE, and information in that regards. So, I mean I was fairly comfortable with using the computer, and all that kind of stuff. And I was on Google looking for VCE with materials. And all there really was, was the text book and maybe a private tutor if you’re willing to pay that much for one. But as far as online resources, it really seemed to be a big gap in the marketplace.

Darrel Branson: And with your site, it’s solely VCE, isn’t it? It’s just catering for the Victorian Certificate of Education?

James Spittal: Absolutely.

Tony Richards: Now James, I’ve got a quick question for you, and thanks for joining us. Where did the name Merspi come from?

James Spittal: So it came – it’s sort of made-up word. And it came partly from my surname as you might have noticed. So it’s the ‘Spi’ from my surname. And it’s a bit of a made-up word from that. There’s a bit of a funny story going along with that really. We used to be called Know Your Way. And then what happened was someone actually sort of took our name – we had a few problems in that regard. So we sort of re-branded as Merspi. And I mean, part of the problem is that people have a bit of difficulty in saying it. But we also had a competition on the website trying to come up with a name essentially for what it would stand for. Then someone came up with the idea: ‘Maths Education Reform Society and Parents Incorporated’ – that’s not what it stands for, but that’s quite good.

Darrel Branson: (Laughs) Not a bad idea.

James Spittal: It’s quite creative, yeah. I was very impressed.

Tony Richards: Now James, how long has the site been up and running, and going for, I guess in the various different name forms?

James Spittal: So we’ve been running for a pretty short time now. Since October last year we started and launched Merspi.com.au. In that time we’ve had quite a few hits on the website, and quite a few page views, and seen some substantial growth. In the first month we registered around 30,000 page views, something like that – which was quite impressive we thought. And since then it’s sort of been growing and climbing nicely. So I think we hope we’ve sort of verified the need in the marketplace for a sort of a platform like this. And I think that’s been verified by all the students who are using it actively at the moment – and the teachers, and staff on the website currently too.

Darrel Branson: Excellent. So you’ve got teachers involved as well – that’s great. Can you give all our listeners out there that are not familiar with the website, just the basic procedure, and how the website’s run, and if I was a VCE student, how I would actually use it?

James Spittal: Absolutely. So it’s essentially a… we call it a social learning community for VCE students. So one way to think of it very simply is it’s almost like Facebook for VCE students, with a very specific focus on learning. So it’s designed to be a community, and it’s designed to be a question and answer website, and almost a knowledge base. So students can come on the website and ask a question, and have them answered by other members of the community – including teachers, and tutors, and we’ve even got the professor of statistics on there, who invented the ENTER score partially. And he’s a member of the VTAC Scaling Committee. He’s one of the people on the website, so…

Darrel Branson: Excellent.

James Spittal: There’s a whole community of people who are providing a depth of knowledge.

Darrel Branson: So like, anybody can go and post a question, and anybody can answer obviously?

James Spittal: Yep.

Darrel Branson: How do you insure that the information is relatively correct?

James Spittal: So to that end we’ve got a moderation team, which includes a few students currently, but also Robert Hyndman, who’s a member of the VTAC Scaling Committee. We’re also planning to potentially include the moderation team to add some Distance Education people, from the Distance Education Centre of Victoria. We’re planning to add a few teachers to the moderation team. And then all their job is, is basically to participate in the website, and to ensure that all the discussion is effectively productive, and not just sort of mindless dribble, and that it’s all sort of ‘kosher’, if you know what I mean?

Darrel Branson: Yep. And so you’re really trying to draw on the community there, as well as outside experts?

James Spittal: Absolutely, absolutely. So part of what we think, part of the belief around Merspi is that all education where possible, should be sort of free and easily available. And that’s sort of part of the vision of Merspi. And to that ends we believe that it should be a really community-driven thing. And that’s why we’re engaging the student community, and the teaching community, and the VCE community at large, in order to essentially help with this project.

Darrel Branson: Right. And when you actually add your questions, who does the tagging? Is that just the person who’s asking the question?

James Spittal: Yep, that’s completely community driven. But it is also done as a collaborative thing. So similar to how Wikipedia works. If you believe there should be another tag on a question that isn’t currently on that, you can edit the question and add that tag. And you can even delete tags. So it’s a collaborative sort of environment really.

Tony Richards: I have to say I really like that idea James, the tagging, so you can go through and you know, you can examine the tag for things that you might not have thought of, or it might you know, spark a thought. “Oh I’ll actually go and you know, have a look at what that’s about.” And it’s another way of you know, I guess people thinking about information, and you know, getting answers to some of their questions?

James Spittal: Absolutely. Ultimately it’s just another way of, ultimately this platform we’re using is just another alternative, another answer to the way to manage you information, and manage your answers, and questions, and knowledge. And it’s not the only way, but it’s a way that we believe is probably a lot better than some of the typical solutions which are things like discussion forums, which have a lot of problems. And the functionality of tagging can be really excellent, because it allows you to drill down on a certain topic without having the disadvantages of having actually specific sections of a discussion forum. Does that make sense?

Tony Richards: Yep.

Darrel Branson: Yeah, it does.

James Spittal: So, one of the biggest advantages of Merspi is that all the questions come straight to the front page. So as far as unanswered questions, there isn’t really, it’s a much lower… questions are more likely to be answered because everything comes to the front page. And it’s much more focused essentially.

Tony Richards: Yes. So how do you deal with unanswered questions? Because I presume some of them would get pushed off the front page, and maybe not get the attention they need?

James Spittal: Yeah. Well actually we found out that we have a lot lower percentage of unanswered questions compared to some other discussion forums surrounding VCE. And I think this attributed to the fact that the unanswered questions really stand out on the front page. They’re in blue rather than in green. So it draws viewers to try and answer them. And also get… members of the community also get reputation points for answering questions which have gone unanswered for a long period of time. So there’s a real payoff for people in the community to actually do that.

Tony Richards: So that they get more points for answering the ones that haven’t been answered for a while?

James Spittal: Absolutely, yeah. There’s a feature called the ‘bounty’ on the website. So if you start a question that doesn’t get answered for several weeks, you can have a bounty on it. And then offer some of your reputation points to another member of the community in order to answer it – which encourages them to answer.

Tony Richards: Yeah I noticed that. So if you’ve answered quite a few questions, and you build up some points, and then you can actually use that if nobody’s answering the question, somebody might answer it for some of your points to get their reputation higher?

James Spittal: Yeah, absolutely.

Tony Richards: That’s a novel solution to the problem of getting all the questions answered?

James Spittal: Yeah absolutely. It’s almost like a karma solution. And the long-term vision is that essentially this karma is a bit of a reputation, sort of a measure of your reputation on the website. So the answers from people who have more of these points are more likely to be reputable. And also we’re thinking it could be really used as a tool for teachers to build some of their sort of credibility, and build a bit of a portfolio on the website. And this is also true for tutors who are looking to find clients and attract more students.

Tony Richards: Yeah, that seems like a good idea. Now I also noticed that you actually allow anonymous answers?

James Spittal: Yep.

Tony Richards: And so how is that moderated? Is it moderated at all? I mean obviously it is moderated. But is it moderated in real time, or does it go into a queue – how does that work?

James Spittal: Well, everything on the website is moderated. We do have the moderator team which checks the website pretty frequently. It’s not completely real time. Theoretically there would be an opportunity for someone to go in their own, post a question, and it would probably take us maybe up to an hour to actually get to it and delete it. That said, we’re pretty much on there pretty regularly. And the moderating team is growing at a rapid rate. So I see that time gap becoming smaller and smaller potentially. The reason we’ve…

Tony Richards: So you haven’t had any issues with spam or anything, having it wide open like that?

James Spittal: No we’ve had no issues at this point.

Tony Richards: Fantastic.

James Spittal: So, yeah, that’s been going well.

Darrel Branson: James, that idea of the karma is, I really like that. I notice you’ve got the badges in that. It appears that you’ve got a little bit of kind of ‘game theory’ in here, you know that…

James Spittal: Yep.

Darrel Branson: Is that part of that process and development that you’ve gone for there?

James Spittal: Absolutely. So part of the whole badges thing is to try to make this site a bit fun as well. And like you said, ‘game theory’. The platform that this is based on, the creators who came up with the concept of badges got it from the idea of a game where they read a few books and they realized that the badges… and basically when you’re designing a game, you want to make the level sort of easy to get to in order to encourage people to keep coming back to the game, and to keep playing essentially to get to the next level. And the same principle is true for these badges. So we’re really trying to accentuate the fun aspect of the website. So if you participate in the website for a certain number of days, you get for example an ‘Enthusiast’ badge. If you have the best answer, you get the ‘Teacher’ badge. If you fill out your own profile, you get the ‘Autobiographer’ badge. So there’s a lot of badges you can get. And as you spend more time on the website, you can sort of move up to the more advanced badges too – which sort of encourages you to keep coming back.

Darrel Branson: Yeah it’s a good idea. Have you had much feedback around those? Have you found that’s working as you are looking to it as you intended?

James Spittal: Well it’s a hard thing to test in terms of actually knowing if it’s completely working. But we have had some pretty good feedback to the concept in general of the Merspi product, and also the badges thing. I suppose there’s lot of opportunities. We’re actively seeking out feedback from the community as a whole, and from the teaching community in order to keep improving the platform. And we have implemented a few of those suggestions. One of the suggestions was to create an iPhone application which is now coming along quite nicely. In the early days of the website, one of the big problems was people found that very difficult to register on this site, and to actually participate because it was all through OpenID. But we’ve now solved that, and it’s completed through email rather than through OpenID. So that’s a big, big win for us.

Darrel Branson: So with the OpenID, you’re like you could do an authentication with OpenID, like with your Google account, and that sort of thing?

James Spittal: Absolutely, yeah. Which was good from our point of view, from a techie point of view. But we found a lot of teachers, and a lot of students found it a bit too difficult, because there was a few problems with you know Google OpenID, and that kind of stuff.

Darrel Branson: Yeah, there’s couple of extra steps involved to actually authenticate who you were.

James Spittal: Absolutely. And it’s a bit more convoluted than just sort of email and password, which people are used to.

Darrel Branson: Yeah. Now James, when you spoke about your background at the start, you did mention that you’re actually just finished, or just completed a computer degree at University?

James Spittal: Yep. So I just finished a ‘Bachelor of Computing’ in network design and security and Swinburne University last year, which is 3 year course and pretty interesting. And I’m currently doing a course in ‘Small Business Management’ in order to basically build and grow Merspi. It’s part, it’s a government sponsored thing. So the government’s sponsored Merspi in order to sort of help it grow, and to build it as a new enterprise. And so they’ll be sort of supporting it with some regular payments in order to keep it sort of growing, and really build it, and get it off the ground.

Darrel Branson: Excellent. Now just as far as the platform that it’s built on, is it Stack Exchange, is that the technology behind the actual system you’ve got running?

James Spittal: Yep, essentially it’s built on Stack Exchange. For those of you who don’t know, Stack Exchange is somewhat like Stack Overflow, which is a bit more well-known website, which is basically a platform for doing question and answers stuff. And we kind of had the vision for this long before Stack Exchange was created. And we they realized that came along, and that kind of fulfilled our vision of what we were trying to create quite succinctly in an effective way. So we went with that.

Darrel Branson: And thus you were able to modify the… like do you get like the base product, and then actually build upon that?

James Spittal: Yes there’s quite a bit of control with Stack Exchange as far as doing a lot of the design stuff, doing a lot of the JavaScript stuff. Actually altering the backend is not too much functionality, not too many possibilities. But in the long term you can probably see ourselves moving off the Stack Exchange platform – that’s more of an early days kind of thing. And we’ll probably customize a platform which sort of suits our needs a bit better. Because there’s a few things we’re finding which we’re not able to do with the platform, which is sort of more of VCE, Merspi, educational specific.

Darrel Branson: James, I see that you’ve got commenting on the site. And is it just people that are doing the ‘@’ signs at each other, or is there some sort of Twitter integration that you’ve got happening there?

James Spittal: So, there’s not actually Twitter integration with our platform. But that is a good thing that you bring it up, because we were actually thinking of doing that. The way it actually works currently is the comments are a completely separate thing where you can comment on a post, and have a bit of discussion that way. But that’s not really linked with Twitter in any way. But what we have been planning to implement is, is the ability to have people ask questions via Twitter and have them appear on the website. That’s one function that’s coming soon.

Darrel Branson: Great! Now I notice that you, through your Twitter account – the Merspi one – that you often put out questions that are answered, or unanswered. You used to use the social media platform to further promote the site, and get people linked in, and get them back to the site?

James Spittal: Absolutely. Social media is a key part of what we believe, of our sort of marketing plan for Merspi, and getting really engaged in the community as a whole, but it’s also part of sort of what we live and breath. A part of Merspi is really about the whole Web 2.0 social media thing. And that’s something we believe in strongly, really.

Darrel Branson: Yeah, that building community sort of thing?

James Spittal: Absolutely.

Darrel Branson: Yeah. And how have you found it like… talking about Twitter and things like that, there was a suggestion that you know younger kids don’t use email, they only use IM. And what’s this sort of uptake with things like Twitter?

James Spittal: The uptake amongst VCE students for Twitter isn’t as good as we would have, as perhaps we would like. But that said, it is pretty good. I mean, I have seen a huge uptake. And I think the interesting thing to note is that there are a lot of people in the VCE age using Twitter, but not many of then are actually using it necessary for educational purposes.

Darrel Branson: Yes. This is just staying in contact with friends, family?

James Spittal: Absolutely. And that’s something we’d like, that’s a trend that we’d like to change a little bit. I think I’d like more students not just using it for friends and family, but for actually actively engaging educational stuff, and using it as a bit of a learning network, not just a tool for fun. And I think that’s something the students are starting to realize is a real possibility.

Darrel Branson: And I also noticed that – and we’ll put in the show notes – you’ve got a fan page on Facebook as well?

James Spittal: Yep. So another key part of… As I mentioned before, we’re almost like, we almost see ourselves as the Facebook for VCE. And along that line, part of the community that’s based around Merspi, we’ve got a fan page for us. And that’s actually displayed on the first page when you go to Merspi.com.au. And that sort of is really there to remind users that they can connect out of Merspi as well, and to really foster that sense of community amongst the site. And that’s a rapidly growing fan page as well. So what we’d ideally like to see is not just people connecting via Merspi for educational purposes, but for the students on Merspi to be connecting with each other potentially via Facebook and other means in order to have and facilitate more conversations around education, and that kind of stuff. So perhaps even going off and starting their own study groups and that kind of thing – which we’ve seen a little bit of on the website, and we’d like to see more.

Darrel Branson: Fantastic. Sounds like you’re doing a great job to promote the community and support the VCE students. And Tony, I noticed that James has got 161 fans on his Facebook page here. How many have the Ed Tech Crew got. We got two, three…?

Tony Richards: Oh no, we’ve got a couple more than that, but not quite not as many as Merspi or James got.

Darrel Branson: That’s not 161, yeah.

Tony Richards: Yeah. And James, how long did it take you to put the site together?

James Spittal: Not a very long time to be honest. We got the first draft up and running… We had the idea for quite a while. I think it took us about a week to get an actual working product, and get something up and running that people could use and see. So, not too long, no.

Tony Richards: Excellent. That’s good. And the thing I like about it, it’s like anything. It’s you know, you’re building on your own content. And as more and more people get on to that whole value, it’s yeah, a great idea. And what do you think are the challenges in terms of its growth, going forward for you guys?

James Spittal: I guess one of the biggest challenges is actively engaging the teaching community. Because there’s a bit of a resistance amongst the teaching community, especially VCE teachers and stuff like that, to actually participate in these kinds of open online environments, as I’m sure you’re aware.

Darrel Branson: It can be a pretty competitive area, can’t it?

James Spittal: Absolutely! And not only a competitive area, but there’s a bit of fears based around the concept in general. There’s a blog post I like, which I read recently from a blogger. He’s also a teacher – Andrew Douche, I believe his name is – who wrote about a concept called ‘No Unauthorized Learning’, which I probably should put in the show notes. And essentially it’s about the concept of whether or not learning should be authorized or unauthorized, and these concepts of open communities versus closed communities. And I guess in our talks with several teachers we’ve found that there’s a real fear around the concept of open communities, and whether or not these kind of communities are safe for students to use, and how much teachers should or shouldn’t participate in them. So there’s a lot of interesting questions that are raised by that I think.

Darrel Branson: Yeah absolutely. That whole idea of… I think it’s round the idea of control as well.

James Spittal: Absolutely!

Darrel Branson: And you know, I see lots of kids these days that do more and more informal learning as well as formal learning. And I think as teachers sometimes we try to hang on a little bit too much to the formal learning. Because there’s so much that our students are learning outside of school with the people that they connect to, and with their interests and passions, and the sort of things that they’re into, that we often don’t take into account.

Tony Richards: Now James, taking a guess here that you are a fairly high level technology user given that you’re chatting to us via your iPhone, what are the other technologies out there that really interest you, excite you, things that are coming up that you’d like to get your teeth into? What’s grabbed you at the moment you know, in regard to technology and that whole online space?

James Spittal: Good question. I think specific to education, the things that really interest me are the power of social media and where this is all going to go with social media, plus the web, plus education in the future. One tool in particular which interests me a lot in particular is Yammer, which I don’t know if you’ve used at all. But it’s sort of like Twitter behind the firewall for closed networks. And this is something we’ve used quite extensively amongst the Merspi team just for building Merspi, and growing Merspi. And even on the moderator team we’ve been planning to implement it. But the power of having a closed Twitter network is something that we’ve realized really opens a lot of possibilities. And ultimately this is something I’d like to see in schools. Perhaps we’ll see with the mobile web coming, and every student theoretically going to have an iPhone or better. I foresee a future where social media – and this sort of communication is between point-to-point – of all these students who are walking around very easily. And I think things like mobile learning will become much more popular and commonplace, and much more easy to facilitate.

Darrel Branson: Yeah it’s interesting you say that. Because I know of a few classes that, I mean a project I was involved in last year, tried Edmodo. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Edmodo, but it’s a…

James Spittal: Yep

Darrel Branson: It’s a closed platform for doing that Twitter type thing. Yammer, is that paid for, or is it a web service that you buy, or is it open source?

James Spittal: It’s completely free as long as you don’t need administrative rights. If you want to be able to control it, and lock out users, and give users privileges, and that kind of stuff, you need to pay a bit of extra money for it on a subscription basis. But yeah you can check it out at Yammer.com.

Darrel Branson: It’s just Y-A-M-A?

James Spittal: Y-A-M-M-E-R dot com.

Darrel Branson: Oh yammer, okay, yeah.

James Spittal: Yeah. Yammer, as in talk I think.

Darrel Branson: Yeah. And look James, without giving away too many of your great ideas and secrets and things like that, if you had a chance to build another online tool, or design another online tool, what sort of things do you think you might look at getting into?

James Spittal: Well the Ultranet project is something that interests me a lot. And I think that’s a really great project.

Darrel Branson: Tony’s looking forward to it.

James Spittal: Yeah. I think it should be quite, quite exciting. I think along the lines of the Ultranet there’s a lot of possibilities too. I think one thing that’s probably a bit in demand at the moment, and it’s sort of a gap in the marketplace, is the delivery of video – educational video in particular. So I think this is a gap that’s slowly being filled by websites like EduTube and stuff like that. But I still think there’s a lot, a long way to go.

Darrel Branson: So are you thinking opportunities for current content providers, or are you thinking more of community driven?

James Spittal: Well I think fundamentally the current situation is that the open models of the Web are a bit at disparity with the somewhat closed models of education, and the current state of education. And along that line, a lot of the content is being reproduced from place to place. And I guess this is part of what we’re trying to fix with Ultranet. But even more than that I’d like to see perhaps some websites where there’s perhaps teachers behind a video camera, and perhaps you pay a certain number of dollars a month and subscribe, and you get online video tutoring – that kind of stuff.

Darrel Branson: Yep. So it’s almost on demand tutoring sort of thing?

James Spittal: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of possibility for on demand tutoring. I’ve also heard… And whether that’d be live or not live is quite you know… But both models could work. There’s even other possibilities. One person I was talking to recently suggested that – there’s the Livescribe pen. And he had an idea based around using technology like the Livescribe pen in order to facilitate sort of the live tutoring with a sort of pad in front of you, and all that kind of stuff. So the technology is getting better. And I think the opportunities are quite great.

Darrel Branson: Yeah, very, very sort of interesting area to get in to. Particularly the, you know, I was just thinking from a staffing point of view, on demand tutoring. You know, what happens if somebody comes on and needs another tutor, or stuff like that? But obviously you could book a session, and that sort of thing. It’s got some interesting possibilities. And obviously the tyranny of distance would be easily overcome, and you could do it in the comfort of your home.

James Spittal: Absolutely! Not only that, I think one of the big advantages too is that potentially if the right model is found, the education, and the learning could be a lot more flexible, and also a lot more cheap. And Merspi is really about the idea that information potentially wants to be free. And if we can facilitate an environment where education is free and/or easily available, then I think we’re, we believe we’re sort of stepping in the right direction.

Darrel Branson: Excellent. Look James, really like to thank you for coming on tonight and talking about Merspi. I think it’s a great thing you’re doing, community driven website to support VCE students. And I know Tony from the Ed Tech Crew point of view will be interested to see what James is up to next, and how the how the Merspi site continues to grow, and what sort of other feature sets, and that sort of thing that you get into.

James Spittal: Great. Thanks Tony, Darrel. Appreciate this.

Tony Richards: We appreciate it. And yeah, we look forward to the development of Merspi now that it’s kicking into a real full year of application. So thanks very much James.

Darrel Branson: Yes. And I’m not sure how many VCE teachers listen to our podcast, but there’s quite a few secondary teachers. So have a talk to whoever teaches VCE in your school, and go and get them to sign up at Merspi.com.au. And get your kids involved more importantly. But it’d be good to have some teachers on there as well.

James Spittal: Absolutely!

Darrel Branson: Excellent. All right we might do… just stay if you want to hang around with us, James. We just going to do a little bit of wrap up with events. Apologies for everybody for listener feedback this week. With all of the issues I’ve had with computers this week, I didn’t have a chance to actually do any listener feedback, check the Delicious links or the Diigo links. So we’ll save that till next week. But Tony’s just going to run us through a few of the events that are coming up.

Tony Richards: Yeah, we’ve got a couple of events coming. There’s Kudo. Now we’ve had a bit of a Twitter from our good friend…

Darrel Branson: Richard Olsen?

Tony Richards: Richard, yep, who has given us a bit of an update. And to things that are happening, and there’s a bit of a link on the Twitter feed, which is on the site. We’ve got the ACEC conference 2010 a bit under a month away. The Apple ITSC events coming up. Still no pricing released for Australia yet for the iPad, Darrel?

Darrel Branson: Well, no.

Tony Richards: We’re waiting to see what happens there.

Darrel Branson: At a guess, 650.

Tony Richards: Yeah, I reckon, yeah. I reckon more round 700.

Darrel Branson: Any thoughts, James?

James Spittal: Yes, probably 650.

Darrel Branson: Let’s hope it’s lower rather than higher.

James Spittal: Absolutely!

Tony Richards: Also happens to be a Scratch Day coming up on May 22nd. So make sure everyone’s involved and ready for Scratch Day. There’s a Computer Games camp again with Andrew Owen. So they’ve got a lot of activities there as well, Darrel. So there’s a few things happening.

Darrel Branson: And most importantly the ACEC conference this Victorian school holidays?

Tony Richards: Yes, just after Easter. The first week after Easter. So, get yourself down there, it’s looking to be a very exciting program.

Darrel Branson: Good stuff. Another exciting episode of the Ed Tech Crew. Thanks very much James, for coming and talking about your website. And thanks everybody for listening. And Tony, I’ll catch up with you next week.

Tony Richards: We’ll catch you on the flip side, Darrel. Thanks James.

James Spittal: Thanks for having me on the show guys. Really appreciate it. All the best guys.

Darrel Branson: Thanks, James. Cheers everyone. Bye.

- END -

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